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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

What Did You Say? 4 Tips for Understanding Accents at Work

Living and working abroad, or even just working on a diverse team with international colleagues, can be exciting—new cultures, languages, and ways of expression are all around you.

But, it can also be difficult, especially when you don’t understand the conversation. Even if you’re technically speaking the same language, working with people who have dialects or accents you’re not used to can be a very difficult feat.

I’m American, but currently work in the East Midlands of England, where there’s a strong regional accent. I also frequently work with people from other parts of the UK and continental Europe. And while everyone’s speaking English, I still found it difficult at first (not to mention embarrassing) to communicate with many of my new clients and colleagues.

So how do you break this same-language barrier? These four simple steps will help you get accustomed to accents at work and make the communication much easier on yourself.

1. Take a Breath

When I first started answering the phone and meeting with clients for my current job, I understandably became nervous when I had trouble grasping what people were saying. But my nervousness often caused me to stumble more in my communication, miss important messages, and come across as less-than-professional.

I realized that in order to take control of the situation, I had to start by calming down. Now, when the phone rings, I allow it to ring once or twice, then take a deep breath before I answer. And whether I’m on the phone or in person, I force myself to talk slowly, and in a slightly lower octave, which in turn causes others to do the same and makes the conversation easier to follow.

2. Pardon Yourself

There are plenty of stereotypes surrounding Americans and our ability to adjust in different countries, even an English-speaking country such as the UK. Not wanting to give these stereotypes any further merit, I was often hesitant to ask clients or colleagues to repeat information for fear they would get annoyed at my inability to comprehend them.

But I learned to swallow my pride and hope for the best. If you can’t understand someone, simply apologize and ask them to repeat. If that doesn’t work, ask questions to gain clues, like “could you please spell that for me?” Most of the time, people will repeat themselves willingly—they’ll understand just as well as you do that you’re a foreigner or that they have a strong accent. And if someone starts to get annoyed, just breathe, talk slowly, and don’t panic. You’re doing the best you can.

3. Write Things Down

If you’re working in a different country, start off on the right foot by preparing yourself ahead of time for the names you’ll be facing. Get a list of the companies and people you’ll be working with, and jot down names of people who are likely to call. This not only helped me to remember a lot of the companies that often contact our office, but it also prepared me for companies and clients who don’t call quite so frequently.

4. When in Doubt, Ask

While I like to solve my problems myself, it also takes courage to ask for help, and in some cases, that’s the smarter option. Especially if you’re new to the company, ask your co-workers for help. Some of my colleagues, who grew up in the area I work in, told me they also have trouble understanding some of our clients. What a relief! It goes to show you’re not alone.

While I still stumble around with the regional English and British accents, these steps made a huge difference in improving my stress level and have helped me better navigate my workplace. Remember, don’t be shy or embarrassed when you’re getting used to a different language or accent. Being proactive about learning will show that you’re professional, and being confident and kind will create a bond with the people you work with. And keep in mind, too, that it will get easier over time.

Photo courtesy of Veni Markovski.