Accents on Communication

10 Dec

Image: Suat Eman /

My cousins, who have a slight Slavic accent, took a trip down south last year and when they entered into an elevator a little boy asked if he could press the buttons for everyone.  He looked to my cousins and asked “What floor?”

My cousins replied: “ten” (slightly shortened enunciation of the e).

The boy crinkled his eyebrows and asked again “what floor?”

When he received the same reply twice, his frustration took a greater toll on his crinkled forehead as he looked up to his dad for clarification.

His dad rolled his eyes and said “tEhn!” (stretched out short e – gawd, I love the southern drawl).

I was reminded of the story yesterday as I read a blog post at Harvard Business ReviewJulia Kirby at HBR compares the results of a study regarding accent imitation improving comprehension with the sales approach of mirroring and matching; the title of the post asks the question: Could a Fake Accent Help You Sell?

As far as the sales technique of mirroring and matching, the technique is something we do unconsciously; it’s a part of human nature.  For many people, there is a natural tendency to adapt sentence structure to match that of the non-native speaker to facilitate communication.  For example, if you are asked for directions by someone you suspect to be a tourist and speaks broken English, you might cut out adjectives, verbs, and incorporate body language in order to be understood.

But the question is whether mirroring and matching an accent could help you sell.  Perhaps it could get you to the right floor, but otherwise, I say no.  At first glance it may seem as though the concept would build rapport and facilitate communication, but the technique lacks a key element – understanding your audience.

First, the study focuses on native speakers gaining better comprehension of a fake accent of their own language by subjects imitating the accent.  It does not focus on comprehension of non-native language speakers based on similar accents to their own.  If you’re considering employing a fake accent in your sales technique, this alone should make you weary.

Accents are an extension of native language structure and phonetic emphasis transferred to the new language.  Additionally, non-transferability of some phonetic characteristics (such as ‘th’, ‘r’, ‘p’, ‘w’, etc.) from the native language to the new language affect an accent.  Understanding this, it should be clear that an accent is not indicative of a speaker’s comprehension skills of their second language.

While grammatical sentence structure might be more indicative of a person’s knowledge of their non-native language, it also shouldn’t be used as a sole indicator of comprehension.  For example, I have family that came to the US already having studied English.  They spoke with impeccable grammatically correct sentences where native-speakers would be confused when they stated that they didn’t understand English well.  While they could speak well, they required simple vocabulary and a slower rate of speech from others in order to understand what was said.

By the same token, my mom has been here since she was 19.  She never studied English and she speaks broken English.  However, she understands everyone regardless of vocabulary and rate of speech.

Now that we understand accents and comprehension levels of two extremes of English as second language speakers, let’s put ourselves in their shoes.  If one minute you’re extending your hand and saying in perfect English, “Hi I’m (fill in your name here)” and a few minutes later (hopefully you’ve had the grace to incorporate your accent over a few minutes rather than immediately) you have a matching accent to the potential client ..

  1. You’re likely to look a little nutty.
  2. The client may be trying to figure out if ‘zat’ means ‘that’ or if ‘zat’ is your product.
  3. The client may think you are making fun or at the very least are being condescending – make sure you have an ice pack in your briefcase, you might need it.
  4. And if the client is so keen to figure out that your intentions are to build rapport they might be distracted enough by your technique that you won’t have their full attention.  Okay, okay, laughter can help sell .. but only if the consumer remembers the product .. so be sure you are yelling out your product name in that accent when the client is on the floor laughing.

Simple communication skills require individuals to assess understanding even between native speakers.  We don’t just process spoken words, but we absorb tone, body language, facial expressions, and vocal fluctuations for full comprehension.  We even factor in individual personalities when processing communication.  In the workplace, diversity demands more diligence in the way we communicate with each other, while the increasingly globalized world is making the study of cultural communication styles increasingly important.

If you have a client that has an accent, I’d stick with the tried and true general communication strategies to avoid misunderstandings.  Look for signs of misunderstanding via body language and facial expressions.  Leave opportunities for customers to ask for clarification by pausing every two or three sentences.  Invite questions from your clients or prompt discussions regarding how your product can fit into the client’s business or life in order to assess understanding.  These are strategies that should be employed regardless of the client’s English speaking skills.

Better yet, take the time to learn about the communication style of the country from where your client originates.  Knowing the style of communication helps you determine if it would be appropriate to include a translator, how quickly to proceed with business conversation, and even how much eye contact is warranted.  Global Negotiation Resources is an excellent resource for research in this regard.

Communication is a two-way street and therefore it is just as important for a sales associate to understand the client.  Therefore, it is important to listen and clarify.  Try listening and developing an understanding through context.  Then repeat what you believe you heard the customer say and feel free to seek clarification.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: