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Accents and Blowhards (duruk.net)
50 points by cancan on Sept 3, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 38 comments

I haven't commented on this dustup until now, but what the heck.

I guess I can't understand how this could even be argued. Of course being difficult for your main audience to understand is going to make it more difficult for you to be successful. It just is.

I'm going to give PG a pass on the 'foreign accents' bit because he'd probably as soon say a strong southern accent would be just as detrimental as a strong russian accent (I hope).

I look at it this way. I ran a dev team 8 or so years ago. Half the team was in the US and the other half in India. The half in India, while speaking English, couldn't understand the team in the US (including myself) when we spoke. And vise versa.

We were both speaking English but we couldn't understand each other. As the manager at the time I had to make sure I was understood to both teams all the time. It was a great effort on my part. I wrote quite a bit more in the beginning and spent a LOT of time on the phone with the team in India. Did I mention that it took a LONG time? It did.

This is compounded when you are a founder. A founder needs to be understood all the way around as precisely as possible. I completely understand what PG was saying, or maybe, trying to say.

Now, all that said, if he stands by 'foreign accents' rather than 'accents' or, even better 'being understood', well then, I'll take back my defense of PG and mostly just say how important it is to be understood by your audience.

> I guess I can't understand how this could even be argued.

It can be argued because some people got offended, and it's much more socially acceptable to argue than to say "I am offended!"

This holds true regardless of the merit of the argument itself. People can argue anything, and often do.

He said 'strong foreign accent' not simply 'foreign accent.' I guess people can still theoretically quote him if they only use two of the three words but I wouldn't say they're being accurate.

It seems to me based on my unscientific anecdotal evidence (watching how people interact with a boss across cultural barriers), that one of the real issues is that when people are speaking, the communication doesn't only come from the words and the general context, but also the ability of two people to connect and communicate by articulating thoughts in the way the other can understand.

We like to pretend that languages are these very simple things, but they aren't. We bring our expectations to interactions and these are cultural expectations. Keep in mind I am married to someone from another culture, so while I have a lot of experience but I can't call it scientific.

For example, power relationships affect communication differently among Chinese than Americans. Americans will communicate differently when questioning a boss's decisions and this leads to Chinese assuming their authority is challenged when this isn't intended for example. Similarly on the other side, Americans may miss the subtly of the communications that the Chinese expect and this can cause problems too.

So with this in mind, I think that the question is how well are people able to communicate effectively, and accents are, I think, at best a proxy for a lot of other thins going on.

If I were to make one recommendation, it is "recognize that everyone is ethnocentric and if you are working with people from other cultures, expect misunderstandings, and work with them."

That’s very, very hapless coming from Mr.Graham (and is pretty offensive to people who had lobotomies for medical conditions, they are surprisingly normal).

Is this parody?

PG could have said "only people with the required physical fitness and math skills will ever make it as an astronaut" and people will come out to complain that it was offensive to unfit people with poor math skills.

I hope so.

pg was like a role model for me. I was so inspired by his early essays that I have read them time and again. And I was really disappointed by pg's recent essay. Yes, I agree that if a founder's accent is so strong that he couldn't be understood, he is less likely to succeed. There is no controversy here. I am not disappointed on what he said but how he said it. "...anyone with half a brain...","they must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent..." These phrases seem so arrogant to me. Can pg speak Chinese without strong Chinese accent? Does he know how difficult it is to get rid of strong accent? How would he just easily judge these people with strong accents as "half a brain" or "clueless" so easily? "...Everyone got that? We all agree accents are fine?... " Yes, we all got it, since pg is always right 200% of the time, and everybody who disagree are just idiots who don't get his scientifically obtained and proved "empirical evidence".

I think is point is that if your accent is so strong that you are not understandable, then odds are you either are ignorant that it is a problem or are too dumb to consider it a possibility, since otherwise you would have taken steps to improve it to the point that you are intelligible.

Now that there has been a shitstorm pg can no longer delve into specifics anymore without inflaming hurt feelings, but I imagine he is talking about people who have incredibly extreme accents and are extraordinarily hard to understand. I have worked with a number of people like this, they were ultimately unable to live up to their potential, and I would characterize them as "clueless" in this regard since I would be genuinely shocked if they were at the very least aware nevermind actively trying to correct the problem. It defies belief to think that these folks could not have dramatically improved their accent had they identified it as a problem and spent a few hours each week of dedicated effort to improve it.

This point is of course lost on people who are eager to be offended. If you have a ridiculously strong accent then it's hard to argue that it is unreasonably difficult to go from there to simply being intelligible. People are instead focused on the difficulty of losing an accent altogether which is of course very hard and completely irrelevant.

