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Recently I attended a phone interview. The interviewer had a very thick (Asian) accent and I could barely understand the questions he was asking.

It was a technical round and trying to go by my ear, the approach I took was 'There seems to be static on the phone and I will rephrase your question before answering it; is that ok?' and we went ahead with it. But all my paraphrasing was wrong as I genuinely did not understand what the interviewer was asking (giving use case scenarios). It ended up being a great opportunity loss for me.

Would I have been better off saying I couldn't understand and asking for another interviewer? How could I go about handling such situations (in future) without sounding rude?

  • Did you literally never get to the point where the interviewer said "yes, that's what I meant?" – DJClayworth Sep 12 '13 at 16:57
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    @DJClayworth I did. For extremely basic questions. – happybuddha Sep 12 '13 at 17:01
  • In the past when I had trouble understanding the interviewer during a phone interview (no accent issue though, static on the phone), I simply kept pinging him the main points of the question as I understood it. That way I was sure I was on the right track. Of course, both of you need to be online for this but I think that is generally the case. – sunny Sep 12 '13 at 18:24
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    Perform to the best of your ability and then forget about it. – emory Sep 12 '13 at 19:10
  • At a large enough company, you might be able to get HR to give you another interview, who will never even know about the first. That worked for me, though I had a friend who worked for the company and talked to HR on my behalf. – stannius Sep 22 '15 at 23:49
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I think this has a lot to do with whether you or your interviewer is from the dominant culture.

For example, in the US, there's a general expectation that you be able to understand most American accents if you work in a typical corporate environment. Seriously strong Asian accents and some others are often considered difficult to understand, and it's generally seen as OK to have to ask for clarification, and even to say "I'm having trouble understanding your accent, can you slow down and pause between words?"

But... if you are interviewing for a job in Bangalore, India, you can assume that they expect you to understand even a very thick Southern Indian accent, and probably most Northern Indian accents.

In any case - if the speaker has an accent that's very common in the industry, and/or from the place where the office or corporate headquarters are located, you can expect that the hiring criteria may include a tacit expectation that the candidate is able to communicate with these types of accents.

If the speaker is from a foreign culture, I think it's OK to say - "I don't understand you". It's better than blaming it on a white lie (like static on the phone) but be ready to have at least a few alternatives for how you two can communicate. After all, if this person is your potential manager or fellow team member, it's important that you be able to communicate, regardless of accent.

If you think something important got garbled in the interview, follow up with HR and say that you had trouble understanding the other party. Better to admit that there may have been a mistake due to the language barrier than that they think you were incompetent or rude. I'd say asking for a different interviewer may be going too far - let the company decide whether it's worth the extra time to do that. It's possible that they have already made a decision and an additional interview would be useless.

  • It doesn't have to be a lie. I had plenty of experience with not understanding foreign people on phone, but having no trouble understanding them face to face. A solution might be to offer some higher quality communications - for example voice call over the internet has usually higher quality. – Zikato Sep 23 '15 at 7:12
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Not sure it would help to handle it any differently. I'd like to think your interviewer picked up on the problems the two of you were having with this conversation and may take that into consideration in his evaluation. Maybe they should consider sending questions to you in writing? That would have helped. This stage of the interview could be a formality.

As a former special education teacher, I was exposed to several childern with speech difficulties. Over time, I was able to understand them pretty clearly. I wouldn't be too concerned working for a company with team members who may not be fluent in my language. Unfortunately, as a job candidate you don't get to spend as much time with this person as his/her coworkers, so they may not be aware of the problem.

Whether you get an offer or not, I would make the company aware of the situation. This does limit their pool of potential candidates, but they may not care.

  • 2
    I can attest to this. Over time, you do learn to pick up on the accents. Human brains are pretty adaptable. – jmort253 Sep 12 '13 at 23:19
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Executive Summary

If you work overseas or in international business, you will come across a large amount of non-native English speakers. Ideally you will be able to understand them all, but if not, you need to overcome the accent and find a way to communicate effectively.

Non-Native English

There are upwards of 400 million Native English speakers in the world. By some estimates, there are upwards of 1.5 billion English speakers. Even with native speakers, I have met many Americans who have issues understanding Australians, or the Scottish, or Welsh (even when they are speaking English). The point is that it's a world full of varieties of English, and you're going to have to get used to them.

Understanding Better Through Context

Understanding is not 100% about accent. There are native English speakers who couldn't string a sentence together to save their lives. Context is also important -- even the heaviest of Indian accents is a lot easier if you're discussing cricket than if they are explaining the content of a random newspaper article you haven't read and don't know the subject of.

I find it incredibly useful when dealing with non-native speakers to set the context myself, or if they are leading to confirm the assumed context beforehand. For instance:

Sorry, I didn't fully understand your question. We were discussing topic, right? Would you mind repeating the question a bit more slowly for me?

The two bolded words are leading questions allowing me to confirm the context. If it was not a question, then they will correct it (and you will know you don't need to respond). And you are confirming the topic, which will allow you to focus your brain on the important portions related to that topic.

