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I've reported to my boss for about 6 months. She is a good boss in that she really sticks up for the team and is very serious about trying to get us to grow as individuals.

The one problem I have is that I have a REALLY hard time understanding her accent. When we have 1-on-1 meetings, I'm constantly having to say "pardon me?", "what was that?", or "can you repeat that"? When she gets excited, she'll talk so fast that I can barely catch any of what she says.

As long as things are written down (like in emails), everything is fine. But communication is so difficult with verbal conversations. I'm a bit concerned that if I have a serious conversation with her explaining that I have trouble with her accent, she'll either get offended, or she'll consider moving me to a different team. (The other team in my department has a HORRIBLE boss, so I don't want to risk moving there).

Is it better to speak up and let her know this is a challenge for me? If so, what is the best way to do it?

Edit for clarification - We both speak English natively. I live in South Dakota. She is a North Dakota native and has a heavy northerner accent.

Also I should clarify, I usually don't have trouble with accents.

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    A bunch of related questions: what country are you in? What is your native language, what is your boss's native language, and what language are you conversing in? Sep 27 at 15:22
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    "(I don't believe I have an accent myself)." - everyone who speaks English has an accent.
    – Tiger Guy
    Sep 27 at 15:59
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    @Fattie and to others suggesting this is a wind-up: Worth noting that (a) strong rural North Dakota accents can be quite impenetrable for people not used to them, and (b) OP just says they live in SD, not that they’re originally from there. I’m a Brit who lived in Pittsburgh for five years, had no trouble understanding most people in the city, but still found some deep rural Pennsylvania accents quite difficult. OP could well be in such a situation.
    – PLL
    Sep 28 at 14:05
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    @PLL I am from deep rural Pennsylvania and that can't be right cuz we dun ha no axents heer. Sep 28 at 15:17
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    @Fattie Are you saying it's implausible that someone could grow up speaking English and Swahili, currently live in South Dakota, and have trouble understanding the native accent of someone from North Dakota? Sep 28 at 19:20
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Is it better to speak up and let her know this is a challenge for me? If so, what is the best way to do it?

That depends on your relationship with your boss.

You've been there for six months, so you must have some sense of how she would receive a request to talk more slowly during your one-on-one meetings so that you can understand her.

If she is likely to be amenable, talk about it. Make sure she understands that this is your problem, but that it would really help you if she spoke more slowly.

If she isn't likely to be amenable, just continue asking her to repeat herself when you can't understand what she is saying. And when you feel like you have missed something, follow up with an email asking for clarification.

Most of my bosses have been wonderful. I know asking them to slow down wouldn't be considered offensive. But I have had a few short-term bosses that weren't interested in clarifying things at all. With those few, I wouldn't have bothered asking for their help as I knew it wouldn't be forthcoming.

Your understanding is important. You may just have to work harder at it by using one of the two methods.

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    @JoeStrazzere - I'm a non-native speaker and I've read that as "my boss is terrible" and then had to go back when the rest of the passage didn't match that understanding.
    – Davor
    Sep 28 at 14:12
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    I have to agree with @Davor. I had to go back and re-read and try to understand what you meant with "terrific". I'm also a non-native English speaker. I understood it in the end, but it took me longer than I want to admit to get there :/ If possible, could you change the word "terrific" for something easier to understand to non-native speakers, like "[...] have been helpful and understanding." or something similar? Sep 28 at 15:02
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    @IsmaelMiguel FYI the current meaning of "terrific" is absolutely settled. its nonsensical to mention incredibly archaic meanings of words.
    – Fattie
    Sep 28 at 16:23
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    @JoeStrazzere - fair enough; I think I was muddled by the "extended canon" of comments etc. Anyway, sure.
    – Fattie
    Sep 28 at 16:25
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    @nick012000 Yes, and the whole point of the quote was that what terrific means today isn't what it used to mean. And there's no reason for Joe to have heard, or remember if he had heard/read it, the quote. Sep 29 at 15:34
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You can put the onus on yourself by continuing to say "I'm sorry, and excuse me, then add :"I have trouble with accents"

I'm hearing impaired and it's VERY hard for me to understand accents, so I am used to pointing out politely that I don't understand.

