A few days ago, an ex-colleague of mine asked me if he had a strong accent. I didn’t think it was a particularly over-powering feature of his; when he spoke, you could tell he was from the English West Midlands (he had ‘Brummie’ tones to the untrained ear) but he always spoke clearly and articulately – his accent certainly didn’t dominate his speech. After giving my answer, I asked him why he had asked. He replied that he had been through and interview process and he was one of the final two candidates, but in the last round of interviews he was told he hadn’t got the job. When he asked for feedback to explain why this was the case, he was told that, as well as the other person having more experience, he had ‘strong mannerisms’. He had asked whether or not this meant his accent and the panel had hinted that it had been taken into consideration.
Stigma surrounding accents is nothing new; in fact, I thought it was something old and outdated. The ex-colleague of mine was a competent, confident professional. It would be fair enough if he didn’t have the experience to match that of the other candidate – that is a good enough reason not to get the job – but the fact that his accent was an issue (and that the panel thought it was acceptable to say so) beckons the question: in this day and age, do accents still have connotations that affect the way people see each other? Not just ‘see’ each other – but, in actual fact, judge one another?
In a survey by City Socialising last year, it was found that 17 per cent of Britons think their accent has hindered their career at one point or another, with Glaswegians topping the poll, experiencing the most prejudice. 30 per cent of prospective employees from Birmingham felt that they’d been subject to discrimination because of their accent, closely followed by 27 per cent of Mancunians.
However, it is not only in the workplace that accents have formed such an impact. According to the same survey, “a whopping 36% of respondents admitted that a strong accent would put them off talking to someone when they meet new people and 17% of us would even go as far as avoiding socialising with someone that had a strong accent”.
I find this bizarre; why would a strong accent put you off talking to someone? Is it the fear of an awkward situation where you would have to, God forbid, ask the other person to please repeat themselves as to ensure a clear understanding? Or is it because of the social stereotypes that have been emblazoned on the inside of our skulls since we were yay high? Do we really believe that all Scousers are going to scam us? That all Brummies are thick? That all Glaswegians are heroin addicts? And all those with clipped tones are stuck-up and cold-hearted? Surely that’s just stuff of pub banter nowadays… right?
One organisation that has tried very openly to rid the country of these stereotypes and to promote diversity is the British Broadcasting Corporation (the BBC). In April 2008, The Telegraph reported that the director-general of the BBC had called for an increase in the number of regional accents heard on the corporation’s television and radio programmes: “Mark Thompson said he wanted to see an increase in the range of regional accents – from the Newcastle brogue to the West Country burr – on BBC shows as part of a drive to end the domination of the standard English accent. The move follows complaints from licence fee payers that the BBC was ignoring large swathes of the country by failing to employ people with regional accents – even on local news programmes.”
How interesting considering that it was the BBC in the first place that brought Received Pronunciation (also known as ‘The Queen’s English’) to the nation’s ears; in fact this standard accent is even widely called ‘BBC English’. Now they want to phase it out in order to become more inclusive. Bless them.
One of the many BBC programmes celebrating regional qualities.
But of course, the bombardment of regional accents invading our living rooms (and our train journeys) has not come without resistance, reflected in the results of the aforementioned survey and the job interview situation. Some people just don’t like change. Or is it difference? Maybe the decline of Received Pronunciation on the BBC has taken some of the sheen off the corporation’s prestigious image. A later article by The Telegraph, written by Anita Singh, reports that according to a BBC study, “regional accents are as problematic as background music for viewers who struggle to hear programmes perfectly”. Is it just a case of practicality, then?
In the BBC survey, 20,000 people were questioned in an effort to understand the cause of so many viewer complaints and ‘unfamiliar accents’ were one of the four key factors identified. ‘Well. We can’t have it both ways, British public!’ I hear the corporation cry. Anyway, they stuck to their guns and a spokesperson issued a statement saying that regional accents would continue to feature on the BBC, regardless. “This research will help us to pay more attention to the way we capture dialogue,” the spokesperson said, “and make it as clear as possible to allow all audiences to enjoy the rich variety of voices that they want to hear.”
‘The rich variety of voices’ is nicely put. I wonder whether the essence of that phrase could suffice as a comeback to accent discrimination in job interviews and social situations? ‘No you must not judge me for my accent; I am merely contributing to the rich variety of voices that YOU want to hear…’
Well, it seems like some people just don’t want to hear them full-stop. Or is it because they can’t understand them? Or is it because they think you are poorer or richer than they are? Accents are funny things and they have peculiar effects on people. The advertising business loves accents. What can sell a crusty loaf of bread better than warming Yorkshire tones? How appealing is toothpaste when it’s discussed in a smooth, middle-class accent – preferably a woman’s. All posh people have nice, white, clean teeth… right?
I don’t think it’s appropriate for people to judge others by their accents, when we live in a day and age where everybody is educated (at least to some degree) and where the part of the country you are from doesn’t stipulate your wealth, background or morals. However, our thoughts and feelings about accents are things that may well be ingrained in our unconscious, whether we like it or not. All I know is that the likes of Alistair McGowan would be out of a job and story-telling would be way more boring if we didn’t have the ‘rich variety of voices’ that the BBC were banging on about. Maybe it would be good to listen to what people say, rather than how they say it.
Feature Photo By Vegadsl