Foreigner wonders what others think of him
July 9, 2008 8:21 PM   Subscribe

What do you think of a person when you find out that they are foreigners. I'm specifically asking if you have noticed yourself acting differently to a person with an accent. Lengthy description follows.

So here is the deal

I have spent a few years in the States now but it's all been in an academic setting. And by academic setting, I mean a technical school where it feels like there are more international students than American ones.

I have an accent, specifically a Turkish one. Not a very strong one and I have little to no trouble communicating but it is there and noticeable. I'd say my English is pretty good so that's not the point. I also have a strong grasp on American culture.

What I am wondering is how people think of when they meet someone foreigner. Suppose you approach a person in a bar and then you find out that they are not from there, do you put those people in a special place in your mind -not necessarily for the worse or the better-? Do you think they'd not get your jokes? Do you start, without even thinking, talking differently?

I'm giving the bar example because it's a place where a lot social interaction occurs but it really applies to anywhere. Meeting someone at work, do you think a person with an accent, someone who clearly isn't local or native, is a bit more clueless?

To be brutally honest, I'm asking because I do not know how I'd react to such a person myself.

I guess it's different in America but I have a feeling no matter how liberal, open-minded and tolerant you are, inherently people can't think of people who can't speak their language as well the same way they think of others. Not that that makes anyone racist or xenophobic -it's what you do matters in the end- but I'm just curious.

This is not to spark up a heated debate or blaming people implicitly of racism. I just want to hear up other people's comments as people I know tend to give me "hey it's fine" attitude all the time. Where I currently live, as said before, it's a bit hard to gauge that effect since it's *extremely* common for even an American looking person to turn out not from the states so people are either more used to it than normal or just being nice.
posted by the_dude to Human Relations (41 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I identify with what you're saying. I certainly don't think that people for whom english is a second language are clueless - quite the contrary, since I've only lived in one country and can only speak one language. I have noticed, though, that sometimes when hanging out with someone from a non-english speaking country that references have to be explained. It's not like I usually speak in an endless stream of Simpsons quotes, but I start sort of screening what I'm about to say to make sure that it's clear. (I also - more particularly when I'm in a bar - have a wicked Boston accent, and that makes me worry about how clear I am as well). Basically, I'm guilty of the behavior you're talking about, but it's not that I would judge you for your ability to communicate, it's that I would be very self-conscious about my own.
posted by moxiedoll at 8:37 PM on July 9, 2008

I think it's impossible not to put someone different from yourself into some sort of "special place in your mind" simply as a matter of interacting with them.

It doesn't specifically have to be someone of a different race or nationality, age is another example that comes to mind. We treat the aged or the very young different from ourselves, we are conscious that they may not "get" our cultural identifiers.

Generally I try to access someone's level of comfort with English and then with cultural references. That means that initially I'm on guard until I know the person better.

I think the alternative would be to assume that everyone is on the same page as yourself and that this would inevitably lead to misunderstandings, miscommunication, and possibly offense.
posted by wfrgms at 8:37 PM on July 9, 2008

Yes, I'll assume that the person is a bit more clueless. But I'll do that if they're from a relatively far away state too.

I try to be more patient with people who aren't from around where I am.
posted by theichibun at 8:39 PM on July 9, 2008

As a Turk, you get to write your own ticket. Most Americans have never met a Turk and do not hold a strong opinion about Turkey or its people, so you won't have the same kind of bias help up to you as someone from Mexico or China or France would have.

