Tuesday, December 16, 2008

refuse to listen to foreign speakers of english

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]


  1. I'm pretty sure they've done studies on this, and found what you have anecdotally found. My own parents immediately give up with "foreign" phone tech support, almost immediately. I always thought that they weren't making as much effort as they could, too.

  2. "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."

    Yes. This is key. And I notice them being more tolerant of male than of female speakers, too. It is a woman's role to "communicate."

  3. I have seen what you have - entitled white folks, usually older and bitchy, who hate dealing with foreigners. They yearn for the days that only whites and blacks lived in America, Native Americans were completely invisible and blacks were ever-smiling servants.

    On the other hand, I hate dealing with customer service in India. It ain't their accents either. They keep repeating the god damned problem six times like they don't understand me, then time and again direct me to another line where I have to use my credit card to pay for help when I'm under warranty.

    On the plus side, my son didn't pay his cell phone bill and went to a Collection Agency in India. They'd call twice a day but thanks to the accent, we always knew who it was and said he didn't live here. I know that sounds terrible, but I'm not going to pay his bill, and he can't, and two calls a day is annoying as it gets.

    As for his bad credit, well that's his problem...

  4. It is odd that;
    French or Italian - romantic
    British, Irish, Scottish - quaint
    Southern - home-spun
    Ebonics - ghetto (there's that word)
    Spanish or Asian - foriegn.

    It's even more humorous here in the South, when someone who speaks poorly tells someone else to "learn the language".

  5. I am from India. Found your post very thoughtful. Not many people can put themselves in others' shoes and think this way.

    I am not in a call center so haven't faced the kind of situation you describe. I am more on the other end of technical outsourcing, so the "white" Americans I interact with are techies themselves, and they have never shown any impatience/intolerance in understanding our accents.

    I guess it's a phenomenon more to do with the average Joe who's already peeved with his/her problem.

  6. there was a study done that said black college students are more tolerant (say they can understand) foreign instructor accents than white students.

  7. I have a related anecdote. My wife told me of her experience in the hotel industry in Miami.

    She constantly heard complaints about her Haitian employees who spoke French as a first language, but remarkably there were no complaints about a white French person on staff despite similar accents and language proficiencies.

    As you suggest, it seems that attaching a face of color to the accent magnifies the effect.

  8. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcVZg2tVswk

    This is a parody, and the group leader is a nightmare on many levels, but it's still germane.

  9. im always amazed by this.

    Personally im impressed that someone has learned my language at all, many 'foreigners' often know multiple languages which is considered a smart skill on its own so its odd its confounded with knowing less depending on the accent and person.

    i feel horrible for only knowing one language.

  10. As a student in the sciences, I often have professors of various Asian ethnicities (and many who are foreign-born), some with accents stronger than others. I am often astounded at how quickly my classmates proclaim that they can't understand what to me sounds like perfectly understandable english. They just shut down immediately.

    As for computer help desk people in India, I get frustrated, not because of the accent, but because it's like talking to a computer program instead of a person. You could scream "Help! I'm on fire!" and they would stick to the script.

  11. HLH -- good point! Learning a second language is really difficult (at least in my experience), so when ignorant Americans look down on bilingual folks, it's really laughable. They're demonstrating a lot of intelligence by communicating in a second language, and yet, that's used as a basis for derision.

  12. Currently I'm doing language exchange and helping a few foreign, mostly Asian since I'm learning Japanese, improve their English. Although I don't have any problem comprehending even the worst English, I can pretty much understand what they are trying to convey. It's called "listening".

    The only drawback for us American's is when it comes to jobs. Here in NY, it is without fail every job that I want to apply for requires a second language. If you don't speak, English and Russian, Mandarin, Spanish, Korean, etc, then you need not apply. It's frustrating.

    The TJ Maxx by me also has older Asian women in it...lol Dunkin' Donuts are run by Eastern Indians, and so on.

  13. I agree with what's been said, but I would say that most Americans of all races have this attitude. Remember Chris Tucker's line in "Rush Hour": "Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?" Ugh!
    On the flipside, I have seen native Spanish speakers ridicule those attempting to speak Spanish. Sometimes they do this to U.S. born Latinos they regard as "pochos" as well as to whites, blacks, etc.
    I've also seen the French be very snooty to Americans attempting to speak French.
    I try to understand anyone speaking to me, but I really find it hard to understand the Irish accent. I've lived in England and whenever I encountered an Irish person I was thrown for a loop. I really didn't understand half of what they said to me. Well, that's my two cents.

