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The impact of accents on our perceptions 25/07/2011

What a roller coaster month for Cheryl Cole. Her love life dominates the red-top pages having started off June apparently single she seems to have closed the month back with her husband Ashley.

The impact of accents on our perceptions

Click to jump to section

  1. Cultural impact
  2. Importance of appearance
  3. Perception of others
  4. Evaluation

Cultural impact

As if that wasn’t enough her career peaks and troughs in the last few weeks make her romances seem positively becalmed.

After much speculation she was chosen to be a judge on the American version of the X Factor, which apparently was a major career ambition of hers. After only two weeks of filming however, she was unceremoniously dumped by the TV network, who claimed that audiences couldn’t understand what she was saying due to her accent. A disbelieving nation had to come to grips the idea that our sweetheart had been rejected by the Americans.

Importance of appearance

We all know the importance that is placed on appearance and the biases that can be based purely on the way someone looks, but accents can also have a big impact on how someone is perceived.

Recently published studies for example have involved asking people to rate the truthfulness of statements read out by native English speakers, by people with a slight foreign accent and by people with a heavy foreign accent.

Each speaker read out the same statements, with the listeners having to decide whether they believed them or not. The native English speakers were believed the most and were seen as being significantly more credible than those who spoke with mild or strong accents. 

In the next phase of the study, the researchers told the participants the actual purpose of the study – in other words they knew what they were being observed on. In this scenario the mildly accented individuals were now regarded as equally convincing as the native English speakers. Those with heavy accents though saw no improvement in their perceived plausibility. This investigation revealed a number of things.

Perception of others

Firstly, accents have a real impact on our perceptions of others.

Secondly, we can go so far to moderate the effects of this bias, but we find it hard to go the whole way and to judge people on what they say rather than how they say it.

The accent interferes with our appraisal of the other person’s lucidity and fluency. If we have to work that bit harder to understand the speaker we see them as less trustworthy. In addition, some accents will trigger, whether we are aware of it or not, the stereotypes associated with certain groups. This also feeds directly into a negative perception of the speaker.

This is significant particularly in multinational organisations where people from different countries will be working together. It is something that needs to be guarded against. Otherwise some peoples’ views, ideas and opinions may not be given the consideration they deserve because of the way they speak.

Now, here’s the flaw in using research like this against our Cheryl: she is a native English speaker. I wouldn’t be surprised if the American audiences lack of awareness of her accent, were categorising her, albeit unknowingly, as someone who had English as her second language.

The same phenomenon can be observed within countries too. Accent-based attributions we make in Britain are linked to those of class. RP, or Received Pronunciation, is still considered to represent the voice of the upper class in society.

Evaluation

As well as RP there’s also standard English and non-standard English with the former seen as of a higher social class. This effect is so strong that it occurs even when people have been told that the person speaking non-standard English is middle class.

We can quickly characterise people based purely on their pronunciation. I was with a client not so long ago and the topic of accents came up, in particular Scouse. A non-Brit in the group asked what a ‘Scouse’ was and a colleague demonstrated by saying, in the manner of a Liverpudlian “Someone’s nicked my hubcaps”.

The accent had conjured up, with little effort, the stereotype of people from that city – namely that they are thieves. Other research for example has shown that the Yorkshire accent is seen as more trustworthy than a Brummie one. 

Accent plays a significant part in our evaluation of people around us. Clearly, this will have direct impact in interview situations but will also potentially be affecting our judgement of our colleagues more generally.

There is a much more accepting attitude towards accents these days in the broadcast media, but we should not be too cocky about the Americans intolerance of someone who’s different. The same factors are at play with all of us too.

Professor Binna Kandola, Pearn Kandola

Professor Binna Kandola, Pearn Kandola

Professor Binna Kandola is a business psychologist, senior partner and co-founder of Pearn Kandola. He is particularly interested in understanding bias and finding ways to reduce it - the topic of his latest, critically acclaimed book 'The Value of Difference: Eliminating bias in organisations'.