Lots of Americans - particularly those who are more liberal/educated - are fascinated by foreigners, so I would think this could work to your advantage.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:43 PM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

held up to you
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:43 PM on July 9, 2008

Sometimes I worry that I'm going to seem like an ignorant American, since my grasp of history and geography (even within the US) is weak. If someone has serious difficulty with English, I tend to speak more slowly and clearly and to ask more questions (and of a more banal nature) than usual. But once we get to the point where we can laugh at a misunderstanding and feel comfortable asking about cultural differences, it's nice.
posted by ecsh at 8:51 PM on July 9, 2008

I'm perhaps an extreme example: I have a tendency to follow the speech patterns of anyone with an accent I can place. Not ridiculously aping their accent, but changing my sentence structure and intonation in slight but noticeable ways. I find it's easier to connect with people that way...I learned the behavior when I was very young, speaking to my father's family, all first generation immigrants with accents. I think it's basically people just trying to connect on a personal level...I've never had anyone take it as an insult. I'd think it's more a human trait than an American one.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 8:52 PM on July 9, 2008

I am an immigrant, so my view is obviously biased, though my accent is barely detectable. I genuinely believe that North America is accepting as you can get of foreign cultures. I'd like to think that I react no differently to the people I meet based on race, but that really isn't true. Similarity makes people feel at ease, and it's an easy conversation opener. I gravitate towards Chinese people, which I am ware of and try to consciously correct.

But I don't think the "different" treatment is necessarily bad. If I meet someone with a noticeable accent, who is visibly non-native, or anything along those lines, I have a tendency to be more wary until I know how much they define themselves by their differences. Some people adapt and assimilate, and they're fine being part of a crowd and being quietly proud of their heritage. Others make it a major portion of their identity, to the point where everything you say to them has to be adjusted for cultural sensitivity. I have Chinese friends who would be "white" but for the colour of their skin, and Chinese friends who vigorously follow National Congress and refuse to hear a word about Mao, and all of them first generation immigrants.

I guess the point I'm trying to make, in a roundabout sort of way, is that your reaction to "foreigners" might be less based on pure race than you think. Everyone is different, and it seems disingenuous to claim that you treat everyone you meet exactly the same. You adjust your behaviour according to their identity, and how they themselves perceive their own race (IMHO) affects your treatment of them far more than the actual race itself would.

So relax. Be natural. Don't overcompensate. You talk and meet with the people you enjoy talking and meeting with.Your friends give you the "hey it's fine" attitude probably because.. well, it really is fine. You're not going to be tarred and feathered for having friends of a different culture, OR of having friends who share your heritage. Even if people are just being nice, what's wrong with that?
posted by Phire at 8:55 PM on July 9, 2008

In a personal setting, I could care less -- I've had friends and colleagues of many nationalities and I have relationships with them that are as good as my relationships with my fellow Americans. I will admit, though, that when I encounter someone with an accent in a professional setting -- especially when they are a medical practitioner -- I worry that I am not being fully understood, and that I am not fully understanding them. Not because I think they are stupid (far from it, in fact, I have tons of respect for people who learn English as a second language), but as a student of language I know how difficult it can be to truly understand someone who is speaking a language you are not fluent in. Let me add that I am certain that there are many people with foreign accents who speak much better English than I do, but emotionally, the worry remains, so I tend to prefer doctors, dentists, pharmacists, mechanics, bankers, etc. that speak without an accent.

I'm not exactly proud of this, but you asked for brutal honesty, so there it is.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:55 PM on July 9, 2008

If I am assigned to work with someone who has a very thick accent, I worry that there may be communication problems where we'll talk past each other, and that maybe I totally won't get their sense of humor. Definitely I have had both of those problems with multiple past coworkers, including some who told jokes I definitely found really offensive. I kind of worry that I give these people a pass to tell jokes I wouldn't let other people get away with just because I don't know how to react in a way that would make it clear that it's not just me that finds them unfunny, but that what they're saying is really unacceptable in Northern CA.

Like StrikeTheViol, I tend to imitate accents. My mom does it to an absurd extent...I like to think I'm a bit more subtle.