If she is embarrassed about her accent, make light of it and say it's no big deal. Don't borrow trouble by assuming she's going to get irritated by you asking to repeat things. She knows she has an accent. Just keep it polite and you will be fine

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    @OmarL Scottish and American English are both the same language. Good luck with someone from Ballon Rouge Louisiana understanding someone from Glasgow. Ditto that for a German speaker from Berlin understanding someone from southern Austria Sep 28 at 15:29
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    I know; my native language has the same "problem". I just was reacting to your sentence "make light of it by saying your English is better than my (her native language)"
    – OmarL
    Sep 28 at 15:33
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    @OmarL Ah, good catch, I'll edit that out. Thanks, I missed your point entirely Sep 28 at 15:59
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    I find the phrase "your English is better than my (your native language)" so cliche. Border offensive. Sep 29 at 9:27
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    @GlenYates Let me know when your spelling is perfect, four months after a stroke. Sep 29 at 15:30
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Is it better to speak up and let her know this is a challenge for me? If so, what is the best way to do it?

Yes - you should mention the communication-issue since it does already affect productivity - your next 1 on 1 would be an opportunity.

"When we have 1-on-1 meetings, I'm constantly having to say "pardon me?", "what was that?", or "can you repeat that"?"

If she's the sensible person that you have described, she might have already realized that you can't understand her accent that well. Since she's your boss, maybe have a private talk with her explaining the current situation as mentioned above and ask her kindly to try to speak without her native accent and in a slower pace.

As your superior it will be in her best interest as well to keep the communication effective..

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    I wouldn't ask them to speak without an accent, most people don't realise they have one and wouldn't know how to speak in another one! The key is to get her to slow down!
    – Alan Dev
    Sep 29 at 14:48
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    @AlanDev I fully agree with slowing down - hence '..and in a slower pace.' But I disagree that ppl aren't aware of their accent - ask e.g. some Scottsmen if they have an accent and I'm sure most of them are aware of it. And most likely a lot of them can also fluently talk in regular British-English (maybe still with a slight accent, but much more understandable by other non-Scottish English speakers).
    – iLuvLogix
    Sep 29 at 14:55
  • Someone's native accent isn't something they actively do, or can just "speak without". Every way of speaking English is some kind of accent, so you can't "drop" an accent, you have to actively replace it with something. More useful phrasing might be to suggest a more neutral American accent. i.e. for her, speaking that way will be "doing an accent", and that phrasing makes it clearer your realize it will take effort on her part to speak differently. Maybe there's even some other not really neutral accent she'd have fun doing sometimes, that the querent understands more easily? Sep 30 at 13:06
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Definitely do mention it, as it's a productivity issue; if you can't understand her then you can't do your work effectively. She's also probably wondering why she has to constantly repeat herself and, worst case, may think you may be borderline incompetent for having to constantly as for clarification. So this is something you should raise.

Now, the question is, how to do it without being offensive. Well, that comes with being tactful. There are ways to ask a question. For example, do not make it sound like her "fault". To take a cartoonishly egregious example: "I can't understand your accent, can you speak more normally please?". Don't do that.

The way you want to address it is to frame it as a productivity situation and that she wants you to be productive and you want to be productive, and her accent is making you less productive. Something like:

I'm sorry if this comes off poorly, but I wanted to discuss an issue I'm having (start with an apology to mollify the situation; anyone can always be offended by anything, so apologize first to minimize reaction). When we have a discussion, I often have trouble understanding you because of your accent (I am the one with the problem, not you). It is particularly difficult for me to understand (again, my problem) when you speak quickly (observable, actionable problem case that can be addressed). I'm doing my best to understand you in our meetings (I am taking steps to address my problem), but sometimes I still have trouble. I know I often ask you to repeat yourself (addressing another problem that is my problem), and I wanted to let you know why this was the case. To assist me in the future, is it OK (asking permission) to ask you to speak more slowly or clearly (actionable statement) if I'm having trouble understanding you?

Again, to stress, if you want to be tactful, these are the things you should focus on:

  1. Not understanding her is solely an issue of work productivity, not anything else. You're not making any judgment on her character or anything like that.

  2. Not understanding her is your problem, not hers. Breaking an accent is very difficult and takes years of concentrated practice; asking her to try to break her accent is unreasonable. You learning to live with it is much easier.

  3. You are doing your best to accommodate her accent as it exists, but you need her help.

  4. There are reasonable, easy, actionable steps that she can take to help you, and you are asking her to help you with that specifically (and not instructing her or anything like that).

