Hurdling heavy accents

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No matter how hard I work at it, I often struggle attempting to communicate with someone with a “heavy” accent. Am I alone? A situation a few years ago, one that left me feeling woefully incompetent, made this poignantly clear. Here’s what happened. Tell me if it resonates.

To my left sat two Chinese, a Korean on my right. Across the table sat a South Asian Indian and to his left, a Japanese, a south Texan and a New Yorker. Our table was one of many in a room of more than 400 people, each having multiple conversations flowing through a mosaic of accents. I struggled at my table and suspected that I was not the only one.

Now I did all the right things: sat upright, gave each speaker my undivided attention and listened intently. Yet I struggled. All I could do was muster up a smile, nod and steal a look at the roast chicken and green beans on my plate. And when it was over I breathed a sigh of relief at the temporariness of the situation and made a beeline for the exit.

The bet here is that this is a situation we’ve all run into at one time or another, be it while shopping or dialing up customer service for technical support. Am I right?

Now at the risk of embarrassing myself, I’ll come clean and admit that I’ve run out of patience when encountering difficult to understand accents when making travel reservations. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve actually apologized to the person while asking that he/she connect me with someone having less of an accent. Was I right?

Quite the contrary, I’m charmed by that New England accent and sucked in by a relaxing Southern drawl, particularly when it’s uttered with words like, “Thank you honey, and have a wonderful day, you hear? when I paid for my coffee and newspaper this morning.

At the heart of the accent challenge is that many won’t dare ask for clarification if people’s accents make it difficult to understand them. Nobody wants to be rude.

For me, it’s bad enough having to utter those humbling words, “sorry, but I can’t understand you,” and worse still to have to repeat these words over and over again when they are repeated and I still don’t understand. So many of us will just nod and listen as best we can for word clues that may help piece together what’s being said. And when all else fails, we smile, keep nodding, slip into silence, or rush to the nearest exit.

And worse still, some of us will just respond to what we think we heard and hope and pray that what we responded to was what was asked or said. This is precisely how I responded years ago on Nassau Street in Princeton, New Jersey when a fellow stopped me and asked for directions – gulp, I think! – through a heavy accent. The quizzical look on his face indicated that I’d badly missed the mark.

“I couldn’t understand a thing they said!”

Sound familiar? This is a common response to heavy accents. The problem is that sometimes we just tune out the minute we hear an accent – some accents, that is since all accents as I indicated above are not created equal.

A British accent conjures up images of a scholar, a Shakespearean actor or someone who speaks “perfect English”. Not so with many other accents. Often there’s an assumption that people speaking with certain accents are less competent or knowledgeable. A Southern U.S. “drawl” is one classic example that comes to mind.

Now to be fair, a heavy accent because of language or culture is only one side of the issue. It’s disingenuous to stop there. Even understanding folks who talk too fast, have speech impediments, use lots of jargon, acronyms, etc., can be just as daunting. Modern day “rap” by the “hip hop” generation will cause yours truly to roll his eyes and turn the station. So it’s not solely an issue of heavy accents.

“Why can’t they just learn English?”

How many times have you heard that one before, or perhaps muttered it to yourself when someone was hard to understand? What sometimes gets lost in all the emotions is that many people who speak with an accent do in fact speak English well, often better than native born English speakers. They have learned English. However, learning English is not always the problem, but speaking it is.

So what do we do?

We must communicate. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. Our right to understand and be understood are essential for us to perform effectively. Solutions?

  • First, get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Despite all the nonsensical talk about “taking our country back,” increasing cultural diversity, and with it even more language and accent differences, are an inescapable reality.
  • Second, start with the right attitude and a bit of patience. The person with an accent wants to be understood and he or she too experiences frustration when that’s not happening.
  • Next, listen to every word spoken without your imagination kicking in – i.e., “Hmm, I wonder where she’s really from?”
  • Look for word clues and repeat them back to the person in the form of a question. Just ask if you don’t understand. And you don’t need to shout, “What are you saying?” (Or worse yet, look at another person and ask, “Did you understand that?”) A polite, “Excuse me, could you go over that last part again?” or something to that effect will work. And there’s no need to raise your voice.
  • “Let me repeat what I think I heard you say” is a line one person told me she uses when working through accent differences. Now, will some people get offended? Maybe, but as long as you don’t ask every three seconds for them to repeat themselves most people will appreciate your interest in better understanding. After all, they too have a vested interest in being understood.
  • Try spending as much time as possible with – rather than avoiding – those who create accent challenges for you. When you work with someone for a while you generally learn to interpret their accent better. And don’t pass up opportunities to spend time in other cultures by traveling and participating in ethnic activities and festivities different from you own.
  • Put things in writing; that also can help. E-mail and meeting minutes are great ways to get thoughts in writing since it’s much easier to read what’s being said. You can always say something like, “Could you send me an e-mail on that?” E-mail is widely used in our culture anyway so why not use it to overcome accent challenges?

Now if you yourself really enthralled by someone’s accent as I have, I’ve yet to get cussed out by saying something nice about that it to the person. To wit, my son and I were returning a rental car at New York’s LaGuardia a week ago when I complimented the agent on her beautiful West India accent. She smiled, beamed and told us that she’s from Jamaica. Seconds later she retrieved my final bill and, eh, reduced it by a sweet $115 bucks, just enough to cover the parking fine we got on an earlier trip. Hey, I’m just saying!


In the end, we all want the same things: to be respected, heard and included. Overcoming accent differences is just another hurdle we have to leap over in our collective dash to the finish line where the benefits of a truly inclusive world awaits us all.

As for me, I’ve put the knife and fork down. The roast chicken and green beans just have to wait because I’m going to give it another try – and this time even harder.

© Terry Howard is award-winning writer, story-teller, global trainer and senior associate with Diversity Wealth. He is also a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report and a blogger with New York-based Catalyst and Washington DC based MenEngage Feel free to contact Terry at or visit his website at

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