Oh, and in my brief stint in tech support I dreaded getting a call from people with thick accents. I depend heavily on lipreading in conversation, particularly with accented people, so I knew I wasn't catching everything they were saying - and they could tell, and got frustrated faster with me. Also, most of the calls I took were from white collar professionals and it was clear these people were treated like they were stupid a lot of the time, and I didn't really have a way to say, "No, I don't think you're stupid - I know I'm the one screwing up here, it's not your accent" tactfully and professionally. It was hard. It's funny, because I know people dread calling tech support and hearing a foreign voice...well, it's mutual.
posted by crinklebat at 9:05 PM on July 9, 2008

I find an accent charming, my issue is how to ask where the person is from without coming off as caring for the wrong reasons! It's one of my favorite things to find out where a new aquaintance is from and their story, and I always hesitate because, well, heck, I'm southern and my mother told me never ask a question that could inadvertantly make someone feel uncomfortable or bad about themselves. But I still do it, and usually make friends in the process.

So I hope that the people you meet will feel the same way and will be fascinated by your accent and that it is a gateway for them to learn more about you and who you are.
posted by lucydriving at 9:06 PM on July 9, 2008

As others have said, I too tend to vary my speech depending on my perception of the other person's control of English. (This is in a setting of being an employee helping a customer. If it's a social setting, I might do this too, but to a lesser extent.) When a person has a stronger accent and more limited grammar/vocab, I tend to speak a bit more slowly and pay more attention to how I'm enunciating.

I do this because, in my own efforts to learn other languages, I find that I can often understand what the (native-speaker) instructor says in class -- because he is speaking slowly and extra clearly -- but when I'm around folks speaking the language fluently, I am at a TOTAL loss because I can't tell where one word ends and another begins. Cuz the fact is, fluent speech is really lazy. I remember hearing, in a college class on language, audio clips in which individual words spoken by native English speakers during fluent speech were parsed out and isolated, and just about all of them were completely unrecognizable outside of the context of the sentence in which they were spoken. The human brain's language processing centers are truly amazing.
posted by tentacle at 9:08 PM on July 9, 2008

I'm an American and I agree with the poster above who says you have an advantage as a Turk. I know next to nothing about Turkey so I'm not even sure what I'd ask you if we met in a bar. I've been to France so I'd have a starting point for conversation with a French person. I wouldn't assume you were clueless; in fact the foreigners I've met were MORE knowledgeable about the world and sometimes even my own country. I do have a hearing impairment that makes conversations with accented people (even British and Australians) very difficult. I would speak more slowly and deliberately not because I don't think you speak English, but because I'd like you to do the same so that we understand each other. I'd also avoid slang or regional terms until I developed a sense of how acclimated you were.
posted by desjardins at 9:08 PM on July 9, 2008

I remember an early experience with a German friend who was an exchange student in my highschool - we were talking and I mentioned "mosquitoes." She asked what they were and I sort of froze and instinctively said, "nevermind." I felt awkward and wasn't sure about her comfort level with the situation. Someone else just told her that they're small insects that drink you blood, which cleared everything up perfectly. I don't know why that surprised me so much, but it was before I started learning foreign languages myself and had a better grasp of what that involved.

Soo. Clearly, as you said, your English isn't a problem, but new acquaintances might take a little while to assess that, and on the same level not feel comfortable right away with cultural/popculture references, especially since (just having met you) they won't know if you're a recent immigrant or have lived here since you were 5.

The only large "awkwardness" hurdle to overcome is whether or not they can speak English well enough to communicate and hang out. Otherwise, I put foreigners in a different category in the same way I have categories for "likes to talk about politics" or "enjoys watching indie movies" or "is from Boston and loves the 'sox." They're included in "has lived/gone abroad" or maybe the "knows cool stuff about x culture" category.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:09 PM on July 9, 2008

inherently people can't think of people who can't speak their language as well the same way they think of others. Not that that makes anyone racist or xenophobic -it's what you do matters in the end- but I'm just curious

I tend to hold them in higher regard. I tend to romanticize foreigners and foreign countries. I think a lot of people do ( I'm not that educated or liberal).

One of my very closest friends had very broken English when she moved to the US ten years ago. I never held anything back. I never treated her differently than an American friend. We communicated just fine. I don't remember slowing down for her.

