On accents

Every time I go to a shopping mall it's like a cultural experience for me. (No wonder - I go so rarely.)

Today I stopped at a mobile operator's store. I was looking for a more affordable call/text/data package, and a young man working there tried talking me through the options.

Emphasis on the word "tried" - he had a heavy Indian-sort-of-an-accent which I was finding very difficult to understand. Eventually I simply had to apologise to him that, sorry, but I am catching only some of what you are saying.

Nevertheless we continued on talking and when there was a bit of a break in our conversation I asked him, as a means of small talk, I guess, "So, where's your accent from?"

The guy got defensive. "Nowhere, this is just how people talk in New Zealand," he replied, quickly turning his attention back onto the computer, and I was left looking at him, eyebrows raised in surprise, and thinking... What was I thinking?

For one, I was thinking, am I being an ass for asking? Is it somehow culturally insensitive to enquire about another person's accent?

But no, I thought: I get asked that very same question on an almost daily basis and I have personally never minded the answer, which I will tailor (depending on how geographically knowledgeable the person asking seems) as either Estonia, northern Europe, eastern Europe or something else along those lines.

Then I thought, does his accent just seem heavy to me? Am I wrong in thinking it is an accent at all? But no: five years I've lived in this country, chances are I can recognise the difference between an accent people actually talk in, and what he talked in.

I would've probably wondered a little more, but his mobile phone rang. He picked up the phone and started talking in some foreign tongue, at which point I really just stood there, looking at him, and thinking, what the hell?

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