Can You Please Repeat That?

At F&ES, when professors say they are teaching a certain topic or skill “that will be useful to you in the real world,” it’s a reminder that we are here not just to learn technical information, but to develop the capabilities we need to work in dynamic settings.

Since the beginning of MODS and well into the school year, I have worked in many groups and this is not a coincidence. By design, our classes and extracurricular activities require us to work together to solve problems, be it small or large. The expectation is that by training us in this setting, we will be ready to dive right into any professional team environment after graduation.

Recently, I have realized this training has taught me more than just working in teams. Specifically, it has helped me learn and practice a key communication skill. In the past when I talked to someone with a thick accent and had trouble understanding, I probably would have strayed away from talking to them more than I needed to. This could be because I didn’t want to ask them to repeat themselves three times, or just nod along as if I understood what they were saying when I really didn’t.

In my classes, I am forced to “confront” these situations head-on since I have to engage in material conversations with my peers and produce work products. In these settings, I have had to change the way I react in these situations. I have learned to politely ask them to slow down, repeat themselves, or perhaps write out their ideas. As with many things, I know with time and practice I can improve on this skillset. I also make it known that it’s me that has a hard time understanding, and not their own fault.

It may seem like a small detail, but I do believe it is an important one. In undergraduate studies, I had professors and teaching assistants with thick accents and as a result, my learning was drastically effected. In the workplace and especially at big conferences, I have avoided talking to someone too much if I had trouble understanding them.

In the U.S., there is a xenophobic culture that can be seen across the country in many ways. I have realized by avoiding conversations with thick-accented individuals I am perpetuating a part of that xenophobia and I’d like to start reconciling that.

Next month, I will have lived in the U.S. for 20 years (I was born in Hong Kong). I have been the new kid in school a couple of times, and I struggled learning English and switching from a British to an American accent. The irony, I know. From now on, whenever I encounter someone who I do not understand, I will think back to the difficulties I faced trying to learn English as a young immigrant. Instead of imposing judgment, I will aim to have my compassion and understanding take over and react in a much more positive and inclusive way.