I am a pro when listening and understanding thick accents. I have never had a problem with understanding heavily accented English. I don't know if this makes a difference on how I interact and perceive speakers who use English as a second (or third) language. Probably not.
posted by LoriFLA at 9:10 PM on July 9, 2008

When someone appears to be from an area you're familiar with, and you currently adopt the customs and such of that region, you're going to be able to speak and listen and act with less thought about those customs and such. When someone appears to be from an area you're not familiar with (the next town, the next state, the next income tax bracket, the next age group, it doesn't have to be a big change and it doesn't have to be geographical) you're going to have to think before you speak and act, and listen more closely and thoughtfully, because there are elements of your communication and behavior that you can no longer take for granted as being accurate/appropriate.

The difficulty (racism et al) comes in not because the area difference is noted and acted upon, but when you are predisposed to believe something about that person's culture and such that isn't true, and you behave accordingly (and usually badly.) That is, you think people from the southern United States are stupid? Well, you're probably going to speak, listen and act as if they are, and either offend them or come off looking like an ass. The prejudice is in the assumptions and the resulting behavior, not in the fact of noticing they are from a different cultural area.

Of course, sometimes it's a good assumption or at least does no harm; for instance, there are jokes I'll tell around my American coworkers that I will not tell around those from other countries, because there is an aspect of the joke that assumes certain pop culture knowledge and such, but that doesn't do any harm (and arguably is a good thing, because my jokes are bad) and I have to apply the same filter when I consider pop culture references for coworkers significantly younger than myself.
posted by davejay at 9:15 PM on July 9, 2008

my dad had a lot of international grad students, and i noticed that whenever he would speak to someone who had a foreign accent, he would slow down and enunciate everything very carefully.

he didn't even notice he did this, and would do it even with people who despite their accent had no problems understanding the twangy local yokels, much less a clear-speaking university professor. it did always strike me as a little bit condescending, even though it was clearly a well-intentioned manifestation of a desire to make communication easier.

i'm not sure if this little anecdote answers your question, but anyway, there it is. (:
posted by sergeant sandwich at 9:16 PM on July 9, 2008

Also, when an American asks "Where are you from?" they are almost certainly asking your ethnic background, not where you live now, so IMO it's polite to say "I was born and raised in Turkey, but my permanent home is in Chicago." It's awkward when an accented person says "I'm from Chicago" when they were almost certainly not born there. Maybe the constant curiosity of Americans is annoying, but it's generally well-intended and not racist. If the person was racist they wouldn't even bother asking because they've already written you off as "one of those people."
posted by desjardins at 9:16 PM on July 9, 2008

What do you think of a person when you find out that they are foreigners.

My feeling is always: "Cool, I want to talk to this person more about their home country and culture". If they speak broken English, I enunciate more to lessen my own Southern accent, but not in a condescending way. English is a kooky and inconsistent language and I definitely can't judge anyone for not mastering it.

Also where I come from (Southeast US), being hospitable is part of the culture. Every exchange student or visiting foreigner I've met has been socially treated quite well. People want others to be comfortable, share a joke, and trade stories. If some people aren't well-traveled, they might pre-judge a foreigner, but by and large, if you just relax, do your best and show your good nature, I wouldn't worry about people judging you too harshly.
posted by deern the headlice at 9:29 PM on July 9, 2008

I love speaking with people from different backgrounds than myself. I guess I'm probably friendlier than when speaking to a native because I want you to feel comfortable and know that I appreciate our differences. Is that reverse racism? I don't know.

And I try to change my language based on how well I perceive your command of the language. I try not to use colloquialisms and such if I feel it may confuse our discussion.
posted by verevi at 9:32 PM on July 9, 2008

I don't even think of them as a foreigner. They could be a longtime resident of Canada or even a citizen. I appreciate if someone can communicate in English. We all have blind spots and references we miss, though. As far as a Turkish person, I would have a positive feeling because I had a quite a few Turkish students when I was an ESL teacher and I quite liked them overall, whereas there were other countries that I tended to find their citizens and their culture more difficult for me. Then again, they were city people, and I imagine the country folk are different. There are a lot of different sorts of people around here and "foreigner" isn't really a meaningful category, though it might be elsewhere. You're from abroad. If people don't think that's okay or even neat, it's really their problem and not something to worry about.
posted by Listener at 9:50 PM on July 9, 2008

I (a main-line Caucasian) live in a city that is a hearty stew of foreigners (San Francisco) and I base my opinions (prejudices) almost exclusively on speech, not on looks. Ethnicity here means very little to many people who have been here for more generations than my ancestors.

