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Opinion: Do you speak American?

Discrimination against accented workers is on the rise. Problem? You betcha.

Trying to understand his English required me to spend twice as long on the phone as I would have with an American operator. He said "tow" instead of "two," which obfuscated the numerical codes he was telling me to enter. The process was very frustrating, and I corrected his pronunciation along the way. But, after a painstaking session, he got the phone to work and made us both happy.

This agent’s pronunciation of English was materially relevant to his job, and it was borderline. But he was trying very hard to succeed, and I needed him to succeed. Because communication is so quick these days, we expect the spoken word to be just as efficient. Yet, paradoxically, our complex and far-flung economy requires more patience to communicate. Despite our zippy new gadgets, we have to slow down, listen carefully, ask people to repeat themselves, and to repeat ourselves. Communication goes two ways, and globalization requires us to give one another a fair chance.

Business professors Jonathan Whitaker, M.S. Krishnan and Claes Fornell conducted a study of 150 firms that had used outsourcing from 1998 to 2006. They found that customer satisfaction dropped whether their customer service was outsourced domestically or overseas. That’s bad news for companies generally, but it indicates that accent is not the core issue. Their article, published in the “MIT Sloan Management Review,” said the real issue in client satisfaction is whether the worker is able to accomplish the task, to solve the customer’s problem.

Companies should enable their workers, no matter what accents they have, to actually find solutions for clients, not turn employees into drones that serve as little more than human answering machines.

Offshoring is not going away. India continues to be a hotspot, and its market share is going to be challenged by the “rising geographies” of Central and South America, according to the International Association of Outsourcing Professionals.

It behooves Americans to spend more time trying to understand international accents because they are a growing part of the commercial landscape.

It’s understandable that many Americans might feel especially annoyed by offshoring when unemployment hovers close to 10 percent. Yet, most Americans could not survive on jobs that often pay below $3 an hour, or even $3 per day. The upside of becoming more familiar with foreign accents and languages is that American workers will have greater opportunities to work across many continents, like the French consultant has.

If we want to be able to function and thrive in other countries without people discriminating against us, we have to help others do the same. We should see it as an opportunity, not a burden.