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  • In raising the issue with their boss, why should the OP pretend that this is OP's problem? What should the OP do to solve the problem? I disagree with this answer. The woman is the OP's boss. It is her job to communicate with her staff members, and the OP's stated that she fails to do this. More generally, it is up to the speaker to say what they mean in such a way that listeners understand.
    – Rosie F
    Sep 30 at 21:14
  • @RosieF In general, yes, but in the case of accents I disagree. That's like saying, "because you talk the way you talk, you should never have a position of responsibility", which is not fair. Also, OP is not to pretend that it is OP's problem; it IS OP's problem that OP cannot understand their boss's accent; if other people on the team can understand it, and management can understand it (enough to say that this person should be a manager), then OP is the one with the problem, not everyone else.
    – Ertai87
    Sep 30 at 21:57
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That's a pretty common issue when you work in an industry as global as this. You'll learn to understand her better in time, but I wouldn't address it directly. It wouldn't achieve anything and I doubt your boss even notices, let alone is offended when you have to ask her to repeat herself.

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TL/DR: there are other aspects of talking/hearing besides pure accent. Learn to ask some questions that make it easier for you to understand.

I (sometimes) have this issue with no other than my wife! We are both native Spanish speakers and in my country there are no big accent diferencies from one region to another. That's why I want to add tho the current answers by stating that there are other issues besides accent that can hamper communication.

In our case there are mainly two aspects:

  1. In my country there is a kind of "sluggish" way of talking that we normally use with people we have confidence with (family, close friends, every day-contact colleagues) that is characterized by the very few words of every phrase being rushed or "squished" together and pronounced softly, somewhat muted. The ending of phrases is more well pronounced and we normally fill up the missing words by understanding the middle and last words of the sentence, but shorter phrases get challenging. By contrast, a person speaking on the phone, speaking on a meeting, etc, still has the local accent but usually "speaks up", initiating phrases with normal loudness and not rushing or squishing first words.

I categorize this effect outside "accent" because it is situation dependent.

Please observe if your issue with your boss persists when she/he is speaking to a group, on a meeting or if you happen to be there when she makes or receives a phone call. If you notice a difference, then there might be something like this, besides pure "accent" going on.

  1. Context. When the conversations have been going for a few minutes, there is no big problem, but at first, when the one not initiating the topic hasn't completely switched their attention towards the new subject, it becomes a bit frustrating because we have to "wait" for the other one to "catch up". After a while, the brain kind of fills in the hearing gaps by virtue of "knowing what we're talking about". This is kind of the same thing as when you are reading a familiar subject and your eyes just glance over some of the words and you don't actually read each an every word but rather assume that some word "goes there". (I think) the same happens to hearing. By contrast, when reading about an unfamiliar subject, one usually reads slower and paying close attention to every word.

In a work environment, I've observed that the boss may come up with a new subject after having a meeting with their superior or other department bosses, and so, their mind comes loaded with a lot of details, like the base objective for a new project, the issue to solve with a new methodology, etc. So when he/she speaks to us, it's common for they to jump to the middle or end of the story, and speaking fast due to excitement. But for the rest of us, the brain gets busy trying to tie up a bunch of ideas and solve the puzzle of what's being said, and while that happens, hearing power "decreases" (you no longer have free, "idling" brain power to work on filling in the blanks left by speaking/listening/ambient noise problems.

In my workplace, this issue has been detected and our boss now begins team meeting by explicitly citing context (he even says the word "Context!") and while he explains the base issues or purposes of what comes next, he actually causes everyone to "bring to (top of) mind" a bunch of related information (we are software developers, so this information is recalling where this particular data is stored, what user interfaces are involved, platforms, etc). Once we have all this context in mind, it becomes much easier to understand the general picture, which is very often expressed in a very fast pace, due to either "too much enthusiasm" or the job being "very urgent".

On a separate anecdote, I've had a friend ho speaks really fast ant tries to give too much details. In that case, since he's a friend, many of us who know him, have told in polite ways that he speaks too fast (particularly the the topic is exciting to him) so now he is used to being told to slow down. He even does it by himself we he gets our "lost in a forest" stare.

So, to summarize and try to answer: Learn to make questions about context and clarification, some other than "please repeat". Ask context questions at relevant intervals to consciously slow down the conversation, ask for conclusions and repeat to her the main points with your own wording to make sure you understood.

Use your voice tone to regulate the conversation pace, somewhat like speaking calmly to an irritated person is more effective than actually saying "please, calm down" (I've had some success by speaking "like a news anchor").

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I concur with others saying to bring it up and phrase it as your issue; my go-to is to explain that I'm hard of hearing, so it's generally easiest for me if communication is primarily written. It's difficult to be offended by someone else saying "this is a weakness of mine," and one cannot expect your hearing to magically improve.

