Is a clear, well spoken English accent really difficult to understand for some Americans?

In the call center of my place of work our operatives (all of which speak exceptionally clearly and without strong localized accents) are occasionally told “Ahhh can’t understand urr aaaceent”. Usually from old people in ‘backwater’ (can’t think of a better word to use) states.

So are they just being patronizing? Or is there genually something about a clear English accent speaking English to another English speaking person that is difficult to understand?

It baffles me because I would have thought the phenomenon should only apply in reverse (a good speaker of English might have trouble understanding a strong Geordie (UK) or Texan (US) accent)

If they can’t be understood… what makes you think they are clear and well spoken?
Just saying.
Also, could be a hearing problem by the listener.

It’s older people specifically.

My mom always turned up the volume on the t.v. when there was anyone speaking with a British accent. I’m not sure what it is about the accent, but she found it difficult to understand - male or female.

There are accents here in the states that are difficult to “get,” unless I’m around them a while. Yes, I was born here, have lived here all my life. But, I have always been on the west coast. NY, the South, are clear across the country and might as well BE another country for how differently they sound to me :smiley:

Anecdote: years ago I was involved in a summertime youth activity which attracted kids (teenagers mostly) from all over the U.S. as well as a few from other countries. One summer we had a kid from Tennessee and one from England (sorry, don’t recall exactly where). Both had what I would consider a very thick accent (and both were what I’d consider “well spoken”, despite the accents). While I could understand them both, frequently they couldn’t understand each other. They’d frequently have to ask each other to repeat what they’d just said, and maybe speak slower or phrase it differently.

It wasn’t that they completely couldn’t understand each other, just that most interactions between them contained a “Huh?” “What?” “What did you say?”

And it went both ways – both had a bit of trouble understanding the other.

My ears transmit the sound to my brain, and then it thinks.

Why on earth would they be dishonest about something like this? I can imagine situations where one person might want to pretend to be unable to understand another, but there’s nothing to be gained by pretending you can’t understand the person who you’re calling for help.

*Whether an accent is “clear” or not is subjective. If someone doesn’t understand your accent, it obviously isn’t clear to them.

I’d say that in general most Americans would have no trouble with “BBC English”, but there are probably exceptions to that. If you and your coworkers are speaking anything other than perfect Received Pronunciation English then it would not surprise me at all if some Americans could not understand you very well – especially over the phone. There’s some loss of sound quality, and not being able to see the other person will also make it more difficult to understand them.

To me, the way you denote the accent of the of the complainer contains one possible answer. In my experience, most Americans draw out their vowels more than English English speakers. When I was taking courses one summer in Cambridge with a number of other American students, we all had problems with understanding various lecturers who clipped or swallowed their vowels more than we were used to.

Two things come to mind: insufficient bandwidth if you’re using VOIP causing a reduction in signal quality; or a poor line the American end - you did say these were ‘backwater’ states.

I disagree that clarity is subjective. It might be a little subjective, but most people would agree that a BBC news reader is ‘clear’ and if most people agree to that then it is not subjective. As I have said, our operatives speak a clear, almost news-reader-like way and without an accent. These traits are partly how they got the job in the first place, being able to articulate themselves well and in a way that is easy to follow and understand by most people.

“Can I have your account number please” is an example of a phrase that people have a problem with. If the line is bad then why doesn’t the person at the other end say “The line is bad”. No, it feels like when they have trouble hearing you they would prefer to be patronizing and blame your accent than blame the telephone connection.
ETA: It seems like they are being defensive of their own hearing problems or telephone line problems by blaming it on the accent of the lowly foreigner on the other end of the phone. It SEEMS like they are being patronizing. So I want to establish whether there is a genuine phenomenon of people not being able to understand queens/newsreader English. And if so stop assuming they are just being defensive or patronizing.

Too late for edit. I must apologise if I am being patronizing. What brought this up was that it happened in the office a short while ago. And I felt patronized on behalf of the person it happened to.

Whether intentional or not - it IS patronizing to be speaking clearly and then to be told by someone that you are not being understood. It is like they are (again intentionally or not) implying that your speaking skills are inadequate.

I wouldn’t say really difficult to understand, but for some Americans, the comprehension is definitely less than 100%. I work in software development in the US, and occasionally we have conference calls with clients in the UK. Most of time, communication is not a problem, but sometimes, some of my colleagues do have trouble understanding what’s being said. This is pretty generic middle-class British accent, and we’re discussing technical topics, so that number of informal slangs being used is minimal.

In my experience, the British are typically much better than the American at understanding English spoken with an unfamiliar accent. I’m not a native English speaker myself, and it seems to me that I’ll have to repeat myself much more often in the US than in the UK.

I think some people, especially here in America, automatically filter out “foreign” accents and don’t even bother to try to understand. I think most generic UK accents (from the South and not terribly “regional”) are very easy to understand, though the average Briton talks a little faster than your average American, in my experience.

