You Say Tomaydo, I Say You Need To Adapt

From behind a glass screen, a young man in a grey green apron and baseball hat, in charge of putting together ingredients for my turkey sub (sandwich bread) asked what I wanted on my sandwich. “LeT-Tuce,” I said. But the response I received wasn’t quite what I expected. A blank stare, a couple of blinks and a moment of silence before he seemed to register what I said. People behind me looked on, waiting for a reaction. “OH. You mean leD-Duce,” he finally answered, shooting me an accusing look as if displeased that I’d put him in an awkward spot.

That was my first time ever ordering lunch at a sandwich assembly line at one of the on-campus, university cafeterias in Pennsylvania, and my first time ever ordering a sandwich in the States. That was in 2003, and boy it sure made an impact, because here we are in 2013 and I can still recall that incident like it was yesterday. It wasn’t the awkardness of the moment that stuck; it was my pronouncing a common word differently, resulting in a communications glitch that did. Many expats to America can appreciate that having a non-local accent can sometimes pose a challenge, especially when you’re trying to get your points across quickly and effectively; so the obvious question then: is there a good way to improve this communication flow?

A solution doesn’t happen right away, as you have to keep both your ears and your mind open to adapting to American English nuances, slang and words. You’ll learn to change how you pronounce words. Speak louder and articulate more clearly. Maybe change your accent a bit. Or a lot. Or just keep repeating yourself till the other person gets it. In my ten years of being here, I know or have met people that’ve tried one or more of those ways to mitigate communication barriers. No matter that you’re a native English speaker back in the homeland, you’ll still encounter some (or many) incidents of attempting to make yourself understood by locals. And I won’t lie. It can get a little exasperating to avoid becoming known as that kid/dude/chick with a foreign accent, especially when you’re trying to adjusting to a new place, make friends and fit in. Much of the time, it’ll be on your shoulders to adjust the way you speak to locals. Think of it like staying at a friend’s place for an extended time period, where you’d want to respect your friend’s home and follow their rules. When in Rome, right? And in the spirit of friendship, most people around you will make an effort to be culturally sensitive too.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that you need to overhaul your speech style entirely. A handful of internationals arrive in the States and immediately turn on the American accent like they’ve been speaking that way their entire lives, when their main only point of reference are Hollywood movies. You see how this can backfire. When you’re used to saying “queue” rather than “stand in line” or “trolley” rather than “cart,” and thinking of measurements in metric instead of standard, don’t be surprised to end up in a garbled mess of words when conversing with others. Adjusting your speech is not about changing who you are, but simply a tool to move forward the process of getting used to your new home. Effective communication is important, but so is not being pretentious.

And obviously, accents isn’t necessarily a hindrance or a negative thing. There’s a coolness factor if you have an accent everyone likes. We all know how people everywhere go ga-ga for the French, the Brits and the Jamaicans when they speak. Regardless of your accent’s “coolness,” it’s not anything to be embarrassed about. Globalization has made major cities (and even mid-sized ones) more diverse, and we really should all be in tune with a variety of accents, but nowhere in the world are people quite there yet. For better or for worse, having an accent makes you stand out.  Even amongst locals from different regions, there are differences in speech. Although the outsider is usually the one to adjust, conversation is a two-way channel, and locals should play their part too. If you can be understood most of the time by most people, then you don’t need to change your anything.

Still, be prepared that not everyone will be so accommodating and you’ll have to roll with it. There will be blank stares. One eyebrow raised. Quizzical expressions. Even impatience. The frequency of this depends on where you’re located. Big diverse city, more likely to be under the radar; Small homogenous town, more likely to stand out. In time, you’ll figure out your preferred adaptation method of bridging any communication gaps, but always remember: stay true to yourself. When you next visit family and friends in the homeland, you don’t want to be unmerciless-ly laughed at for having an American accent. Very much a Catch-22. This is one of the hazards of being abroad, but a hazard I’d gladly deal with to keep being a traveller. 🙂

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