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    If I explicitly say "It's easier for me to understand if you speak slower and enunciate," i think it helps. It's a white lie, sure, but it helps things to run smoother, and it saves everyone's feelings. The truth isn't always the best policy if it might cause issues, and you're being honest about the solution at a minimum. (Plus, in my case, I legitimately have hearing loss from not wearing hearing protection in my twenties) Sep 27 at 19:15
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    @NegativeFriction that phrase in your comment is not a lie; OP mentions having to ask their boss to enunciate, repeat themselves, speak more slowly, etc. However, claiming to be hard of hearing would be.
    – TylerH
    Sep 28 at 14:09
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    @JoeStrazzere I wouldn't be surprised if someone told me a story like this and it actually turned out to be early hearing loss (not saying that it's guaranteed to be so, just that early hearing loss often presents this way). Early hearing loss is classic for "I can't hear you but I can't understand you"...partial loss of only certain frequencies can make things sound muddled even when they are loud. Sep 28 at 17:10
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Why talking is not a good idea

I believe that talking to your boss about it, in most cases, can risk damaging your relationship with her. If none of your team members have expressed similar concerns to her, she will be self-conscious when speaking to you as opposed to your other teammates.

Moreover, I do not see how talking to her would change anything. It is difficult to change how one speaks. Even if she tries to speak more slowly, the effort will probably be short-lived and she will fall back into speaking the way she feels comfortable. Also, you mentioned that this tends to happen when she gets “excited”, so it’s not something she does consciously.

Understanding accents

In my opinion, the answer here which is giving the best advice is the one by Dalton.

I work in the IT industry, which is an industry that features many bright people from India (think Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai).

Many colleagues have spoken to me about their initial struggles in understanding the accents of their Indian counterparts—which includes Indian bosses—when first joining the industry. These were people who never happened to interact with Indian English speakers before. However, within a few months, they were able to get used to the accent, and to communicate smoothly with their Indian colleagues.

It’s a matter of patience, not hesitating to ask them to repeat something which you did not understand, and requesting them to communicate important things in writing. Assuming that your boss does not have a speaking disorder which affects her ability to enunciate, and assuming that you do not have a hearing disorder, with time, you will be able to understand her better.

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Here's a potential tactful way to approach the subject:

Simply walking up to your boss and demanding she speak "normal[sic]" introduces a real chance for interpersonal problems. This method could come across as placing fault on your superior, and if done poorly could be seen as confrontational or intolerant. To be extra cautious, the subject can be approached from the angle that everyone who speaks a language has an accent of some kind relative to others. It stands to reason that if you have trouble understanding your boss, she may have trouble understanding you as well.

So to start, you could mention the fact that you're having a hard time understanding her in conversations. You may even be able to frame this as a dual-sided issue, which might put the idea in your boss's mind that perhaps her North Dakota accent isn't as easy to decipher as she thinks. Or you could ask her whether she has a hard time understanding your speech. Those are some subtle approaches to try to lead the boss towards doing what you want to do, but as long as you can keep away from conflict (and really, there shouldn't be any problem over this), you can probably be a bit more direct - no need to be planting subconscious messages or anything like that.


Here are some potential ways to start things off:

"I've been noticing that we say a lot of words pretty differently when we talk. Could we try to speak slower and more clearly to each other? I've been having a hard time understanding you when you speak, and it wouldn't surprise me if you were having the same issue to some extent."

Notice how this is framed as a problem that both of you can fix together? Tactful. It also has a high chance of "reading her mind", as even though it's not mentioned in the question, I would be very surprised if she wasn't having at least some difficulty with your accent. If her voice is hard for you, it's pretty likely you're not a cakewalk for her either, and that would be a very convincing reason for your boss to agree to try this.

It's not quite as professional to imply the fault on your boss, even though it sounds as though she is not a local and therefore it would seem that she should be the one to ensure communications between local accents are clear. For example,

"Could you try and speak a little slower to me? Your accent is really hard for me to understand. I know you're not from around here, but I think other people are having trouble understanding you."

While direct and to the point, notice how it quickly picks up some accusatory undertones? As in, "you are the problem". "It's your fault I can't understand you - fix that". "This is evidence that you have a communication problem". All of this "you" talk can quickly put the reader on the defensive. Compare that to the first example, where the tone is more "Hey, I see an opportunity for us to improve something. Are you with me?". I don't know about you, but I'd be a lot more willing to comply with the first example than the second one.

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