Geordies, Scots, and other accents from “oop Narwth” are hard to discern, even for this Yank who grew up over there.

The funny thing about non-US accents is that Americans are led to believe that anyone speaking anything except Estuary English is impossible to understand. I remember MTV had an interview with Noel Gallagher once and they had subtitles underneath. This was a sober, non-ranting Gallagher, quite easy to understand.

On the other hand, Craig Ferguson is quite popular in some circles and as far as I know, they don’t ask him to “de-Scot” his accent and they don’t have subtitles…

Been on a Doctor-Who-watching binge over the past two months (good series, not sure how I didn’t get into it before) and my experience tells me it’s just a matter of acclimation. In the first few episodes I watched, while I had no trouble with most of the dialogue, there were a number of lines I simply couldn’t make out on the first listen, despite the foregone assumption that these people are speaking clearly enough, being actors on a major TV series and all. I don’t even have an especially backwater American accent myself and have seen plenty of British TV before. Having watched the whole series, I’ve gone back to the first few I watched, and found that the bits I’d had trouble with the first time were as clear as a bell. I’ve grown accustomed to the pronunciations, and the accents are much easier to decipher.

I can easily believe that these people are not just being obstinate, especially if their own accents are pretty thick and they don’t get much chance to talk to many Brits.

You’re coming at it from the point of view that a “clear English accent” is somehow neutral.

But no accent is neutral. All accents are just that – accents.

If you get 2 people on the phone who speak in very different accents, it’s possible they won’t understand each other very well. Just because one accent happens to be the privileged one makes no difference.

There’s nothing patronizing about telling someone you cannot understand them if you cannot in fact understand them. What else are these people supposed to do, hang up and try again?

Frankly, I think you and your coworkers need to get over yourselves. Your manner of speaking may be much admired locally, but if you’re going to be involved in any kind of international communication you need to accept the fact that your accent it is not going to be “clear” to everyone. Speaking more slowly does often help.

And on preview, what TheFatKid said.

Very well said.

Also, the phone operators probably hear a wide range of dialects in their line of work, while the caller may not have ever met a Brit.

ETA: Is a Manx a Brit?

That is patently incorrect.

An agreement by “most people” is still subjective.

Let’s expand this thought experiment out to include someone speaking a very clear and standard Indian English. They might wonder how it could be that someone from, say, Appalachia could not understand them on the phone. After all, they’re speaking quite clearly and without what they would consider an accent.

But in fact, they are speaking with an accent. We all are.

There is no neutral non-accented speech. It doesn’t exist. We tend to think of priveleged accents as non-accents, but that’s a cultural illusion.

In the case of Indian and American English, for example, it’s the difference in cadence more than anything else that trips us up.

When you’re looking at differences in speech patterns, the social status of one dialect over another is meaningless. Exposure is all that matters.

For instance, I’ve been a student of language since I was a kid. I remember when I was in my teens I worked in a store in the US, and a fellow from Wales came in and asked “Wes th’and supat?”

I doubt if anyone else in the store would have known what he was saying. But I recognized the UK accent and it took me only a second to decode that he was asking where we kept the hand soap.

On another occasion, a black woman came in and asked “Whe’bouda leeb-eye?” I knew immediately she was asking where we kept the Levi Garrett tobacco.

On the other hand, one day a black woman phoned my step father – who owned rental houses in a part of town that was very poor, and largely populated by black mill workers who had been there for generations – and I could not understand what she was trying to tell me. She had a very localized accent that even the black kids my age from that neighborhood didn’t use anymore, and I couldn’t decipher it.

So it actually makes no difference whether people in the UK consider a particular accent to be “clear” or “standard”. All that matters is whether or not the other party has experience with that accent, and that vocabulary.

Precisely. (See my post above.)

I’m not sure what ‘‘clear’’ means; I am not exposed to English accents often enough to make that distinction. All I can tell you is that I understand BBC News without a problem. However, a recent viewing of The Full Monty required me to actually use subtitles. In short, some accents are easier to understand than others.

First of all, “Can I have” is not what the American listener expects. He expects “What is”. So while they’re trying to process that, they likely miss some of what comes next. They literally do not hear it.

The word “number” is not pronounced the same on both sides of the pond. In fact, in Appalachia, the vowels in that particular word would be very strongly pronounced, with a quite prominent u sound. An English phone rep would be likely to glide over the u, making it sound more like “eh” or “uh”, and to soften the final r to such an extent that the American may not even hear it.

(I wish there were some way I could post audio – I’d give you pronunciations so you could hear the difference.)

Let’s see if I can adequately represent this in keyboard type…

US Southern: WUTZ yer uhCOWNT NUMbr, PLEEZ?

UK standard: Mey-eye HAV yr u-k’hAHNT nembeh, PLEES?

That’s not quite accurate, but it’s the best I can do. Anyway, the point is, from a purely linguistic point of view, the two sentences are substantially different.