  14. i've seen this happen first hand to plenty of people, i remember it happening to my mother when she was saying "Thursday" and it comes out like "Fursday" which is totally understandable to all English-speakers unless maybe you're a computer. And I got the impression that this lady was trying her best to not understand my mom. "What? What? I don't understand you, speak English." It made me so angry, but I was at an age when I didn't know how to react. You know, you grow up thinking that if white people are being inconvenienced, then it's never their fault.

    and yes, to most americans, european accents are classy, sexy, or cute, whereas accents from other parts of the world are intolerable and ugly. and a french accent becomes dirty in the mouth of a haitian.

    there are plenty of folks in our own communities who believe this too. where their own mother's accent is something to be ridiculed. hi margaret cho.

  15. This is an amazing coincidence, but I've been having this same argument with a (white) classmate. We go to a pretty diverse university with a large number of both east and south east asian professors, and this issue repeatedly comes up with respect to the professors. All my white classmates constantly complain of not being able to understand them, but have no problem understanding our eastern european professors, and yet they refuse to see the racial component to it and call me "sensitive"

    Lloyd Webber

  16. I like the care you put into this post, cautioning against anecdotes and recognizing that it's not an actual study or empirical evidence. Keep up the good work / careful writing (that started with this post).

    The only thing I have a problem with is the picture in conjunction with the title, because it suggests that everyone in that picture is a foreign speaker of English. You need to take the visual focus off (corny-looking) POC and put it on white people.

    Personally, I am sympathetic towards people who want same-country English speakers when getting tech support. I work in the computer industry (NOT as tech support), and I find that it's already difficult to communicate with people who are less technically-inclined about technical subjects. If the person has an accent and comes from a different culture, it's another barrier. You can't even use pop-culture analogies to explain it to them. Compounding the problem is the fact that most techies are bad at communication, and can only speak about technical subjects as if the listener is a fellow techie.

    I have called tech support or sales support that is based in the United States, and as a Canadian in Canada, I have a hard time understanding some American accents, like Southern drawls, etc. It's quite frustrating, because they also might not understand Canadian differences, such as currency, cost of shipping, taxes, tariffs, etc.

  17. i would be remiss not to point out that all speakers of english have accents. to speak with a standard american accent (like a newscaster) isn't to speak with no accent, it's simply a socially acceptable accent - the one we are all supposed to aspire to.

    sometimes people say somebody spoke with an accent, as though it were possible to speak without one. both macon and commenters have been doing this on this post.

  18. Yes, you're right giles, we have been remiss in this regard. I've long thought it absurd for anyone to point to English accents uttered by others in a way that implies that their English is unaccented. There's no such thing, including "standard English" or "standard American English." The invisibility of the accent there (invisible to its speakers, that is) is a lot like the empowering invisibility that whiteness can have.

    charismaticmegafauna, that video is awesome, thank you--a perfect dramatization/satire of the common white habit I tried to spell out in this post.

    I really hope I can find that study, thelady. And thanks to other commenters who pointed out that especially common example of this sort of white impatience, non-American classroom instructors. Thans also, Todd, for pointing out that hotels are another common site for this particular manifestation of arrogant white oblivion.

    HLH, I agree. Monolingual Americans should be ashamed of themselves, instead of trying to shame those who actually outrank them by speaking not only English (which, thanks to its mongrel ancestry, is especially difficult to learn), but also at least one other language.

  19. I agree with this.

    Sometimes, however, I really do have trouble understanding people :(

    I try to be patient and explain a different way. The other night I was ordering Chinese food over the phone, and the lady on the other end kept thinking I was saying "lo mein chicken" when I was saying "lemon chicken." I spelled it to her, and then said "the small yellow fruit that is sour." She still didn't get it, so I ordered orange chicken instead. It was just as good, though worse for me... :D

    As far as tech support goes, I do get frustrated, though more at the company for outsourcing this job (one where you must understand and speak good English) to a foreign country. I am usually already frustrated with the problem I am having, and then when the support guy speaks quickly in a heavy accent I can't understand? Forget it, I'll wing it.

