A little while ago I was producing a radio documentary that required me to narrate the story in my own voice. I completed it, submitted it and forgot about it. A few months later, I revisited the piece and found myself horrified at the weird, alien voice I was hearing. I was speaking with an American accent, complete with rolling Rs and flat As.
Nothing wrong with an American accent on its own. But for someone like me, who had grown up in Pakistan, there were all sorts of connotations. I was a sellout. I must be ashamed of my own culture and identity. I must think I’m better than everyone else. I’m a burger.
If you’re an English speaking desi like me, you’ve probably got the typical Pakistani-English accent, where you speak normally for the most part but are hard on your Ts and Ds and have a slight sing song tilt to some words and vowels. That’s how I’ve spoken for most of my life. Back home, there was a special kind of loathing reserved for kids who had American accents. British accents were acceptable since all our post-colonial teachers held it as a gold standard and we still related to that culture. But if you had an American accent, it conjured up the most irrational rage in the people around you. It implied that you were a fake. Someone who had seen too many Hollywood movies or was too obsessed with some American TV show and now thought he was better than everybody else. Someone who thought he was a fucking gora.
So why now, at the age of 30 was I developing a foreign accent? It was embarrassing. A number of friends who I had sent the documentary to later admitted they were extremely put off hearing me talk like that. I justified it to myself saying that I spoke in an American accent to Americans while maintaining my native accent when speaking to friends or family from home. But isn’t that sort of phony as well? How did I get this way? Was I ashamed of having a desi accent?
The knee jerk response was no, I’ve never been ashamed of being Pakistani or being different in America. I’ve never made a conscious effort to change my accent to fit in. I know I don’t have an Apu from The Simpsons accent but I don’t begrudge other Pakistanis who do. And of course you can get by successfully in the US without ever having to totally change your identity. But subconsciously, there is more at work here. The sad reality is if you are going to work in a foreign country, there are many incentives to speak like the natives.
People Don’t Believe People With Accents
While I live in one of the most multicultural cities in the country, the truth is people have a hard time not just understanding, but even trusting people with an accent. It doesn’t even have to be a heavy one. Just different.
In this report published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers conducted an experiment where they had non-native speakers and native speakers repeat bits of trivia to people. Things like “Did you know a giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can?” Here’s what they concluded:
“We showed that people perceive statements as less truthful when spoken by non-native speakers. When people listen to accented speech, the difficulty they encounter reduces “processing fluency.” But instead of perceiving the statements as more difficult to understand, they perceive them as less truthful. Consequently, non-native speakers who have an accent are seen as less credible.”
Basically, if you sound non-native, you’re screwed. The researchers ruled out racism because most of the time, the subjects couldn’t even tell what the original ethnicity of the speakers was. They just heard something in a funny accent and had a hard time trusting what they were saying. Is this why movie villains have accents to signify untrustworthiness? Or is it the other way round where we distrust accents because movie villains have them?
People Don’t Hire People With Accents
While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination against hiring people on the basis of ethnicity, it’s less clear about accents. Most of the time it isn’t even racism that works against people with accents but the fact that they make the people they work with uncomfortable. Picture this. You hire some guy with an accent. He’s perfectly capable, intelligent and efficient. But when he speaks to you, you don’t understand him perfectly. So you ask him to repeat himself. And you do it again, because you still didn’t understand him. This makes him embarrassed. And it makes you feel like an asshole for embarrassing him. It’s painful, it’s awkward and noble as we might strive to be, people just don’t want to deal with that it. There’s the added stress of not offending someone of a different ethnicity, having to constantly monitor your actions, your jokes and your sensitivities. So it’s just easier not to hire them.
Couple that together with the fact that having an ethnic sounding name makes you twice as unlikely to get hired than a normal white sounding name. Reports published by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that white-sounding names have a 50% greater chance of receiving a callback when compared to those with African American names. I’m not saying everyone’s racist. Just that there are plenty of non-racist reasons why people don’t want to work with different ethnicities.
We Tend To Mirror Accents Unconsciously
At the end of the day, you’re going to end up mimicking the accent you’re most surrounded by. We humans tend to do that, not just so that people around us can understand us better, but also so that we can understand them better.
In this study published by Psychological Science, researchers made up a brand new Dutch accent and asked listeners to either repeat what they heard in their native accents or repeat it while mimicking the accent. They found the people who were imitating the accent did much better at understanding what was being said.
“When listening to someone who has a really strong accent, if you talked to them in their accent, you would understand better,” Adank says. Of course, she says, “It’s obvious that you can’t really do that.” If you put on, say, a fake Southern accent when talking to someone from Georgia, they might not think your intention is friendly. But when your brain subtly and unconsciously shifts your voice to sound more like theirs, it appears to be deploying a useful strategy.”
So please don’t consciously mimic peoples accents while talking to them, since that would make you a raging asshole. But it helps to employ subtle changes over a period of time. Other than imitation still being the sincerest form of flattery, it’s helpful for your own cognition of what people around you are saying.