Being frustrated when unable to understand a thick accent does not make someone a racist, but your reaction is key.
A great local fish store is owned by a husband and wife team. I love the place, am friendly with them, and love shopping there. However, they often leave the store in the care of people who speak little English. They may be relatives of the wife, who is Asian. Having to use body language, hand signals, etc. is a deterrent for me, but I love the couple and the store and want them to thrive. I am sure this is hurting their business; even I sometimes leave after futile attempts to convey what I need. Do I tell the owners? How?
Carefully. Very, very carefully.
I like the way you’ve framed the problem. Rather than launching into a racist diatribe about “foreigners who won’t even speak Canadian,” you’ve set the issue up in a way that is reasonable and respectful. You’ve tried, but remain frustrated by an inability to communicate with the folks behind the counter.
I suggest that you speak to the owners quietly, when there are no other customers in the store. Describe your concern exactly as you’ve told it to me. Make sure they understand how great you think their store is, and how much you want them to succeed. And leave it to them to act however they think is appropriate.
The version of your problem that is more difficult is the one where you phone a customer service centre — say for Bell, Rogers or whomever — and get an agent whose accent is so thick you can’t understand it. For many people, especially those whose hearing is less than 100 per cent, this is very frustrating. They’ve waited 30 minutes on hold (“your call is important to us”); now they’re trying to explain their problem to someone they simply cannot understand.
If you don’t think this is a major frustration for older people, you haven’t been eavesdropping on enough conversations at your local Tim Hortons.
Being frustrated in this situation does not make someone a racist. The required skill set of anyone working in customer service should include the ability to communicate, so don’t feel guilty about not being able to deal with someone lacking that skill. When you take your car to the garage, it’s reasonable to expect that the mechanic knows how to change your oil; when you phone a call-centre, it’s reasonable to expect that the person who answers the phone knows how to communicate in whatever language the centre operates.
Once again, the key thing here is the way you frame your concern. Lashing out at the agent on the other end of the phone, berating her for her “bloody accent,” is not the way to go. She has a crappy job earning lousy wages; she’s worked hard to get where she is, and speaks English a whole lot better than you speak her first language. So don’t dump on her.
It is, however, perfectly reasonable to say, “I’m sorry, we just don’t seem to be communicating. Would you mind transferring me to another agent?” If that doesn’t work, ask, again politely, to speak with a supervisor, and work your problem through from there. Assuming, of course, you still remember what your problem was in the first place.