Do you sound different to the people around you? Do you feel like you don’t fit in? Or do you relish the fact that you’re just that little bit unique?
This week we’re exploring the emotions around accents; looking at both the positive and negative feelings that people attach to how they speak, as well as the potential for accent softening to improve communication.
So, whether you love the way you sound, hate it, never notice it or feel it affects everything you do, read on… you might just come to see your accent in a whole new light.
The good: how having an accent can be an advantage
An accent is integral to the person you are, to the person you once were and to the person you will one day become. It is wrapped up in your identity, linking you with an invisible thread to other members of your family, to childhood memories and to shared experiences. In fact, your accent can be a great icebreaker - creating interest from others about where you’re from.
Accents are integral to your sense of cultural identity.
When you meet others who possess the same linguistic distinctions it gives you a sense of connection; a pull to your tribe or community, people from a similar location or background. Far more than skin colour or physical experience, accent has played an important part in our social interactions for hundreds of years and still highlights an unspoken understanding that in some way your life experiences have been similar.
Accents can foster a sense of instant connection and belonging with others.
And on a wider scale, the beauty of globalisation in our modern world is that it creates diverse communities; groups of people who come together to offer each other new ways of seeing and understanding the world around them. The fact that we hear so many accents around us is testament to the fact that we can now travel in a way that simply wasn’t possible before. It’s incredible and well worth celebrating! This melting pot of different nationalities and accents come together to create exciting new ideas and new opportunities. And ultimately new, meaningful connections.
The bad: How accents can unintentionally cause frustration and confusion
But not everyone associates positive experiences with their accent all of the time.
Whether in business or social situations, there are times when that strong identity-holding accent can feel like it has become a distraction. It can get in the way of the message you’re trying to convey or can lead to confusion and a lack of understanding from your audience.
When a heavy accent gets in the way of what you’re trying to say
It’s understandable that this can be frustrating. If you can’t express yourself in the way you would among a home audience, you might find you don’t feel able to be true to who you are. And perhaps this leaves you concerned that people doubt your skill or expertise.
But while you know this isn’t a language issue, it’s one of pronunciation and vocal delivery, it can be hard to know how to fix the problems you’re faced with. Which, if you’re ambitious and looking for a foot up on the career ladder, can feel incredibly disempowering.
The ugly: the everyday impact of worrying about your accent
And while feelings are of course important, it’s the very real effect that these emotions can have on many important areas of life that can lead to a disconnect.
This stuff can be hard to get past. Tribalism is deep within our evolutionary biology. From ancient civilisations to today, finding our ‘people’ has given us a place of safety, a refuge from the world around, a source of protection from those who threaten us.
Social Identity theory and accents
In the 1970s, social psychologist John Turner introduced the concept of social identity theory and along with its self-categorisation theory. His work explored the idea that it takes very little for humans to organise themselves into groups on the basis of perceived differences.
Members of these groups, or ‘tribes’, then start to see themselves as the increasingly similar, often forming shared opinions or motivations. For ‘outsiders’ this can be incredibly difficult.
The impact and potential consequences of tribalism and ‘accent-ism’
Research tells us that often people speaking with an accent can feel ‘othered’ by the uniform accent speakers around them. Perhaps others slow down when talking to them or maybe it’s more subtle than that. It may not be intentional but it can still be upsetting. So we can see that it’s not always a case of racism or accentism, simply an unconscious response. One of which we must try to be aware, but unconscious nonetheless. And it’s easy to see why when you’re on the receiving end of this tribal activity it can feel like judgement or exclusion. That has real consequences.
You may feel this social isolation affects your ability to get a job, or impacts your confidence preventing you from making friends in the workplace. Ultimately, your problem can become one of assimilation.
The internal battle of approaching accent reduction or ‘accent softening’
And this leads to an inevitable personal conflict. Of course, you want to be true to yourself, to your identity and to your history. But on the other hand, you want to be able to become part of a new tribe. You want to fit in at work, in social circles and in new communities.
So can you have it all? In short, yes!
How accent softening can help you leave misunderstanding behind
You can be a great communicator and have an accent, the two things are not mutually exclusive. You should never view your accent as a barrier to making yourself heard and understood, or make it the scapegoat: “If only I didn’t have an accent, everything would be fine.”
But that doesn’t mean you can’t consider making some simple changes to enhance your confidence. In most cases, just a few tweaks to specific sounds is all it takes to improve understanding.
What’s really important is being able to handle the language: pauses, longer vowels, delivery of your ideas to your recipients in a mindful way.
Can you change your accent?
Instead of worrying about ‘getting rid’ of your accent - essentially throwing the baby out with the bathwater - you can focus on the other things that will make you a top-notch communicator. Think emphasis of important words and well-timed pauses to allow people to digest your message, among many other useful techniques.
Having an accent and being an effective communicator are not mutually exclusive. After all, accent or no accent, there are plenty of things we can all learn and practise to make sure we put our message across better. Having an accent can be a benefit or a hindrance. But it doesn’t have to stop you being a great communicator. Embrace the best bits, work on the things you’re struggling with and you can enjoy the best of both worlds.
With our Accent Softening course, we’ll work with you on every sound that is leading to confusion, misunderstanding or blank looks, so that when you open your mouth to speak, your words come out as you intended.