Is Not Understanding an Accent Rude?

The grocery store is a tower of Babel, basically. Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

At least once a day I get someone at the store I work at who’s mumbling and has an accent, and I can’t tell a word they’re saying 
and I have to have them repeat it like 4 times. How do I politely tell someone I don’t understand them?


Official Etiquette:

Miss Manners suggests, when faced with someone mocking your accent, saying “I beg your pardon, but I don’t understand what you are saying.” Presumably this would be the thing to say if you don’t understand what someone is saying for real.

Our Take:

Jaya: Ok so accents! I understand this a lot. Some of my immediate family has accents I do double takes on.
Victoria: Yeah, although i suppose this could also apply to people who mumble and talk so quietly you can’t hear them,
Jaya: Hahahaha, I think you can use different approaches though. Like, if an adult is mumbling, tell them to speak up. You should just know that.
Victoria: Agreed. Although, it gets a bit absurd when you’ve asked someone to speak up like 3 times and you still can’t hear them!
Jaya: I feel like for an accent there should be a way to politely say “I’m sorry, I’m having a hard time understanding your accent” but then again that gets into tricky territory.
Victoria: I think what you said, except maybe, “I’m sorry, i’m having a hard time understanding what you are saying” which focuses less on the accent.
Jaya: Yeah, definitely and put it more on your inability to understand, rather than blaming them for having an accent.
Victoria: Yesss, and actually, the more you are around accents, the easier it is to understand them. Sooooo just live in a vibrant community I guess.
Jaya: Hahaha yeah easy as that. Also, since he’s working retail, I feel like you can do a lot of interaction with pointing and gestures. So you can attempt to do that as much as possible.
Victoria: Yeah, it’s surprising how much you can communicate with gestures.
Jaya: Ooh wait! maybe lie and say your hearing is bad and that they need to enunciate?
Victoria: HAHAHA, maaaaybe.
Jaya: I’m serious though! It makes it clearly about your inability to hear, but also encourages slow and clear speaking. I’m all for harmless white lies that let everything go smoothly.
Victoria: True, but it’s something pretty easy to get caught lying about.
Jaya: But what are the consequences? Oh, your hearing is fine? Say you went to a loud show the night before and it’s temporarily bad!
Victoria: Lol true, but generally it’s embarrassing to get caught lying, and people don’t like being lied to, even if its harmless
Jaya: I’m guessing if it’s a checkout line at the grocery store, you may not have the opportunity to be found out. Though i guess if it’s a regular customer just try to learn their habits.
Victoria: Yeah, I think the key thing is do what you need to do while trying not to call too much attention to the accent and risk making someone feel bad.
Jaya: Yes, saying you’re the one having a hard time understanding, or maybe asking them to repeat specific things like “cash or credit.”
Victoria: Yes, simple words are best.


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