Coping with Language Barriers

Sometimes you just can't understand the other person. I cannot understand Welsh English, and they are (allegedly) native English speakers. Repeat as they may, it just isn't working, and there is no communication going on. When you are negotiating a business deal (or having an interview), you cannot just change the person you are speaking to without saying, "Sorry, having the appropriate person do this is less important than me understanding easily." You are putting your comfort above the other side's needs which is definitely not a great sign.

The secret to dealing with language barriers is to be honest. There is very little rude with a non-accusatory, "Sorry, I am having some trouble understanding your accent, is there any chance you could slow down a bit?" If the conversation is important, then they have an incentive to slow down. And chances are if their accent is that thick, they have come across this issue before. If that still doesn't work, fumbling along and blaming static is not an effective tactic, because when you're face to face, you will lose your excuse, and haven't shown you can overcome a language barrier.

I have been in meetings where there was a translator (just in case), or where documents were sent out ahead of time in English so that even if someone missed something, they would have better context written down to refer to. I have seen telephone conversations shifted to a videoconference so you can see the movement of lips and body language to get added cues to assist communication. And I have even seen voice done with an open chat session so that things can be typed if there is confusion.

Suggesting any one of these (though in the case of an interview, asking for a translator probably isn't ideal) should be seen as practical problem solving, not rude.

8

If you expect to work with overseas people as part of your career, or intend to pursue jobs where this is likely, you need to upgrade your language skills. Understanding those who speak English as a second or later language is a skill that can be practiced and improved. By doing so you will make yourself more valuable in the market.

That being said, in this situation you should have been clear and truthful with your interviewer. "I'm sorry, I'm having a hard time understanding you." Then ask if they can speak more slowly, or enunciate, or add more space between each word. Giving them incorrect information is worse than not telling them there's a problem at all. Quite frankly if I felt a potential candidate was lying in order to spare my feelings I'd reject them if I didn't feel it was something that could be corrected. I expect people to act professionally: speak up, be open and up-front with things.

Repeating the question back is a good tactic, but try to rephrase the question as you understand it rather than simply repeating it verbatim.

There are a number of language learning websites that connect you to new speakers of English in order to improve their English speaking skills. By volunteering to help them practice English you will significantly improve your own skills at understanding poorly-spoken English.

If you plan to work, in English, with ESL speakers as part of your career you must consider this a skill you are responsible for, rather than a failing on their part.

Once you join a company you can't simply reject working with other employees because you have difficulty understanding them.

Lastly, if you really choose to interview for jobs where this is needed but don't wish to upgrade this skill, you can ask that interviews be conducted over email. My experience is that most have much better writing skills than speaking skills. If you believe you can do the job with little voice contact, mostly through email this might be a possible solution.

6

Chances are the company is aware that the person you interviewed with was difficult for many people to understand. The interview may have been a technical interview but I would suspect that the interview was more about seeing how you would handle the communication gap, if you could overcome or understand, and how you were able to communicate your answers.

When the team you will be working closely with people who are often difficult to understand it helps to see how you can handle the interaction. If you are going to fail in a short interview how are you going to be able to thrive in an environment where you are working with the people you can not communicate with?

For me, I prefer to address the issue head on. I will ask the interviewer to repeat words and have them spell them if they do not make sense for me. I will admit there are times where some more difficult concepts seem to take a while to get through but I find that if I do not get frustrated and keep trying as long as they are trying eventually we find a way to communicate.

5

I am not tone-deaf, I speak three languages fluently and other members of my family work as multilingual translators. I understand most British, Australian and several Indian accents.

When I am interviewing for a job in a teleconference and all the participants have accents so strong that I cannot understand them, that is simply a no-go. Accepting a job where the communication barriers are that great is asking for trouble. It is best to end the interview quickly and gracefully with something like, "I simply can't understand your accents and the frustration I would experience trying to communicate with you on the job is too great. I hope you find a candidate who can better understand you. Thank you for your time. Goodbye."

In my prior experience working in groups with a large percentage of poor American English speakers a lot of resentment builds when people are asked to repeat themselves again and again. Eventually this leads to an "us" vs "them" breakup of the team.

4

With most companies, while the actual interviews are conducted byn technical or management people, there is usually an HR professional who guides you through the process, sets up appointments etc. If you really think the communication problems stopped you from answering the question correctly, as opposed to just taking more time to understand the question, What I would do is immediately contact that person after the interview, and tell them you had real trouble understanding the interviewer, and it caused you problems in the interviewer. They might offer to do another interview. Or they might not. Or you might have passed anyway. Don't insist on a re-interview until you know the result, but don't wait until you know the result to say something. That makes it sound like you are making excuses.

  • Good point. How would you reckon I email without sounding offensive ? Just say I couldn't understand the interviewer and ask for another one ? – happybuddha Sep 12 '13 at 19:00
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    Don't ask for another right away. Just tell them about the difficulty. – DJClayworth Sep 12 '13 at 19:07

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