I ended up standing in a checkout line at TJ Maxx the other day, waiting to pay for some clothes. Since a lot of people were out shopping for the holidays, all of the cash registers were in use. Several customers were in front of me, and as I looked around, I noticed that there were no white cashiers. The one that I was about to encounter was a middle-aged Asian woman. She may have been Asian American, but her strong accent made me wonder how long she’d been in this country.
The customer in front of me was a middle-aged white woman, and she was buying a cartload of children’s clothes. As her turn came and she piled the clothes on the counter, she ignored the cashier’s greeting. When she finished, she stood still and alert, and I could see that she was watching each price as it came up on the cash register’s digital display. At one point, the cashier ran the price tag for a pair of pants over the scanner, and the customer stopped her.
“Wait, wait, that’s not right. Those are nine ninety-nine, not nineteen ninety-nine.”
“But, the tag, look,” said the cashier, extending the tag towards the woman. “It say nineteen ninety-nine?”
“What?” said the customer. “No, those were on the clearance rack. The half-price rack.”
“Nineteen ninety-nine. Look, it say so right here.”
“What? I can’t understand you.”
I thought this complaint was odd, because although the cashier did have an accent and imperfect grammar, I had no trouble understanding what she was saying.
“Okay, wait, I get it checked for you.”
“What? A check? No, I’m paying with a credit card. Look.” The customer suddenly sighed, with a show of heavy exasperation. “Look, I can’t understand you. Can I get some other help please? Can you call your manager?”
“Manager?” said the cashier. “No problem. I check price for you.”
“You what? No, I said, I can’t understand you. I need to talk to your manager. Please.”
The cashier shrugged her shoulders and left, then returned with a tie-wearing white guy, who confirmed that the price tag was indeed wrong.
“Sorry about that, ma’am,” he said to the customer.
As the white woman left, the cashier and I greeted each other, and she ran through my items quickly. I saw no sign of frustration on her part.
Probably happens all the time, I thought. Not because her English was all that “bad,” but rather, because I’d seen white folks do this many times before. For a lot of Americans, a foreign accent seems like a signal to stop paying attention, even though the English isn't all that hard to understand. Why do they do this? Are their thoughts sometimes as severely xenophobic as those of D-Fens, the archetypal fed-up American played by Michael Douglas in Falling Down?
Although I haven’t seen any studies or other “empirical evidence” to back up the following claim, I’ll make it anyway, tentatively. I think that the combination of a foreign accent with a non-white face makes many white Americans stop paying attention to English that’s actually easy to understand. What I’ve noticed is that white Americans often give up quickly in this situation, and further, that they're less likely to give up if the apparently foreign person talking to them is "white," that is, European.
I’ve seen white restaurant customers call for managers when they “can’t understand” their non-white waiter’s explanation of the bill. I’ve seen a white customer at a dry cleaner get loud and exasperated over disputed cleaning charges. I've also watched a relative of mine give up while talking on a speaker phone to a computer technician from India. I don’t think I have any particular talent for understanding accented and/or “broken” English, but in all of these cases, I had no comprehension problems. As in the TJ Maxx incident, I thought that the other white person gave up way too soon; it’s like they weren’t even trying. Like they didn’t think they should have to try.
And that belief, that they shouldn’t have to deal with imperfect English from “foreigners,” may be what’s behind at least some of these reactions to speakers of non-standard American English. That refusal to listen may be an attitude towards the accented speakers themselves, as much as the supposedly incomprehensible English that they speak.
Many of these white ear-closers probably also agree that those who want to stay in the U.S. need to demonstrate nearly perfect fluency in English when they apply for citizenship. They probably also groan in annoyance--is it a racist annoyance?--when they hear or see requests and instructions translated into Spanish and other languages along with the English ones. Or when they overhear two or more people speaking to each other in a different language (I once heard a white woman say to a Korean couple, in another checkout line, "You're in America, you know--you should speak English.")
Actually, they may also be the ones who will pay for a new service being offered by Dell Computers. As the Washington Post reports,
Catering to consumers put off by the accents of Bangalore, Manila and other call-center hubs around the globe, Dell will guarantee -- for a price -- that the person who picks up the phone on a support call will be, as company ads mention in bold text, "based in North America."
The Your Tech Team service, with agents in the United States, costs $12.95 a month for customers with a Dell account, or $99 a year for people who buy a new computer. It also promises that wait times will average two minutes or less. Without the upgrade, a customer is likely to get technical help from someone in India, the Philippines or the other places where Dell has operators. . . .
Occasionally, "we've heard from customers that it's hard to understand a particular accent and that they couldn't understand the instructions they were getting," said Dell spokesman Bob Kaufman. "This illustrates Dell's commitment to customer choice."
Complaints about customer service agents based in other countries are an everyday phenomenon across several industries. For many U.S. consumers, the diverse accents that come across customer service lines constitute one of the most pervasive reminders of globalization and the offshoring of jobs. That can make personnel in the call center targets for American anger.
And it’s not just Dell Computers; the Post notes that other companies also recognize the market value of catering to American impatience:
Jitterbug, a cellphone company that markets to older Americans, similarly boasts in ads that its operators are in the United States, but it does not charge extra to speak to them. The company's television spots advertise "U.S. based customer service" and show a headset draped in an American flag.
"You'd be amazed how many customers ask, 'Where are you based?' " said David Inns, Jitterbug's chief executive. "The response we get when we say, 'We're in Auburn Hills, Michigan, ma'am,' -- well, they love it."
The Post article quotes a sociology professor, Sharmila Rudrappa, who says that labeling such complaints “racist or nativist” is “too simple”: "If you need tech support, it already shows you're having a crazy time getting your Dell computer to work. And when things go haywire, you want assurance, you want familiarity, you want someone to hold your hand and say it's okay. What you don't want is to have to work at understanding the person on the other end of the line."
I agree that having to "work at understanding" someone’s English can feel like an extra hassle. However, I think it’s Professor Rudrappa’s explanation here that may be too simple. Again, my evidence is purely anecdotal, but I’ve often seen white Americans listen patiently to difficult English spoken by Europeans, and I’ve often seen that kind of patience and tolerance withheld from non-European speakers of difficult English. And again, in both cases, the accented or somewhat broken English wasn't all that hard to understand.
It seems clear to me that for many Americans, especially white ones, the quick refusal to listen to accented or misspoken English is less a response to the supposed incomprehensibility of what’s being said, and more a response to the person saying it.
[h/t for "The Bangalore Backlash": Angry Asian Man]