Decades ago, I theorized that something we give little thought to might impact racist attitudes—for bad or good. According to Katherine D. Kinzler, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, I’ve been on to something.
In her book How You Say It: Why We Judge Others by the Way They Talk—and the Costs of This Hidden Bias, Kinzler details accent bias. “By dint of the way you speak, people think of you as a member of an in-group or an out-group . . .”
American-born English speakers exhibit a wide variety of regional and sub-regional accents. Many foreign-born American citizens and residents speak with accents reflecting their first languages. Accents often determine how we judge other people’s intelligence and worthiness.
My theory? People may be more accepting of someone of another ethnicity who speaks like they do. Kinzler: “People’s awareness of others’ accent appears to be harder to ‘turn off’ than their awareness of others’ race.”
The “right” accent may—at times—soften racial bias.
Standard American English (also an accent)— typical of the upper Plains states, Nebraska and the West Coast—is what you hear on national newscasts. It’s intended to foster trust. Local TV and radio newscasters usually speak with the standard accent.
I’ve long tried—with some success—to speak Standard American English. I say coffee, not cawfee as do many New Yorkers and ex-New Yorkers. I started in college where I was exposed to many students from outside the New York City area. I wanted to be able to communicate effectively without being pre-judged as brusque, lower-middle-class, culturally ignorant. My developing standard accent served me in the Army where I met men and women from all over the country. Sounding like a New York Jew might have created a negative—obviously undeserved—impression.
Confession: My wife Carolyn grew up in Waco, Texas. She also developed a standard accent. Her sixth-grade teacher advised her students that being clearly understood and not pre-judged would help them get ahead in life. Had Carolyn spoken with an East Texas accent like her dad’s (her mother was from Massachusetts and California), I never would have taken to her. I, too, am subject to accent bias.
Yet, we can overcome the wiring in our brains that divides “us” and “them.” As it happens, I love hearing all kinds of regional and “foreign” accents. I’m often good at locating (roughly) someone’s place of origin. Boston and Chicago accents are among my favorites. So are those from Mississippi (third is thoihd, softer than the New York-Irish toid). But I’ll listen to New York accents any time.
The bottom line, according to Kinzler: We must learn not to pre-judge people by their accents. Also, we do well to code-switch—master to some degree standard speech for public communications while slipping into our comfortable, “born” accent, vocabulary, syntax and inflection with people who speak like—and know—us.
Kinzler concludes by reminding us that what we say also matters: “. . . the social potency of language resides not just in the way we sound but also in the words we use.”
I hope these thoughts shed a little light on a subject that often remains in the dark. We can always discuss them over coffee. Or cawfee.
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