Here's my "I don't know you" barometer:

- Accent that can't be detected immediately, grammar as good as any native speaker: I think You're American.

- Accent, but have fluency, know how to use colloquialisms, never have to ask for anything to be explained or repeated: I think you're a long time resident who had worked hard to participate in the English speaking community. Lots of positive thoughts.

- Heavy accent, difficulty with the language, etc: Depends. If you're a tourist, thank you for trying to speak English, enjoy San Francisco. If you're a new immigrant, good for you, keep trying! If I find out you've been in the country more than a couple years then I start thinking bad things. It depends on your original language, but I'll start to feel either you're slow (not smart enough to learn English) isolated (often meaning illegal immigrant) or lazy (not worth learning the local language). No it's not fair, but it's honest.

I've lived in a non English speaking country and struggled with the language, so I try to give most people the benefit of the doubt. But even living in Japan I had a definite dislike of English speakers who made no effort to learn the language. (They never had as much fun anyway.)

Do I speak differently to foreigners? Usually. I'll adapt my language to the listener's ability (less complex sentences) but I'll have the same conversations. My words and phrases might be simpler, but the thoughts expressed are just as complex. I'll usually try to limit my colloquialisms and cultural references, though sometimes I'll use them intentionally to start a cross-cultural discussion of a colloquialism or cultural reference.

I greatly apologize for the gratuitous use of parenthesis. It seems that anytime white guy gets near the subject of race there is always the desire to go on the defensive.
posted by Ookseer at 9:53 PM on July 9, 2008

Mostly I wonder how the person got to this country and I often ask about that. It's nearly always an interesting story that reveals a lot about the person.

If the person seems to be struggling with English, I usually try to stay clear of colloquialisms and obscure vocabulary. Also, I might take longer pauses to allow the person time to process or to ask clarifying questions. I do the same thing with native English speakers if the topic requires a little extra thinking time. Other than that, it's no biggie.
posted by 26.2 at 10:11 PM on July 9, 2008

I find people from other cultures -- and if you have an accent, you're probably from another culture -- wonderful to talk to. I love learning about new places, cultures, people. And if you're new in town, you probably have fewer preconceptions (except maybe broad ones about Americans). I find it tremendously freeing and enjoyable.

Much of what others have mentioned above is true for me: unconsciously changing my syntax to match, trying to speak clearly, worrying that I won't be understood, etc.

The only thing I have to add is this: I know that many cultures, especially non-European ones, have more rigidly defined roles for males vs. females. With someone from those cultures, I tend to worry that I'm not being taken seriously, or am being subconsciously treated as some "American Girl" stereotype.

I didn't start out thinking that way; I started worrying about it a little after dating a guy from Persia in college. He was cool, just pitched a huge fit when I tried to pay for my own movie ticket. This was completely alien to me (and I know that many American boys would have had a problem with it, too, but probably wouldn't have fought me so hard on it). My whole world view is not formed by that one incident, but it got me to thinking that I take a lot of things -- like the right to vote, etc. -- for granted, and I've also learned a little about the stereotype of Americans as "loose", or annoying, or what have you.

I know Turkey isn't as old-fashioned a place as a lot of other countries; please forgive me if I seem to lump you in with other cultures. You asked about "foreigners" in general, and this is my worry about _some_ foreigners, not necessarily you.

