How to Handle a Foreign Accent

By Nancy Friedman, The Telephone Doctor

It’s more and more common to talk with people whose native language isn’t our own. How many times have you talked with someone just from a different region of the country and not understood him or her? These accents can be both international and domestic. Miscommunication is easy with anyone who’s not talking like we’re used to hearing. Today, with more and more business going global, it’s important to be able to deal with an accent. Don’t forget, to those from another country, we are the ones that have a foreign accent. Here are the five key points to know, to help you at your job (and in your personal life too), when working with someone who is difficult to understand – accent or not. These tips will go both ways; plus they’re effective both on the phone and in person.

Don’t Pretend to Understand: It’s okay to gently explain you are having a little difficulty understanding them. Let’s face it, if you have an accent – you know it, so it’s not a surprise. One of the least effective things to do when not understanding someone is to pretend you do. Some folks nod or say, “Okay” just to move the conversation along. That’s not doing anyone any good. It’s perfectly okay to simply and gently say, “I apologize. I am having a little difficulty understanding you. If you could slow down just a little bit, I’ll be able to get it all correct for you.”

The most important thing to the person with the accent is knowing that you want to help and get it right. They’re aware you might be having difficulty. If you nod yes or pretend you understand, it won’t help the situation at all. Your tone of voice is international and universal. So keep it at a light, slower pace – and yes, smiling is also universal. They’ll hear your smile in any language.

The phrase I mention above is most effective and a key phrase to learn. I know for a fact it is accepted very warmly. I’ve had many a person from another country come up and thank me for sharing that technique with the audience. It apologizes, acknowledges, empathizes, and creates credibility. It shows you want to help.

Don’t rush: Rushing threatens callers. Often, there’s a tendency to want to really rush someone who speaks with an accent. That’s not a good idea at all. Rushing threatens the best of us, let alone someone who is not able to communicate his or her thoughts and ideas effectively. Slow down. Not to excess of course, but if you find yourself constantly saying “uh huh,” over and over in rapid succession, you’re probably rushing the caller.

Don’t Shout: Accented speakers are not hard of hearing. We usually get a little laugh on this one. Many a time we subconsciously speak louder or repeat the same word over and over thinking that will help. It doesn’t. People with accents normally hear very well. It’s insulting to shout at them. Keep that smile on your face – it’ll show that you have the patience to help and keep trying to let them know “you are there to help.” It might take time, but it will help.

Don’t Be Rude: No one really thinks they’re rude. But if you’ve ever said: “Hey, I can’t understand you” or even a short, terse, “Huh?” – you’re considered rude. Again, go back to the first item and explain you’re having a little difficulty understanding. They’ll often repeat it for you. If the situation is hopeless and you simply aren’t getting anywhere, don’t be embarrassed or afraid to call for help. Perhaps another person can better understand what the caller is saying. But remember, being shuffled from one person to another is frustrating to anyone whether the person has an accent or not.

Do Keep a Job Aid Available: Most often, we hear that 80% of the calls are from a certain area with the same accent, be it Hispanic, or Asian, or European. If your job has you working with a large percentage of one accent, keep a few simple phrases in that language near you. Short phrases that would let the customer know you’re trying. If you’re in a Hispanic environment, phrases like, “Un momento por favor” (One moment please.) will help. Even if we mispronounce it, they’ll understand. Hopefully, there is someone in your area that is either fluent or well spoken in one particular language who can help you formulate and effective work aid.

Remember what we said earlier – your smile is universal. Use it early and often, no matter whom you’re talking to!

Nancy Friedman is president of Telephone Doctor, an international customer service training company, based in St. Louis, MO. Nancy is the author of four best selling books. For more information, call 314-291-1012.

[From the February/March 2007 issue of AnswerStat magazine]