Some people can't just "fix" their accents though. I think that's a large part of the problem most people have with what Paul said. It's not completely irrelevant. It's the whole point.

My point is that it depends on what you mean by "fix." Is it extremely hard for a person with a unintelligible accent to eliminate it? Of course. Could that same person with a few hours of regular effort quickly make incredible progress (in that most of their peers would go from not being able to understand them to being able to?) I'd have to speculate yes.

> Can pg speak Chinese without strong Chinese accent?

I'm sure he'd agree it would be foolishness for him to launch a startup in China, pitching to Chinese investors and customers.

The "half a brain" comment could have been better phrased, but that wasn't part of the essay -- it was off-the-cuff in a spoken interview, so he didn't have the opportunity to have 5 people read it and tidy it up before it was published (as he does with the essays).

About role models -- they're all like that. Anyone you may take as a role model is going to have flaws, going to make mistakes, going to sometimes say the wrong thing or make the wrong decision. Sometimes they'll regret it themselves (privately, or publicly) and sometimes not; sometimes they won't even notice they've screwed up.

If you don't see the flaws yet, it's because you don't know them well enough yet.

Don't lose your inspiration, though. Take your role models off their pedestals, and keep looking for new admirable behavior.

He's English.

This is an incredibly long piece that doesn't seem to have a particularly interesting point to make.

Yep. I hope this accent meme on HN dies soon.

You appear to have strong internet accent. This may hinder your attempts to make a successful business that operates outside of the internet as well as on it. This isn't a personal criticism; just something I've noticed.

/parody in case it's not obvious

I found it easier to have a neutral accent (I'm Indian) rather than an "Americanized" accent (which let's face it, sounds really stupid/annoying if you've moved to the US after the age of 22, I'm looking at you'all pronouncing processor as "praacessor", sorry it sounds retarded). Over the years I've learnt to emphasize the "a's" and add typical American phrases in a conversation, but speaking slowly and clearly as a starting point helps. When I moved recently to the SF bay area I was surprised that people here still have strong foreign accents and most people understand what they're saying (well, at least they pretend to). I initially had problems understanding people but I'm getting better over time. I always get a quizzical look when I tell people I'm from India and they ask me why my English is so good? I always assumed Indian people's English was average-good, maybe it just the accent.

I think the title is a reference to Dabblers And Blowhards: http://www.idlewords.com/2005/04/dabblers_and_blowhards.htm

The author fails to interpret the word 'foreign' correctly and thereby fails in building a convincing main argument.

In this case, 'foreign' is not synonymous with overseas.

A foreign accent is any accent that is foreign to your brain - and obviously there is a multi-dimensional spectrum of 'foreign-ness'.

The author has erred in his judgement, however I can see now why other non-native-English speakers would easily make the same mistake.

The irony of misunderstanding a topic about the importance of communication!

I.e. even within North America there are many different accents that would be foreign to others living elsewhere in North America.

Back in Australia there are many distinguishable accents - many I detest; yet just because I find them foreign in no way make me racist.

There is a fine, but definite, line to cross for a comment to be racist, and pg did not cross that line.

The interesting thing is that there are multiple accents within American English.I have seen northerners make fun of southern accents and vice versa.And even in the south a Charleston accent is different from one from Atlanta.So which is the best accent for a founder to have?

Any that can be understood is fine. The problem isn't that somebody might peg you as someone who grew up in Maine, the problem is when somebody simply cannot understand you.

Any anglo accent should be fine, and perhaps also a light Russian one. (Data points are Patrick Collison and an unnamed Russian founder.) Best? Perhaps Estuary English, but only PG has data to back this up.

"In the debate that surrounded a 1993 article about Estuary English, a London businessman claimed that Received Pronunciation was perceived as unfriendly, so Estuary English was now preferred for commercial purposes."

David Crystal, "The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language", p.327

The smartest founder of all should be able to precisely adjust his accent for maximum karma.

It might also depend on your ethnicity. If you're Korean, I would suggest a Scottish accent, Scotch-Koreans are rumoured to be hilariously funny.

You guys forget that old Nappy Bonaparte did quite well despite his strong accent. What do people these days make of that?

I think to be fair, the real lesson of this whole thing is that people need to understand how they will be perceived. If you have an unfamiliar accent to your audience, you might have issues being understood and respected. And if you make public remarks about aspects of people they can't fully control--particularly when it comes to language--you should probably make sure you're not mixing your message with sarcasm. To do so really obscures whether you're trying to be helpful or trying to be perceived as clever, yourself.

I just hope we all learn something from this instead of just getting all defensive.