If you're trying to strike up conversations with educated American women who are not 100% up on which cultures go with which countries, this might be something they wonder about, too, perhaps subconsciously. You might have to make clear your personal views on women's roles - and not just by what you say, but by your actions. It's too easy to say "I believe women are equal to men" but then be surprised when your date doesn't act the way you just expect (without even knowing, consciously, that you expect certain behaviours).
posted by amtho at 10:17 PM on July 9, 2008

I tend to assume they're bold adventurous people seeking to learn more about the world, a global citizen if you will. I tell them useful Aussie slang and customs (bringing a plate to an event means bring food, not an empty plate, for example). I usually admire them for their bilinguality. Yeah, all good, really.
posted by b33j at 12:14 AM on July 10, 2008

i'm a native-born american. i lived in new york city for 6 years, where 40% of the population is foreign-born, so i've had a lot of experience with this. for me, when i find out someone is from another country, i mostly get curious about what their life was like at home and what they liked and didn't like about it. (i also like to travel, so i always see it as an opportunity to do some travel research!) i wonder how they learned english (and might even ask) and i wonder about their native language (because i'm a language nerd).

i suppose this is all to say that a foreigner gets a bit more attention from me, at least at first, so i understand where they're coming from politically and socially, how good their english is (so i can choose my words better), and how culturally in-tune they are with the u.s. (so if i talk about a tv show or whatever, i remember to ask if they are familiar with it).

one thing you might be noticing, if you are not in an especially cosmopolitan area, is that people are surprised that you came all the way from turkey to live in boring old omaha, or wherever you are.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:41 AM on July 10, 2008

I grew up around internationals (went to an international school in a different country) so no, I don't immediately treat people any differently if I hear an accent. I'm actually dating a Turkish guy, and I speak to him exactly as I speak to everyone else.

The most I do depends on the person's ability to speak and understand english. I will speak to them normally and then adjust as necessary (better enunciation, slow down a tiny bit) until they seem to understand me well enough. There's a way to speak so that people can understand you without making them feel like an idiot.

I'm a first generation American, and spent nine years living in the country my parents are from. Although English is the official language, many people there don't speak it that well and more importantly, have trouble understanding the American sort of accent. So I speak english differently there and I adjust the way I pronounce things so that they understand me.

I know that when I'm being spoken to in a language I'm not fluent in, I definitely appreciate slower speech, so long as the tone still feels normal and friendly.
posted by quirks at 5:40 AM on July 10, 2008

My reaction is dependent on the situation. For example, I regularly speak with a Japanese man who is working in the US temporarily (our conversations are generally a strange melange of English and Japanese). I definitely change the cadence of my English some for him, and I wouldn't be surprised if he speaks Japanese to me in a slightly different-than-normal way for him. He also is knowingly unaware of some US cultural things, so I'll clarify things for him (Christmas and New Year's custom differences are amusing to discuss with a person who grew up in Japan).

I also regularly interact with (at bridge games) someone who I just recently (after at least 5 years of knowing him) discovered was from Turkey originally. I recognized that he had a slight accent (he's been in the US for probably around 30 years), but I never thought much about it past that, and just finally asked about it when I was at a dinner with him and had a chance to hear about it more than in passing. I don't believe I ever treated him any differently than I did the other bridge players, although he is one of the ones I feel more comfortable talking with.

I guess it depends on how long they have been here and how long they plan to be here for. Someone I deem as a 'visitor' will likely get different treatment than a permanent person.
posted by that girl at 6:07 AM on July 10, 2008

Turkey? Oy! I tell ya, my old tobaconist (an Iranian), in Germany, explained them to me! "Give 'em a break, they're just farmers, in the city." (yes, he said that). This was after the Turks had won some soccer game, and were being obnoxious with the car horns. Mostly I am being funny, but I will admit, my expectations of Turks isn't high. But I'm open to surprises. (prior to my German experiences, I generally had good expectations of foreign folks in the States...excepting doctors. Too many foreign doctors in the VA giving shody treatment. Although these days, I understand it was the VA, not the origins of the doctors).

