In Canada, many people are not used to hearing a variety of accents, especially in less urban environments. Even in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, many native speakers mix almost entirely with other native speakers and, therefore, do not become familiar with other accents.
Native-born English-speaking Canadians are not known for speaking other languages. This means that people’s ears are often not attuned to different accents and they may not have much tolerance or comprehension regarding the issue. Immigrants often feel Canadians don’t try very hard, that we are impatient and don’t take time to understand. At times, this is true, and it may be based on a stereotype or a judgment we have learned. This can be very frustrating for all involved but especially for the immigrant who often feels that they are in a more vulnerable position.
My belief is, first, that there are clearly people who are heavily influenced by stereotypes. Also, many people, since they have never learned another language, have little comprehension of the issues involved and, consequently, can be impatient and disrespectful. On the other hand, many immigrants do not understand why people have difficulties understanding them. In addition, they may have already decided that Canadians tend to be impatient and intolerant of different accents. So they immediately jump to a negative interpretation of the difficulty.
I do believe a certain racism exists, based on stereotypes, that some people feel and express. But I don’t think it’s beneficial to think about or focus on it. Nor do I think it’s the rule. And besides, you can’t depend on changing others, but you can change yourself. You have to choose where to put your energy and, if you often experience confusion about your communication, it may mean there is some work to do.
THE DANGER OF AN US-THEM MENTALITY
Here’s something that happened to me which illustrates a predisposition to stereotypical thinking, this time from an immigrant. It also reflects a lack of self-awareness.
A woman came to meet with me, wanting a pronunciation assessment. She told me that she thought her pronunciation wasn’t good because people kept interrupting her and cutting her off. That was the main reason for her wanting an assessment – people interrupted her regularly and she believed it was because they weren’t really understanding her.
We began by chatting for a bit. Generally, I always start the assessment out with small talk and then I do the actual assessment, all of which takes about an hour. We talked and she talked and talked and talked for almost an hour. I wasn’t able to get a word in edgewise without interrupting, which I did because I had to do the assessment. She immediately went quiet. I asked what had happened and she said nothing. And I said, “No, no, something happened because you were talking a lot and now you’re not talking at all.” But she continued to deny there was anything wrong. I kept encouraging her and finally she said, “You people are always cutting us off.”
This comment was, what we call, a “dead giveaway” as to her point of view and predisposition. She was portraying an us-them mentality. She was right that people were cutting her off but not for the reason she thought but rather because she didn’t give space for others to participate. This is an extreme case, and she clearly had some issues, but it illustrates to me how taking this position can be easier than looking at ourselves. I believe an us-them mentality creates a limitation and indicates a lack of taking responsibility for yourself.
THE DANGER OF JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS
It’s easy for an immigrant to feel insecure about the language because, naturally, there are many gaps in their knowledge. And when people look at them in a certain way or do something which seems rude or impatient, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that the other person is prejudiced in some way. It’s also easy to make general judgments about that person which could be completely incorrect.
Sometimes I’ll ask somebody; “Where are you from?” I ask this as a way to connect this person I don’t know with my experience and my interests. I’ve found that some people get upset, seeing it as a criticism, highlighting that they stand out, or apart, as an immigrant or implying that they don’t belong here. Due to this, I now generally don’t ask but find it frustrating because it can be such a wonderful way to find common ground and topics for conversation.
With so many possibilities of being misjudged and misjudging others, I feel it’s best just to be open, with no assumptions. If you feel someone is being rude, take the mental position that there might be a slight misunderstanding and they are probably not being rude. If you are convinced they are being rude, think that but leave it as their problem. I suggest trying to keep an open and non-judgmental mind which will help you to be better disposed to learning and solving communication problems.