  20. >by speaking not only English (which, thanks to its mongrel ancestry, is especially difficult to learn

    You can't judge how difficult it is to learn a language if you only know your own. English isn't especially difficult to learn compared to other languages and I say this to you as somebody without the feeling for foreign languages and I have great difficulties learning foreign languages (Latin and Spanish were the other foreign languages I once knew).
    You should read what Mark Twain had to say about learning the German language:-D

  21. I would agree with you entirely, except that my husband, who is white and from New Zealand, gets this all the time. People claim not to be able to understand him even though he has lived here for twelve years and is very easy to understand. I often have to "translate". I'm sure people aren't as rude, since he is white, but they still seem to be just as ignorant.

  22. jw and macon, of course English is easier to learn for those with first languages related to English, but still harder than many overall, because of as macon says, its "mongrel" history, due especially to so much colonization. I found this illustrative list that I remember a teacher showing to us as students. I think it helps to show how patient Americans should be with any speakers of a different first language (and I certainly agree that many white folks seem more impatient with such non-white folks).

    21 Reasons Why The English Language Is Hard To Learn:

    1) The bandage was wound around the wound.
    2) The farm was used to produce produce.
    3) The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
    4) We must polish the Polish furniture.
    5) He could lead if he would get the lead out.
    6) The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
    7) Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was
    time to present the present.
    8) A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
    9) When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
    10) I did not object to the object.
    11) The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
    12) There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
    13) They were too close to the door to close it.
    14) The buck does funny things when the does are present.
    15) A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
    16) To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
    17) The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
    18) After a number of injections my jaw got number.
    19) Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
    20) I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
    21) How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

  23. English is easy to learn?


    I was always told that English came from the German language. A fact I always found hard to believe, especially with the written language, for I could never see similarities between the two! Anyway, jw, your first language is German, yes? So, for you, given the aforementioned "fact", English would be an easy language to learn.

    Now, if you are a speaker of a Latin language (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, or Italian), then English, with most of its words ending in consonants (closed sounds, just like German), which is unlike the Latin languages, the majority of its words ending in vowels (open sounds), English is a bitch of a language to learn!

    Also, if you speak any tonal language, then English, actually any non-tonal language, is very, very difficult to learn.

    By the way, speakers of tonal languages have the highest percentage of people who have perfect-pitch.

  24. @ Macon - The most common accent in SAE is more of a media accent (the one actors learn in speech class) that is common on the East and West coasts.

  25. I didn't say that English is easy to learn, I said: "English isn't especially difficult to learn compared to other languages"

  26. Well, well, well call it coincidental but my mother and I were having this conversation earlier this morning for the gazillionth time.

    You see, my mother is from Jamaica and it offends her when people do that. It is not hard by any strecth of the imagination to understand her. Her English is fine since what she has is an accent and not a language disparity but she gets it anyway.

    She spoke about how intense and hurtful it was when she first migrated here.

    My mother owns a small businesses in mostly white towns in New York She often times sends her white American employees to deal with customers.

  27. By the way, speakers of tonal languages have the highest percentage of people who have perfect-pitch.

    I need to rephrase what I wrote [quoted above]:

    Most people with perfect pitch are speakers of tonal languages.

  28. Hey Macon,
    I don't see this as a White problem. From my experiences, I've seen this as an American problem. It's as if a foreigners aren't worthy of being listened to with patience.

    I find it laughable when Americans demand that foreigners (or those speaking their native and/or more comfortable tongue) "speak English!" With the bevy of Americans that can barely string sentences together, where do they even get the nerve?

  29. Anonymiss, it probably is common among both white and non-white Americans to demand that foreigners speak English. Something here that does seem like a problem with whiteness, though, is the higher level of tolerance and patience with European/white speakers of English as a second (or third, etc.) language. Whether white Americans or non-white Americans are doing that. If they are doing that, maybe it's a part of that psychological phenomenon that Toni Morrison summed up so succinctly when she wrote, "American means white." Maybe European speakers with non-American accents seem less foreign to most Americans, even non-white Americans, than non-European ones do.

  30. This is probably more true for white Americans who have never left the country and have never had regular experience with other accents than for those who have more exposure to more than other white Americans.

