Understanding a Foreign Accent

“I’m sorry, can you say that one more time?”

This can be an embarrassing question to have to ask over and over. Talking over the phone with someone whose accent is difficult for you to understand creates potential for misunderstanding and miscommunication, not to mention frustration. It’s very common to talk with someone whose native language is different than your own, but as business goes global, it is necessary to be able to navigate phone conversations with anyone who calls.

Everyone’s accent is foreign in some part of the world, so even though it may feel offensive to admit that you can’t understand someone, it can actually be a very unifying experience.

When we can see the person with whom we are talking, we can use visual cues to understand better what he or she is saying. Phone conversations provide no such opportunity, and can be very frustrating. We may find ourselves stuck asking someone to repeat long stories over and over.

I spent many years working in customer service as a barista, interacting with hundreds of customers a day. During that time, I was also studying Spanish as a second language. There are some very useful parallels between understanding a different language and understanding an accent. The following steps can help you succeed in communicating with people who have accents:

1. Listen for key words.

Many times someone is calling with an issue or a question and they want to get it all out right away. As soon as you realize you can’t understand them, you feel overwhelmed by just how much they are saying. Don’t panic! Listen for a key word or phrase. For example, if you hear the phrase “job application” or “appointment” start there!

2. Ask yes or no questions based on those key words.

Take charge of the conversation by asking close-ended questions based on the key words or phrases you picked out, even if it was only a few words. For example “Are you calling about a job application?” or “Are you calling about an appointment?” This step allows you to take the conversation into your own hands, instead of asking them to repeat everything they said over again (or maybe several times).

3. Continue to ask close-ended questions throughout the conversation.

Once you know the caller’s intention, continue to ask them questions throughout the conversation. Paraphrase and ask them to repeat themselves if necessary. For example, “Which job did you apply for?” or “Are you calling about an existing appointment?”

Here are a few more tips to ease the process:

  • Speaking louder will not help, but speaking slower will.
  • Don’t pretend to understand, it’s okay to say you are having a hard time understanding!
  • Callers can hear a smile in your voice.

“Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery.”   -Amy Chua

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