English as a second language? Oy! I tell ya, you got to watch out for those kind! I know, I'm married to one! :-) Seriously, I might slow down a bit. I will certainly elevate the quality of my English, and steer clear of Midwesternisms. And I will likely check to see if your on the same page if I use some idiom. And I LOVE to learn if you share the same idiom, or what idioms your culture has that express the same notion. Those are tons of fun. (conversely, it is amazing to me to hear myself when I get to talk to a fellow Midwesterner. My speech goes all native).

But I'm not remotely typical. I left the States 10 years ago, haven't been back since. I'm a foreigner myself! And a stupid one, at that. My German is terrible. At least now, I have the comfort that most of the locals have terrible German, too (Swiss German is quite different from Hoch Deutsch). A German shop keeper here joked with me once, when I asked if he spoke English, by saying "Yes, and I can speak German, too!".

In all honesty, and joking aside, in general I tend to think more highly of people who dare to go off and live someplace where they are the stranger. (With Americans, this may apply even if they moved to a new state). Language is such a little thing, really.
posted by Goofyy at 6:24 AM on July 10, 2008

Like verevi, I'm probably friendlier and more welcoming. And I probably think that your accent is sexy.
posted by desuetude at 6:27 AM on July 10, 2008

Depends what kind of accent you have. In all honesty, hearing people from Japan, India, Germany or Turkey etc speak English with an American accent makes me cringe sometimes.
posted by dydecker at 7:39 AM on July 10, 2008

(I'm in Europe)
posted by dydecker at 7:41 AM on July 10, 2008

I'm specifically asking if you have noticed yourself acting differently to a person with an accent.

I live in an area where many people from the US have accents. If you look at all like you might have Hispanic, Spanish, Italian, or Native American ancestry I might not be aware that you are from another country. If you have a barley noticeable accent I will have an easier time understanding you that some people who speak English as their native language with a heavy accent I´m not used to (some British, New Zealand, and particularly heavy jersey, boston, or southern accents). I have spent some time at a school with a number of international students, and while I meet fewer people from other countries than I used to, it doesn´t seem odd to me.

In a dating situation, I´m more likely to attribute behaviors and attitudes towards women as being a cultural difference (instead of just writing them off as a jerk), whether the person is from another country or is from a culture in the US that I´m not familiar with. For someone from outside of the US, I´d wonder if there was an ulterior motive as far as specifically wanting to date a US citizen -- so if you are a citizen, or have the appropriate paperwork for what you want to do in the US, you would want to make that clear (in dating situations that is, not in general).
posted by yohko at 7:54 AM on July 10, 2008

My two sisters-in-law are both foreign-born from different Asian countries, and have accents. They both have good English skills, and one actually has a part time job as a translator. However, I find that my interaction with each is different because of their style of communication. It's not just an language-skill issue, but also a cultural and personality issue.

One speaks loudly and emphatically and is very outgoing and outspoken; she also comes from a culture that values this in both women and men. The other is very quiet and shy, and I have to strain to listen to her and understand her, even though her language skills are fine. Her native culture emphasizes quietness and social conformity and, in some ways, a less active role for women. Thus, my approach to each of my sisters-in-law has to be tailored to who they are. This is pretty much the same "tailoring" as I would do with anyone, whether they came from the US or anywhere else. I want to try to meet them halfway, where they are comfortable.

BTW, the shy one is the translator
posted by Robert Angelo at 8:02 AM on July 10, 2008

As an American, I can assure you that in many cases--no matter what other country you are from--people will still think of you better than they will of someone from, say, Ohio.* We're big on our domestic inter-regional rivalries here, and people from non-English-speaking origins will get a pass on that account.

Yes, there is also a streak of nativism here, but it's overblown by the media. Most people find foreign accents charming.

In all honesty, hearing people from Japan, India, Germany or Turkey etc speak English with an American accent makes me cringe sometimes. [...] (I'm in Europe)

Right back atcha, ponce.

