Lean in

Sharper Focus

by Kelly Pontsler, Major – 

I am fascinated by accents. Some sound so posh while others seem barely intelligible. Whether we realize it or not, we all have one. This crossed my mind the other night when I turned on the BBC World News and a graceful voice poured out of the TV with a wonderful English accent. The BBC has been a faithful friend as I’ve worked and traveled outside of the USA, and the accent was familiar and reassuring. And then I chuckled out loud when I suddenly remembered that I was, in fact, in my new home in San Pedro and not in London!

I was privileged to live in the United Kingdom for three years. It is a place full of interesting accents! I will never forget a weekend visit that I made several years ago to a small corps in Liverpool. The corps officers were gracious hosts and made me feel right at home. I had only just arrived at the corps when I was introduced to three young girls. They came as a set (I never once saw them apart) and they were bursting with energy and curiosity. For the duration of the weekend they were constantly at my side. There were so many interesting things they just had to tell me, and tons of questions to be asked. They kept up a steady flow of conversation. They only problem was…I couldn’t understand a word they were saying! Seriously! They had thick Liverpuddlian accents. My constant response was, “what did she say?” This question was answered by another of the trio in, of course, more of that strong local accent.

Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? You know that a person is speaking to you in English, but you can’t quite make it out. It can be frustrating on both sides. But I’ve noticed something. There is an unconscious reaction that most of us seem to have, in those moments when we can’t quite work out what we are hearing: we lean in. Physically, we lean forward and focus our eyes right on the person’s face so that we can put together the cues of mouth shape and sounds while our ears are still adjusting.

Accents are fascinating. They tell us something about where a person is from. It takes a while sometimes for our ears to understand the nuances of pronunciation and the rhythms of speaking. I will probably notice your accent but never hear my own. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been stopped and asked, “Where are you from?” (referring to my accent).

That weekend in Liverpool I found myself leaning closer and closer to these girls, eventually getting right down to eye level with them, so that I could really concentrate on what they were saying. I could have just ignored them or shooshed them away. But by the end of the weekend my ears had adjusted and I began to understand them. And I began to see them as people that God loves with all his heart!

We encounter people every day with different “accents”. It might be evident in the way they speak. It could be in their choice of music or the way they dress. How do we react? Instinct might say that we should back away or shoosh them away. My heart tells me that we need to lean in! Lean forward and focus intently on the person, and get beyond the accent. It’s amazing what you can learn when you do.

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