  31. This also sounds a little like what what Miranda Fricker calls testimonial injustice": "Testimonial injustice occurs when others fail to treat you seriously as a source of knowledge."

    It's like the patron refuses to take the Asian cashier's word because she isn't speaking proper English, so how can she possibly know anything?

  32. This is a great post and it's SO true. It drives me nuts.

    As a white highschooler in Texas, I noticed that white kids are often praised for being smart enough/interested enough to keep pursuing another language because it's so difficult to learn another language. Yet, those same teachers will blast the non-honors students as being "stupid" and "ignorant" even when they're able to speak another language (usually Spanish). Could just be coincidence, but knowing how xenophobic and anti-immigrant the white students are here, I doubt it.

  33. A poster above mentioned having to "translate" the English of their non-american-born friends & family for other American-born people.

    For real!

    I have several friends, both white and non-white, who immigrated to America and so speak with a "non-standard" accent. However, if you just LISTEN instead of tuning out as soon as you hear an accent, they are 98% as understandable as native-born Americans.

    Yet in social situations, restaurants or stores I find myself always needing to "translate" for them, i.e. repeating what they said in perfectly understandable (though differently accented) English in my native-born accented English.

    It's obnoxious. It's like some people relish making their life just a little bit harder.

  34. I'm a white guy that speaks with an accent.

    There has been plenty of times people have gotten frustrated with my pronunciation. I want to tell them that it's not my fault English is such a f'ed up language.

  35. Interesting as always, Macon. I used to work for a call center based in Oregon, and the center's management definitely used our location for marketing purposes- apparently, the English spoken in the Pacific Northwest is thought to be especially free of accents. Note that we never claimed that our operators would be accent-free, just that our call center was located in a relatively accent-free part of the US.

    This was a good thing, since our population here in the NW is demographically very diverse. I'd guess that about 1/4 of our on-phone employees were originally from either Latin America, or South or East Asia. To management's credit, I never saw any hiring discrimination based on nationality or accent- as long as somebody's English was fluent, and they had good phone skills, it didn't matter what sort of accent they had. So, we ended up having a large number of excellent phone reps whose accents covered a very broad spectrum.

    The problem was with our customers. Oftentimes, customers who ended up on the phone with an accented operator would assume that they were dealing with a foreign call center, and would often get quite indignant about it (and be very rude to the operator in the process). My office was right next to the phone pool, and I would routinely hear one of our operators- who was originally from Pakistan- patiently explaining, in his barely-accented English, that he was indeed located in Portland, Oregon. Sometimes, whatever customer he was on the phone with would actually ask to be transferred to a manager- not because he was cranky with the level of service being delivered by this operator, but because he was convinced that the operator was a foreigner and wanted to complain to a manager about it. The first few times this happened, the manager would come by after a few minutes to apologize to the operator and tell him that he'd given the customer a geography lesson and a lecture about manners... it seemed to get really old, though, for both of them.

    I tell you what- I'd always considered myself to be relatively polite when it came to my dealings with call-center staff, but after actually working in one I've tried to be even more considerate and patient. The person on the other end of the phone is usually genuinely trying to help you, but has to do so within what are potentially very rigid constraints and, depending on the call center, under somewhat oppressive conditions. The least we as customers can do in return is to be polite- if you can't understand the person on the other end, there are ways to ask them to speak a bit slower without being rude about it.

  36. However, if you just LISTEN instead of tuning out as soon as you hear an accent, they are 98% as understandable as native-born Americans.

    I work in an international environment so I listen to "foreign" accents all the time. And I understand them.

    So often these people will apologize for their "poor English." Yet, I always say that my (fill in speaker's language here) could NEVER be as good as their English.

  37. I kind of thought this post was a bit unfair.... I mean, have you ever tried to understand a Scottish accent if you've never heard it before? that accent is very difficult to understand, especially if you've never heard it before or rarely hear it.

    I'm hard of hearing a bit, so it's difficult for me to understand ALL foreign accents, including European accents, and also domestic accents. It's partly due to the fact that I'm hard of hearing, but also because I haven't *heard* many accents on a daily basis. I think that's the key.... a lot of people don't hear these accents on a daily basis, so it's difficult to understand.

    I know if people listened to foreign (and domestic) accents every day then it would be easy to understand and not get so frustrated.

