January 17, 2018

Question: I have a hard time understanding foreign accents, and I don’t know how to address the issue without making it super awkward. My landlady is Indonesian, and I sometimes I have a hard time understanding her English due to her heavy accent. Asking over and over for clarification clearly frustrates her and makes me look stupid. “I don’t understand what the problem is,” she tells me, “This isn’t hard to understand.” Only it is!

Asking her to put her requests in writing seems rude and obstructionist — moreover, her written English is almost as difficult to understand. So I’m in a bind, in which it feels as if I have to be handheld through any instructions she gives me. I’m hoping you may be able to suggest something more effective than my saying: “I need you to slow down and use simple words because your English skills do not match your bahasa Indonesia skills.”

Dr. ZZ: Let’s give this a bit of a different spin. When Brits, Aussies and Americans speak English, for example, all are speaking their own native language, yet all speak it differently. So regardless of your country of origin, you too technically speak English with what some would consider “an accent.” You can get better at understanding other people’s accents and can accustom your ear to the various cadences through the practice of repetitive listening.

When speaking with a person with an accent, it is important to relax when you listen. Tension, resentment, and worry that you’re not understanding serve only to interfere with your listening and understanding. When interacting with your landlady, it may be helpful to have a notebook handy and to write down what she says. Tell her you sometimes have trouble with listening comprehension, and ask her to repeat more slowly what she wants you to do; so that you can write it down.Then, after the conversation, sit with what she told you to do, and take a basic crack at doing it.

If after you’ve tried to follow her instructions, you can’t figure them out, perhaps you can email her with questions about the substance of the conversation (ex., “I got started on what we spoke about. Just to review, I’m going to x, y, z and then..whatever you discussed”), not about the parameters (i.e., questioning what it is exactly she wants you to do). That way, if you need to ask her to repeat herself, you are doing it from a level of actually having attempted to follow directions and have run into a snag; you’ll hopefully be asking targeted, less offensive questions this way.


Question: I read your column regularly and am clearly in need of advice. I have a lovely friend who is kind, caring and really there for me when it works for him, but he is also incredibly self-centered. He never meets anyone else halfway, let alone on their terms. It’s his way or no way at all. He consistently can’t make it to my place when I invite him. When I am at his house, he continues about his day as if I weren’t there, fixing his bicycle, answering emails, playing guitar and whatever – even if I’m dying of boredom. He’s fine if I leave, and if I want to see him at all it’s 100% on his terms: his place, his schedule, his choice of activity. (“No I won’t go get coffee with you and chat, but you can watch me play guitar.”)

He also cannot take criticism of any kind. To him, even a disagreement or a difference in preference is a personal attack. So, I find myself biting my tongue around him and apologizing a lot. It’s getting to the point of being almost too stressful to handle, but I feel as if I don’t want to cut ties with him because it would decimate my already minuscule number or friends. I recently dropped another friend from my life for similar behavior, and I don’t want to cut this person out of my life as well. He can be a better friend than most when it suits him. I just have no idea how to deal with this, and I’m at a loss to figure out how to make this livable. Thank you so much!

Dr. ZZ: Nothing says you can’t remain friends with this person as long as you accept that the friendship must take place 100% completely on his terms. You don’t have to drop him from your life, but you do have to practice needing very little from him, to accept that he’s limited in what he can give you. When you hang out with him, you will do so at his place, on those rare occasions when his self-centered ways amuse and comfort you. You can spend the evening listening to him play guitar and agreeing with everything he says — unless you’re in the mood for a tiresome argument.

On all other nights of the year, you get to spend whatever energy and love you would normally pour into maintaining and deepening a friendship with him into making new friends who are actually interested in things about you, and who can maintain a basic level of reciprocity. Moreover, when you say to this fellow, “Let’s hang out,” and he says, “Come over, and I’ll play my guitar,” you can always continue offering to go for a coffee only to have him refuse. At that point, practice saying, “Sorry, maybe next time.” It’s bound to feel uncomfortable at first, but it will feel more normal with time, and you’ll eventually start feeling better having this boundary on your side of the equation.


Dr. ZZ has a Ph.D. in Counseling and a doctorate in Natural Healing. Drawing on a background of  over thirty years as a professional therapist, she offers self-help in the areas health, relationship and personal growth. All queries are answered by email and, if they appear in print, are subject to editing. Please email your questions : <ba.saywhat@yahoo.co.id> All identifying information is kept strictly confidential.


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