*This is pursuant to a heated discussion at a bar last night, wherein an Ohioan insisted that my West-Coast accent (in which we don't differentiate how we say "ferry" and "fairy") was incredibly bizarre. I said he sounded like he had a speech impediment. Good times were had by all.
posted by kittyprecious at 8:12 AM on July 10, 2008

kittyprecious, I have no idea why you are calling me names.

I have met many people who have never even been near the United States, but somehow think it is marvellous that they have a phony American accent. While I have no problem with non-Americans having an American accent because they actually studied in America - such as the poster - the poster asked about impressions, and sadly, my first reaction to a non-American with an American accent is caution. A little bell goes off saying "this person is trying to behave like people they see on TV". It's as if suddenly I'm expecting a loud voice, or them to dominate the conversation inappropriately, or talk about themselves too much. Because of the flaky people I've met who have that accent, it doesn't sound honest to me anymore.
posted by dydecker at 11:14 AM on July 10, 2008

When it's clear to me that English is not someone's first language, I try to be more aware of the colloquial aspects of my speech. I don't edit them out entirely, but I try to be less casual and more intentional with expressions and intonations native to my particular geographical area. That way, I feel like I can help my dialect become more intelligible.

I know when I'm speaking a foreign language, I really like it when people make an effort to help me understand the more obscure aspects of their particular dialect through intentional usage rather than just leaving out colloquialisms and adhering to a more standard version of their mother tongue.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 11:32 AM on July 10, 2008

If you say an American-style accent makes you cringe, you're not exactly promoting diplomacy.

My point (though poorly made) was that a generalized British/European accent can come off sounding poncey or affected to American ears, especially when used by someone from outside the region. (I had a Polish classmate in grad school whom others ridiculed behind her back for her mysteriously posh-English accent.) We're in agreement about some accents "not sounding honest."
posted by kittyprecious at 12:57 PM on July 10, 2008

1) I have a slight hearing problem, so I depend a lot on expectations of sentence structure and interpreting half-heard words. Listening to people with accents makes this very difficult, even if their English is text-book perfect. I think this is more true of people in general than most people realize. Conclusion: don't be offended when people say "WHAT?" a lot.

1)a) I usually feel uncomfortable speaking to someone with an accent the first few times, for the above reasons. Mileage may vary, but I think it's also somewhat common. Rest assured that it is a function of lack of self-confidence that we will understand, not a comment on you.

2) As others have mentioned, I also pick up accents/cadences very quickly. Supposedly this is more noticeable to the people without an accent than to the person whose accent I have copied. Anyway, if you do notice others doing this, please don't take offense.
posted by sarahkeebs at 1:10 PM on July 10, 2008

kittyprecious, for sure we agree. I guess I am being a bit harsh, and the same applies to any accent: inevitably at some stage of learning a language you're going to come across as "trying too hard", which can be a bit offputting. I think this stage passes though as you get more used to speaking and find your own identity as part of the new culture.

This I think relates to the original poster's question. Part of learning a language is getting comfortable with how another culture percieves you/where you fit in. To feel comfortable in your new skin. For myself, having lived in many places now I am used to talking to non-native speakers so I kind of take it for granted (I would think nothing more than "Oh, he's from Turkey), but I do remember being quite weirded out at talking to a French person, a Japanese etc when I was a kid. Because it was a novel experience and lots of the cultural accent markers we use to judge people weren't there.

So the answer to the OP will always be "it depends on the person".

I guess learning a language is also learning a culture. I think a lot of people start out thinking "I wonder what they think of my accent" and then after a few years start thinking "I couldn't care less what they think of my accent!" When you hit that stage, you're comfortable in your own skin.
posted by dydecker at 1:45 PM on July 10, 2008

dydecker and kittyprecious: in my experience, ESL students tend to have the same accent as the english teacher they learned from. This is frequently American: lots of the Asian students I know have learned English from American teachers in their home country, and then come to Australia with a noticeable American sound. And that Polish girl might have had an English teacher from England. (Of course, tv and movies are also relevant, but not so much because of conscious imitation as exposure).
posted by jacalata at 7:37 PM on July 15, 2008

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