Job interview + can't understand my interviewer's accent
June 1, 2015 3:03 PM   Subscribe

I'm a native U.S. English-speaker, they might not have been. I've twice been at U.S. job interviews where I haven't been able to understand my interviewer; they had an accent and I couldn't tell what words they were saying, even after they slowed down and repeated. How should I handle this?

Both interviews were in-person, one with a group of colleagues interviewing me (I only had trouble understanding one of them) and the other one-on-one.

1. I've noticed that saying "I'm having trouble understanding you" or "do I understand that you're saying that [repeat what you're guessing they said]" gets interpreted as my being dense/not understanding why someone would ask what the interviewer is asking, rather than "I can't tell what words you just said" (I can't figure out how to convey the latter politely, and I don't want to come across as faulting them). Any ideas for specific wording?

2. If they slow down and repeat and I still can't understand them, how should I handle this? I'd like to use "I" and not "you" language if possible (the issue is with me having trouble understanding, not with their language skills).

posted by StealthOatmeal to Work & Money (13 answers total)
"Please don't take this personally, but I have trouble understanding your accent. How should we best solve this situation?"

If you really can't understand them, there's really no other way, is there?
posted by Namlit at 3:14 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Do you have *any* idea what they're saying? Like, can you say, "I didn't catch what you said after the part about $widget"?

Also can you learn to understand accents better? Especially if you often encounter people with the same type of accent, it might be worthwhile to actively work on this.

Addressing it directly could be uncomfortable but if there's no other way, it's better than silence.
posted by mskyle at 3:16 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Between now and your next interview, you might think about spending some time watching movies or videos that feature people who talk with the kinds of accents you have trouble understanding.
posted by box at 3:17 PM on June 1, 2015 [9 favorites]

If this was a single particular accent, do what box said. If it was two totally different accents, you might want to visit an audiologist -- inability to understand accents is often a "symptom" of your hearing not being as good as you think it is.
posted by Etrigan at 3:31 PM on June 1, 2015 [9 favorites]

Listen to a lot of people speaking with the same accent, YouTube will be your friend here, sometimes it's more a matter familiarity to speech patterns & rhythm than the actual accent. Also if you speak more slowly it will tend to encourage the people around you to speak more slowly. As Etrigan said if this happens a lot get your ears checked.
posted by wwax at 4:15 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've had patients with hearing loss who had co-workers with heavy accents. Even if your hearing is perfect, some of their strategies may be helpful. Like others suggested, most found watching videos of others with the same accent, especially with subtitles ,very helpful (the subtitles were like training wheels).

I had one patient learn the phonemes/basic grammatical structure in the language of his coworker, and it helped them "mentally convert" what they were hearing. Obviously this only works if its a paticular accent you found challenging.

Prepping thoroughly for the meetings they had was also helpful (gave them a context to pull from, making it easier to fill in the blanks). You're probably already doing that anyways, but maybe running a few mock interviews ahead of time could help, as it can make the overall environment feel a bit more natural, letting you focus more of your attention elsewhere.

I've (normal hearing) also found that just exposing myself to more accented speech in general helpful. Almost like my brain is now prepared for words to sound a bit nonstandard. I'd say this effect was more general and slower than the more targeted exposure of a particular accent.
posted by ghost phoneme at 4:41 PM on June 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

Exposure really is key. When I was regularly working with colleagues in Mumbai I had no difficulty following what they were saying. But then I changed jobs and have a lot less regular exposure to that accent and now find it very difficult to follow when it comes up.
posted by clone boulevard at 5:29 PM on June 1, 2015

"Could you repeat that? I got that you said "the blah blah thing," and then I missed after that."

I think you might need to ask specifically that they repeat things, not that you're not understanding them in general.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:33 PM on June 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

Nthing the suggestions above to say "I'm sorry, I missed what you said after [repeat what you did understand], could you repeat that?"

Some body language will also help convey that you mean "I didn't actually hear/understand the words you said" rather than "I don't get the concept." Put your hand to your ear and lean towards them a bit when you're asking for the repeat; it'll help cue them to interpret it that way.
posted by aka burlap at 7:14 PM on June 1, 2015

In the moment, perhaps, sincerely: "-- did you say CONTENT? I'm sorry, I have trouble hearing / understanding sometimes." (Yes/No, repeat.) Like, explaining the problem and owning it and requesting clarification, with a short apology.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:04 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have occasionally requested that a person repeat [or even write down] what they said, by stating that I sometimes don't hear well.
posted by calgirl at 9:05 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

A relative has a really charming way of diffusing this situation. She smiles apologetically, and says, "I'm terribly sorry, but I'm just not very good at hearing different accents! I wonder if you could do me the huge favour of speaking extra slow, so my silly ears can keep up?"

She is a very charming woman, so this statement works for her - maybe you need to find some phrasing like that which would suit your personality and demeanour. Either way, take the blame, and let them know that it's your issue.
posted by shazzam! at 9:59 PM on June 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't bring up their accent at all, as it isn't really relevant and nothing helpful can come out of it (they won't change their accent mid-interview to accommodate you). Just "I'm sorry, could you repeat what you said after 'blah blah bah'" should be enough, maybe leaning forward slightly and turning your head to suggest that the problem is with your ears, not with their way of speaking.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:53 AM on June 2, 2015

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