“Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”
– The Animals
Every few years, I come across someone who can’t understand me. I don’t mean a man or a woman who thinks so differently from me that they can’t grasp my motivations or the logical progression of my thoughts; this kind of person, I could joke with some seriousness, I meet several times a week. I mean someone who, no matter how slowly I speak, how loudly I project or how clearly I pronounce my words cannot comprehend the literal sense of my words. Inevitably, the result is mutual panic and frustration.
Exactly why a small handful of people cannot comprehend me is a mystery to me (after all, I can hardly ask them). My first inclination is to blame myself. After all, when I was in the first grade, I did take speech therapy. But that was long ago. If anything, speech therapy left me with a tendency to speak precisely and carefully that some people mistake for a British accent.
Similarly, while some people claim that I have a slight secondhand Yorkshire accent I picked up from my father, it’s a mild one (if it exists). Anyway, my vowels are definitely Canadian (for instance, coming from me, “hill” and “hell” sound the same, and so do “don” and “dawn”), so by all reasoning, I shouldn’t be anywhere close to unintelligible. I do speak quickly, but so do many western Canadians, and most of them don’t seem to have the same trouble that I occasionally bump into.
So, as much as the idea goes against my inclinations, I suspect that the problem is usually with those with whom I am unable to communicate. Usually, they are either untraveled Americans, or ESL students who are less than fluent in English. Either way, they are usually in their early twenties.
These common traits suggest that my uncomprehending listeners may lack experience with many accents. Their behavior reinforces this suggestion: always, they are impatient, and regard me as if I am mentally subnormal, giving up attempts to communicate long before I do. Yet I suspect that this is only half the explanation.
In my own case, when I’ve had trouble following thick accents like Glaswegian or Jamaican, the reason has been that I have taken a few moments to catch the rhythm of the speech – how it shifts to ask a question, or asks for a response, for example. Could my unusual precision produce an unintelligible rhythm for some people?
But that only shifts the question back one step. Faced with an accent with a strange rhythm, I usually find that within a few minutes, I can understand the speaker so long as I concentrate. But, when someone can’t understand me, they never gradually start to comprehend me. They stay baffled by me forever.
Could another common element be that these people are tone deaf, at least when it comes to accents? That they cannot catch that subtle rhythm that lets you understand a train of thought and, if necessary, fill in the blanks? So far, that is the best guess that I have come up with.
Yet, if I am right, the explanation is little comfort. It does nothing to solve the problem. Speaking without being understood by your audience is a private hell for a writer and ex-teacher, and I happen to be both. So I stand there, growing more frantic, receiving no help from the other person, until they either retreat from my obvious frustration or enlist the aid of someone else.
Frankly, I’ve had more success carrying on conversations with my high school French, and I neither understand why nor know when another of these encounters is going to occur.