>> Mr.Graham is the native speaker here himself

Mr.Graham natively speaks english, but "American" is not his native accent. He's from England.

I wonder how many people would be pleased if PG made a statement that said,

"I'm sorry. Listening to everyone made me realize I was wrong. People with strong foreign accents make terrific CEOs."

> "I wonder how many people would be pleased if PG..."

Nothing PG could say would stop this:

"...anyone with half a brain would realize..."

"...pretty offensive to people who had lobotomies..."

These are people that have turned "being offended" into a sport. Being pleased with any sort of apology, clarification, or rebuttal would be admitting defeat. Winning entails remaining offended at all costs.

(And for anyone trying to puzzle out how the author of the article could be so daft, I am fairly certain they meant "hemispherectomy", not "lobotomy". It would be pretty damn foolish to say that victims of lobotomies typically live normal lives following the 'procedure'. Hemispherectomies are rare though, the author was probably actually thinking of corpus callosotomies, though those result in split-brains, not half-brains.)

Sure there will always be angry people ready to be offended at the drop of a hat, but the author doesn't seem to be offended at all so I'm not sure what your point was.

He was quoting this line from pg: "anyone with half a brain would realize you’re going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so [the entrepreneurs] must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent"

Now first of all, that line while technically innocuous could have been spoken 100 other ways to convey the same meaning in a less offensive manner. But more importantly, it also belies an ignorance about how language works and makes me suspect pg has never learned a second language. Conflating "idiomatic English" with "strong accent" is not something that someone with knowledge of language learning would do. pg is a strong essayist and thinker, but that's not a substitute for actual domain knowledge, and his off-the-cuff theorizing works best when its about things which he has deep experience. Listening to the accents of a bunch of founders and then judging their prospects based on how they performed and how their accent came across to him is just not going to provide any level of insight approaching that of his other essays. It's sort of like Alchemy vs Chemistry. You can make all sorts of prognostications from surface observations, but if you don't understand the inner workings at all then you're just pissing in the wind.

Yeah, I read the article (and found it entirely unconvincing, incidentally. fingerprinter's reply upthread covers that well enough, no need to rehash it here.) When the author threw in the side-jab at the use of the term "half a brain" it became clear what sort of mentality they buy into. Constructed offense on the behalf of theoretical others is something that you use if you really have no interest in letting yourself appear satisfied.


Sometimes, to fuel my orneriness, I read the comments at WSJ.com. I usually end up in despair, but today I was rewarded with this unexpectedly germane nugget, posted in response to a feature article about the lives of middle managers in America:

> My VP at Charles Schwab, a white man named Chris Nichols, told me that none of my top direct reports in my IT group (all Asian-Americans) could be promoted because of their "foreign accents". Thus ended my career as a middle-level manager. And I couldn't be happier. <


I think the takeaway is that founders with strong accents will have a hard time getting acceptance in YC, just like single founders. Not because PG is racist, but just like single founders, the empirical evidence shows that they aren't as good of an investment.

The point about how refined is your online audience is interesting.

HN seems to be getting swept up in useless stone throwers that waste your time and theirs on grammar and other petty shit...

I come to HN for signal, not duels at 10 paces.

Good piece; this whole thing, though, reminds me of something I read in Carl Sagan's "The Dragons of Eden":

"The defect that hinders communication betwixt them and us, why may it not be on our part as well as theirs?" - French philosopher Montaigne

Now Montaigne was talking about non-human animals, but it works the same for people: is it the fault of the person with the accent that you can't understand them, or your own? Why must that person work to get up to "your level," when it's as much their fault that they have an accent as it is your fault that you have trouble understanding their English?

You should not confuse prescription and description. When people say things like "In order to conduct business in the US, an accent that other people can understand is important", they are describing how the world is, not how the world should be.

You can say those other people should improve their communication skills, but that is just how you think the situation should be improved. The situation, in actuality, is one in which strong accents can add friction to the communications between a CEO and the people they need to talk to in SV.

Not to go all Team America, but Silicon Valley is in the United States. If it was in China, I'm willing to bet the language adaptation direction would be far different.

One of the interesting things about the US is that although it's a nation of immigrants, there really isn't much variation in language. Of course there are outliers like Cajun, but generally speaking the difference between say North Dakota and Louisiana are negligible compared to many parts of the world where there can be a greater difference between neighboring towns.

Bottom line is that most Americans apparently aren't used to wildly different accents, and are easily stumped by different speech patterns. They already seem to have a hard time understanding native English speakers who speak perfect English with non-American accents, which, not being a native English speaker myself, always surprises me.

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