- cracking the code

What Not to Say to a Foreigner

What Not to Say to a Foreigner
Don’t make fun of a co-worker’s accent!

In the global workplace, there are a lot of people speaking a second language of one sort or another, a necessity if they are to feel (if not be) truly integrated wherever they happen to work. Unfortunately, in an attempt at humor, some native speakers occasionally get in these people’s way. For example, at a recent office meeting, I made a comment about the instructor we were going to book for an upcoming event. One of the natives seated across from me repeated my comment, humorously emphasizing my accent, in particular my ‘hard American r’ (the sound I’ve never managed to get rid of no matter how hard I’ve tried after living in Norway for close to 25 years). Although the others present, including myself, responded to this mimicry with brief laughter, she immediately followed it up with ‘Oh, don’t know why I said that, didn’t mean anything by it’ and looked at me with an apologetic smile. I replied with a smile and assured her that it was fine, I was used to it, knew I sounded that way, could laugh at myself, etc. But she then made an observation that was basic yet true, saying that ‘You know, I should really be careful about making fun of another person’s accent, they might take it wrong and feel badly yet not want to show that it bothers them.’

Talk about hitting the foreign-speaker nail on the head. I’ve written before in this blog that natives should stop asking foreigners they are meeting for the first time if they ‘miss their families’ back home. And am saying now that native speakers can and should resist the temptation to mock the accents of these same people who are trying to blend in at various workplaces in their new country. Or at the very least not try and get a cheap laugh at their expense in front of others. When the above happened, I had the immediate reaction of feeling my face flush and pulse race. I got a tiny knot in the pit of my stomach along with a tiny rush of rage (which as any good psychologist will tell you is actually disguised hurt). It all passed by in an instant, and I wonder at myself a bit for sitting here writing about it now. Shouldn’t I just let it go and get on with it? Touchy touchy.

And yet it happened again, this time in a different setting but with several people around the table. I responded to some question during a coincidental pause, and heard my own voice with its lovely ‘r’ breaking the silence. A man at the end of the table starting laughing and repeated what I had said in an exaggerated way in order, I guess, to point out my accent. Ha ha. This time he didn’t get any response from the others there, giving me a small amount of satisfaction. No ha ha. At the same time I wondered why he didn’t do the same when the African man seated next to him spoke, as he had a much heavier accent than my own. Maybe it just wasn’t as politically correct to make fun of him but was okay to go after me as a fellow Westerner? Needless to say, I came my own conclusion here and didn’t ask my ten-second tormentor for his input before reaching it.

When I reread the above, I see that my linguistic skin might be a little thin and I need to lighten up in order to not only move forward but also get ahead in the workplace. If I let my admitted insecurity get to me to the point where I go silent in the presence of others in group situations like the one I’ve written about here, I’m doomed. My career light won’t shine because my skills and experience will be kept in the dark through my fear that native speakers won’t be able (or willing) to listen to the words behind my accent to find out what I try to say – my message, as it were. Will they keep straight faces but be laughing inside?

And let’s face it, accents can be funny. Where would comedy be without them? I’ve certainly chuckled at them on TV shows and in movies throughout the years. Would Gloria on Modern Family be as funny without her heavily Spanish-influenced pronunciation (she says ‘Phil’, and he thinks she’s telling him to physically ‘feel’ her up)? Would we laugh as hard at Little Britain if it didn’t show certain characters doing their best to mangle the English language? Who can forget Peter Seller’s French accent as Inspector Clouseau? The Pink Panther movies just wouldn’t be the same without him (Does your dog bark?… No, monsieur… Nice doggie… Leans down to pat dog, which viciously bites Clouseau’s hand… But I thought you said your dog did not bark… I did monsieur, but that is not my dog).

But there’s a difference between the world of fiction and the world of work where real people have to make themselves understood. We’re not trying to be funny when giving a report about the latest sales figures. We’re not going for a collective laugh when giving our opinion about the proposed budget cuts. We’re serious, and want to be treated seriously in return. We don’t need our otherness pointed out to us, especially in front of others we’re trying to – yes – impress. We have voices, and while not being able to speak in the ‘real ones’ of our native language, we’re doing our best to speak yours. So at the next meeting and the next and the one after that, rest assured that I will say what I have to say, I won’t be stopped. As I hope all others in the global workplace will do as well. And be truly listened to by all the people there, whose response is related to what they said and not how they said it.

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