Monday, May 16, 2016
Is Your Accent Holding You Back?
I was born and raised in Oklahoma, and although I moved away a long time ago, I still have a bit of that Okie twang.
The accent becomes stronger if I'm talking to a native Southerner. I become even more "Southern" when I get upset or excited. I start using phrases like "I'm fixin' to..." or "ya'll."
Early in my career, I landed a big job in Washington, D.C. After several people immediately jumped on the fact that I had an accent, I worked hard to drop such phrases and get rid of the "Okie" or "Southern" in my speech.
I was young, but quickly picked up on the bias against my accent.
Now, I don't work to hide my accent, but I do try to avoid using phrases or terminology that non-Southerners might not understand. Sometimes when I interview someone on the phone, they'll end the conversation by saying "Where are you from? I detect an accent."
In a University of Chicago study, professors found that preconceptions about an accent are formed by children as young as age five. Northern accents are seen as smarter, while Southern accent are associated with "nice."
Researchers found that the biases grew stronger as the children got older. In fact, the children from Chicago selected those with Northern accents as "living around here" and being "American" while children from Tennessee didn't show any preferences, no matter their age.
Some explanations: Chicago children don't get many opportunities to hear Southern accents; more celebrities and those on television have Northern accents; Southern children associate Northern accents with prestige because those in the media and celebrities have Northern accents.
These accent biases aren't just against those in America -- Italian is judged as sounding beautiful while German is judged as sounding ugly.
A couple of years ago, a nuclear lab in Tennessee canceled a "Southern accent reduction" class after workers objected because they saw it as insulting. While employees objected, it's not the first such class offered -- those from foreign countries are often put through such classes by their private employers. Even those with strong regional dialects such as Boston or Philadelphia may go through the process.
As college graduates enter the workforce, I think it's important that we all consider the biases we may hold (those spoiled Millennials!) but also against more subtle things like their accents. In fact, it's time we all thought about the unfair assumptions we make about people in the workplace based on the way they look or dress or speak.
Let's remember to treat others the way we want to be treated -- with respect.