  38. Very interesting post. I've experienced something like this, albeit a bit differently. See, my native language is Spanish, but I've been bilingual practically all my life, taking English classes since first grade. By now I barely even have an accent, or so I've been told. However, I still find it hard to understand spoken English when the person speaking has an accent (or when they're mumbling, or when they speak too fast). British accents are hard for me to understand, as are Chinese and Indian accents, and Southern USA accents. Every time I've been in a situation in which someone speaks to me and I don't understand because of their accent, I get very very embarrassed at having to ask them to repeat themselves. I see it as a deficiency in my understanding of the English language. Basically, the thought process that goes on in my mind is "Come on, you've been bilingual for nearly 30 years, you should be able to understand what they're saying!" and then I just feel bad about it.

    I felt mortified reading in your post about the woman who refused to listen to the Asian cashier lady because she supposedly didn't understand her. How could she (the customer) be so rude? If I'd been in that situation and I didn't understand the cashier I would have felt so embarrassed about my bad understanding of English... :-[

  39. @ Phoebe:
    Black immigrant girl talking...

    Why should your parents put more effort into it? They're already mad that their stupid Dell broke down, they've been waiting on the phone forever, and now someone on the phone is taking way to long to help them.

    When I travel (France and Scotland (lol, I know it's English but damn both sides did not understand each other in the exchange)) and butcher people's language, I've had them walk the hell away from me. Were they being racist? I really don't think so.

    This girl (I think she was Cape Verdean) in a dry cleaning store overcharged me. As I'm waiting, to nicely tell her about her mistake, these two white women come in and yell at her about losing their clothes. It looked bad. White women yelling at the black girl with the accent. The girl really messed up people's stuff though.

    I'm sure some white people are being prejudiced/racist in the interaction but sometimes I feel it isn't about that.

  40. I'm Japanese (female) and live in the U.S. for 10 years. I speak English, but I have hard time having a good communication with especially white female because they must have felt unbearable to listen to my accented English. I overheard some mean comments too.
    I'm glad that somebody like you mentioned about this, because this is not openly discussed so much.
    I hope more American people at least try to be patient with non-European foreign speakers.

  41. I think I can speak pretty positively on this subject. As I have witnessed first-hand the difference between how white and non-white foreigners are treated when speaking. I am a biracial Canadian, born to a mother of European descent. She was born in Finland and brought with her a very thick Finnish accent. As far back as I can remember, people listened patiently to my blonde-haired, blue eyed mother when she spoke, even commenting on how 'beautiful' her accent was. As an adult I have a Jamaican father in law and he has a very thick Jamaican accent. He is a very successful businessman and entreprenuer and is very likely the most educated man I know. This is coming from someone whose worked amongst politicians, engineers, doctors and lawyers during my career. However, when he speaks I've seen people who don't take him seriously. Often people mock his accent and I have even heard people speak to him with the stereotypical "Yah Mon!" accent. Case in point, I think you hit the nail on the head here.

  42. Really good post. I think this is very true.

    Although I do think in some cases tech support callers want Americans to have these jobs... which is nationalist, but not the same thing as being frustrated and unable to understand someone. I usually get tech people in India and their accents are not hard to understand (and their English is quite good.)

    In other cases, people are just not used to those who don't talk the way they do (other white people). It's kind of provincial but not uncommon.

    When I lived in the UK I heard that call centers were often based in Wales because people all over the UK found the accent "pleasant" and easy to understand (and I heard many people rip on Birmingham and Geordie accents, call them touch to understand, etc.)

    English With An Accent by Rosina Lippi-Green is a great book which largely focuses on accent discrimination.

  43. Very late in coming here and commenting, but could not resist. I'm a Japanese woman (hi tee!) who grew up in Southern US, bilingual without noticable accent in either language. When I worked as an English teacher in a Japanese high school, we had other native English speaking teachers from US, Australia, NZ, Canada, UK. At first, none of the US teachers could understand the accent of the teacher from NZ, so others from Canada or Australia or myself had to "translate."
    Everyone except myself was white, so I mostly considered this a predominantly American issue, although I also think race comes into play as well. For example, Singaporeans can also be said to be native English speakers, but because they "look" Asian, their English is considered "not real," instead of just another dialect.


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