I was listening to a white man, who is married to a Hispanic woman, share his outrage over racism in 2020. This man married a native South American – can’t recall which country he said she was from. Spanish was her first and dominant language. She had also learned English. I believe he even said at some point, his wife taught English to others in her home country.
His wife is currently employed in some telephone-based Customer Service role here in the US. The man had shared that many times customers will complain they can’t understand his wife or that they want to speak to someone who is American.
Of course, the other participants in this conversation were shocked and appalled that such Racism still exists today.
And of course, I didn’t see it that way at all.
I was born in Seoul, Korea. My family moved to Chicago before I could even talk. But my parents spoke Korean to me as an infant, and so it is technically my first language. As a toddler, I started to attend schools in Chicago that were taught in English. Everything I learned during my developmental years was in English. So English may not be my first, but it is my dominant, language. And truth be told, I have a very limited understanding of the Korean language today – my guess would be around a 5th-grade level.
After living in Chicago for over 30 years, my family and I moved to North Texas. At first, there were some nuances we had to learn about our new environment. Many people could immediately tell we were not native Texans. Certain phrases we were accustomed to using in Chicago were met with blank stares.
3 of my boys were born and raised in TX. As our family grew and we spent more time there, our language adapted – so much so that some of our friends back in Chicago say we definitely have a Southern twang in our speech.
Now that we’ve moved to the Carolinas, I am once again met with some very different accents and local verbal customs. I can tell you that there’s a very noticeable difference between your typical Georgian accent vs. a central, South Carolinian accent, for example. There are times that I have to ask someone from some of the more rural areas of SC or Boston or New York or even Chicago to repeat themselves because I can’t make out their accents.
Now, I’m sure that some of them might assume that I look Asian and thus must be a foreigner that hasn’t learned English properly yet. Does that bother me? No. Why should it?
Language, particularly verbal communication, can be very complicated and nuanced. Regional dialects, accents, slang, colloquialisms — they can all affect the way we share information. But if you are speaking to someone, trying to solicit information or communicate some direction, IT’S COMPLETELY ON YOU to make sure they can receive and understand you. The onus is on the speaker to communicate the message clearly to the listener. Why would anyone think it’s the other way around?
Particularly if you’re in a Customer Service role, your job is to help your customers. They come to you looking for information, service, instruction, resolution to some problems, and satisfactory care. If they can’t understand you, that’s a detriment to the company. The customer has no responsibility to adapt. They want to serviced. (Incidentally, this is why government phone support is terrible and can drive you crazy. It’s because the government usually has a monopoly and could care less if their service is adequate.)
Now someone is going to comment about companies in the US that farm out their customer service to call centers in India and how difficult it is to communicate with some of them. And I’ll agree that sometimes it is quite difficult. But I can say the same thing for many native English speakers in the US that obviously barely scraped by with a public high school level education. That’s not an excuse for either group. Once again, a poor customer service experience is to the detriment of the hiring company.
My purpose for this blog is not to look down on those who struggle with less than full command of the Queen’s English. I’m not saying learning English and speaking in an accent that is discernable to your audience is at all easy. And millions of people in the US get by just fine every day without perfect grammar or diction.
What I am saying is that our hypersensitivity to racism today is making anything we dislike automatically about Race or Prejudice or with Malicious Intent. Sometimes, if we can be objective, step back, and put ourselves in the other person’s position, we might find that there’s something to the criticism to which we should be paying attention – particularly if you want your business to succeed.