Maybe Don’t Ask the Awkward Accent Question

 

My most memorable taxi ride was only 8 blocks long. Two couples, pouring rain and some high heels all combined to force the decision to call a cab and when it pulls up, the driver gets out to help us in the car. My husband, confused, says ”Oh I thought maybe you were gonna let me drive!”

The driver’s reply surprises the heck out of us. ”Sure, you can drive.”

My husband gets behind the wheel. The driver sits himself in the passenger seat and the rest of us climb in the back, astounded. As my husband puts it in gear and starts out, the driver casually turns sideways to face him. In accented but perfectly clear English he asks my fifth-generation, white, Canadian, unilingual, English-speaking husband,

‘So, where are you from? Your English is very good.”

We laugh. And laugh. And so does he. In retrospect though, I think he laughed a little less heartily.

”So, where are you from?” How tired he must be of that question.

Some of my Accent Clarity clients come to me hoping to lose their accent entirely, so they never have to hear that question again.

If that is their goal, I have to set them straight. It is nearly impossible to lose one’s accent entirely (especially if the second language is learned after or around puberty). And why would they want to lose such an integral representation of their rich life experience? Just because of a simple question? Well, because the question is a loaded one.

For many of my clients, the question ”Where are you from?” is annoying. For others though, it can be downright hurtful.

The person asking about an accent can have two intentions.

  1.  I can hear that your English sounds different than mine! I genuinely wonder where you are from. And I bet I can guess! (This is the annoying option. Maybe it was quaint the first thirty times, but no longer.)
  2.  I can hear that your English sounds different than mine. And I am not entirely sure you belong here. (This is the hurtful option. I am sure it is rare, but some people have been emboldened. Yes, even in Canada.)

It would be hard to know the difference between these two intentions, when they both arrive in the same form (”Where are you from?”) within the first thirty seconds of meeting someone. How is one to know if the asker is from Camp 1 or Camp 2? Regardless, after the 30th time it is used as a conversation starter, it is understandably not a fun question and will at the very least make the speaker feel like an outsider.

So if you are a receiver of this question, I humbly apologize. I have asked it in the past. I have learned. Since I do not live with this annoyance, I can offer no personal advice but perhaps for you to go inward to your happy place and forgive us our sins.

But for the askers, I do have some specific advice. The next time you hear an accent and feel compelled to ask ”Where are you from?”, challenge yourself to simply put off that urge. Button it. Think of something else to say. (You know, like those things that you say to people who don’t have accents.) In my experience, your conversation partner’s place of origin will come out soon enough if it is relevant to your conversation. And it often is. Because where we grew up really does define a lot about us. But not everything.

Instead, just listen to what they have to say. See what you can learn from this conversation partner who decided to pack it all in, move their entire life to another country and live in another language.

And may that conversation lead you to a story that has you both laughing—equally heartily this time.

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