International Business: Fake accents can be real trouble for business

Published: Friday, Feb. 24 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

During my first or second month living in Chile, I was approached by a young man who was speaking directly to me, but I could not understand what he was trying to say.

“Wishy warshy washa-nah-may,” said the man, who caused me to do a double take. “Whusha whirrshuh wra-wrash.”

Finally, when he threw in a few distinguishable English words like, “I love you,” I realized the teenager had noticed I was a “norteamericano” and was jokingly attempting to mimic the sounds he detected in the English language.

Growing up a monolingual anglophone, I knew what sounds seemed characteristic of other languages and accents. However, as American English was “normal” to me, I had never paused to wonder what I sounded like to the ears of a non-English speaker. To Chilean ears, English’s most prominent and unique sounds come from “w,” “r” and “sh.”

Many people in Chile performed such imitations of English during the time I was there. Most were trying to have a little innocent fun with no intent to offend, but some spoke this gibberish with an “American” accent in a condescending manner. Ultimately, the experience left me with the impression that we should think twice before imitating the speech of another. Even without humorous or malicious intent, mimicking a fake accent runs the risk of offending clients and alienating associates.

I recall, during my time in Chile, when a local business ran a popular television commercial that included a North American character who had a thick accent. I never saw the commercial, but the character’s oddly pronounced exclamation became a popular meme. Some Chileans saw the meme as potentially offensive and, in my defense, would ask people to avoid repeating the phrase in my presence. Though I did not mind the phrase in the least, I appreciated their kindness and consideration.

An advertisement that aired during the recent Super Bowl has sparked a similar reaction in the United States. In Michigan's U.S. Senate race, Pete Hoekstra aired an ad linking incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow to America's economic challenges and China's economic advances with the help of an actress in a rice field.

“Debbie spend so much American money, you borrow more and more from us,” said Chinese-American actress Lisa Chan in broken English and a thick accent. "Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs.”

Many claimed this stereotypical depiction was racist. As a result, Hoekstra pulled the ad and even Chan has apologized for faking the accent and portraying a stereotype.

So should every intercultural role in advertising be portrayed with flawless language and no detectible foreign accent? Does anything different insinuate that a person is of lower intelligence? Should we shun the Frito Bandito of the 1960s, the Swedish chef of Muppets fame, every marketing gimmick that references Hans and Franz of "Saturday Night Live" fame and anything else that includes a fake accent?

Such a black and white position might be a little extreme. However, businesses should at least be aware that impersonations of other languages or cultures can be offensive. Offense is more likely to occur when a fake accent is paired with other negative stereotypes.

As with so many cultural communications discussed in this column, let us try to give others the benefit of the doubt as we hope they would give us the same. Also, let us be aware of the potential to give offense so we can tread more carefully when dealing with an increasingly global community.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at Brigham Young University. Email: awooten@lingotek.com. Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten.

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