This is a situation we’ve all run into at one time or another, be it at work, the mall, or any virtually any other setting: We have a hard time understanding someone because of their accent. While they may be speaking perfectly fluent English, it can be really difficult to understand someone with a thick accent. While it may only cost you an extra pair of socks at the mall, or make you return your dinner because you got the wrong dish, at the office the cost of such a misunderstanding can be much greater. The problem is some people don’t want to ask for clarification from someone if they can’t understand them, because they think it’s rude. This leaves them in a self-made catch-22 situation: If they don’t ask, then whatever they are working on with that person probably won’t be done right, but if they do ask they feel they’re going to offend them.
The solution to this can be simple: Just ask. It’s been my experience that if you really are having a hard time understanding someone because of their accent, it’s much better to ask for clarification then to just interpret the best you can. Why? Because it’s better that you ask and the work gets done right than if you don’t’ ask and the work ends up wrong. Now, you don’t need to be rude about it and say “What the hell are you saying???”, but a polite “Excuse me, could you go over that last part again?” or something to that effect will do the trick. Will some people get offended? Probably, but as long as you’re not asking every three seconds for them to repeat themselves, 99% of the time they should be OK with it. This leads us into another situation: What do you do if you constantly can’t understand someone?
I haven’t run into this situation too many times, as I’ve found that when you work with someone for a while, you generally learn to interpret their accent better. However, one way to mitigate this problem is to have everything in writing. Through email, meeting minutes, letters, whatever you can get your hands on, try and get their thoughts in writing. It should be much easier to read what they are trying to say instead of trying to guess at it. Once again, don’t just say “I can’t understand anything your saying” and throw a notepad at them. Instead, try something like “Could you send me an email with that?”. It’s not unusual to request an email even if you can understand someone, as you may want to pass it on to other people or look at it later, so this shouldn’t be a problem. Email is a widely used tool nowadays anyway, so people are pretty used to sending much of their communication through it.
At the end of the day, your decision will come down to this: Do you want to risk making a mistake on what you’re working on because you feel uncomfortable asking for clarification? Only you can make that decision, just make sure you given it sufficient thought before you make it.