Do I have an accent?
I?m a military brat born in the US. When I was 6, we moved to the UK. There I learned once and for all that I have an accent. I did not know what a transformational experience I was having. Me, a blonde, white American girl, who would later face bias against women in economics, was facing at a very early age the kind of bias usually reserved for people of colour, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups. I?d like to talk about the gift that experience gave me. Okay sure it scarred me a bit, but I am American (and now Canadian too), and I have done pretty well for myself, so this bad experience was more than offset by the benefits of being me in today?s world.
I remember having a beer with a British colleague one day at a conference in the US. We were drinking Sam Adams beer, brewed in Boston. Samuel Adams is famous for his role in the American Revolution and the Boston Tea Party. The bottle label calls him an American patriot. My friend from the UK looked at the label and said ?more like American Traitor.? It depends on your point of view, eh? I tell this story because it captures my schoolmates? perception of me. My UK classmates called me ‘Yankee’ and made it sound like the worst thing you could call another person.
And they hated my accent.
They would corner me on the schoolyard and taunt me. Don?t feel too badly for me?remember that the episodes of discrimination I?ve experienced are isolated, not pervasive as it is for others.
I was aware of how different I was–that I didn’t fit in. I stuck out every time I opened my mouth. I decided to try to speak with a British accent–and I worked hard to change my pronunciation and adopt British expressions?pushing away the American way of speaking. My parents, meanwhile, continued to speak with their indomitable Boston accents, and couldn?t quite understand my determination not to.
I learned early to mimic accents. As I became proficient in imitating the way that the English neighbours and kids spoke, I grew to love accents and the impact they had on ‘fitting in.’ Ever since then, I unconsciously adapt my style of speech to those around me.
It turns out that imitating someone?s accent makes it easier to understand them (Science Daily 2010a). When I talk to someone with a different accent than mine, I will unconsciously start imitating their cadence, rhythm and sounds. I used to speak in the other person?s accent, which is my way of connecting with them. I noticed that I think in their accent when I speak to them. These days if I imitate their accent it may not be interpreted as connection and they may get offended however, so now I just think in the other accent.
Why are people offended? Maybe it is because they have so often experienced the equivalent of my being cornered on the schoolyard?especially in the workplace. It turns out that accent overrides appearance (ScienceDaily 2010b) when we?re making those unexamined assumptions I talk about so much. An accent that identifies a speaker as different will tend to cause the listener to unconsciously rate the speaker as less competent (Deprez-Sims & Morris, 2010), and even less honest (Lev-Ari & Keysar, 2010). We all do it. Maybe you are overlooking spectacular talent without realizing it!
I challenge you to start breaking the cycle. Have you ever noticed that international names are sometimes difficult to pronounce for us? How do you deal with that? Do you avoid saying it?. Do you think they should change their name so it?s easier to say? But wait a minute–their name is easy to say in their language. Why not try learning how to say their name? And encourage them to try AntVibes?it?s a service on the Internet where you can put a recording of your own voice saying your own name so people can learn how you like your name to be pronounced. Check out www.antvibes.com. I have no affiliation with the company?I just think it?s a brilliant idea.
- For more information about accents in the workplace, listen to Accents in the Workplace on BABEL on CBC (June 25, 2012) http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/Radio+Summer/Babel/ID/2249929596/
- Deprez-Sims, A-S. & Morris, S.B. (2010). Accents in the Workplace: Their effects during a job interview, International Journal of Psychology, 45(6): 417-426
- Lev-Ari, S. & Keysar, B. (2010). Why don’t we believe non-native speakers? The in?uence of accent on credibility, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (in press) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1296312/Why-foreign-accents-make-speakers-honest—just-hard-try-understand.html
- Science Daily (2010a). Imitating Someone’s Accent Makes it Easier to Understand Them. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101206161826.htm
- Science Daily (2010b). Psychologists Show How Accent Shapes Our Perception of a Person. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101217145649.htm