We all know that we Brits speak differently depending on where we’re from. But just how differently? And does/should it matter? In this post, Sarah Brown tackles accent bias, inviting you to avoid snap judgements and preconceptions, and be more inclusive in the workplace.
Accent bias in the spotlight
Recently, ex-House of Lords member, Digby Jones, criticised BBC presenter Alex Scott’s pronunciation of certain words during her coverage of the Tokyo Olympics.
Lord Jones tweeted, ‘Alex Scott spoils a good presentational job on the BBC Olympics Team with her very noticeable inability to pronounce her 'g's at the end of a word.’ Home Secretary, Priti Patel, also entered the debate, saying Alex should be given elocution lessons.
Not to be outdone, Alex replied, ‘I’m from a working class family in East London, Poplar, Tower Hamlets & I am PROUD of the young girl who overcame obstacles and proud of my accent! It’s me, it’s my journey, my grit.’
So, what’s with an accent? Who’s right and who’s wrong?
Judgements and preconceptions about accent
In less than a second of meeting someone, your brain makes a snap judgement about them. From the colour of their skin, to what they’re wearing, to how they speak.
Your brain determines if someone is speaking in an accent different than your own and forms judgements. Positively or negatively, these can influence your future interactions with that person.
You may remember stories of BBC journalist, Steph McGovern, being told that her Northern accent was a ‘terrible affliction’. Or reports on issues like Britons not liking accents from industrial cities, like Birmingham or Liverpool.
Speaking as a Northerner, I, unfortunately, can relate to the negative comments. And if I’m honest, I know it’s sometimes still a barrier. One particular comment still makes me titter today. “Oh, I thought you were posh until you opened your mouth.” How do they know I’m not?
I love my Northern accent and I’m proud of it. And why some people may say we sound slow and a bit thick, I challenge them to ask where those thoughts have come from. Are they factually true? Does my accent make me less knowledgeable?
Holding on to our accents means we’re authentic. If someone’s being real and honest, you’re more likely to connect with them whatever their accent. People should be allowed to reveal their true selves. After all, authentic people transfer humility, credibility and trust. People are inspired by genuineness, not a facade.
Alex Jones’ supporters are a testament to that. And as someone who drops their Hs, Alex Jones, in my opinion, is a great presenter and role model regardless of dropping her Gs.
Our biases and what we can do about them
Research has shown that we tend to unconsciously group people into a specific social class and prejudice them based on their accents. By thinking that someone with a particular accent is not very smart or clever, we’re showing our unconscious bias.
Ignoring our unconscious biases is difficult. We all have them. I’ve judged people because of their accents. After all, I’m only human. But my experience of working with people from a wide range of backgrounds has allowed me to suspend my judgements. To get to know people for who they are and what they say. Not the way they say it.
But it’s not a change that can be made overnight. Our brain must rewire how it forms opinions about others. However, it can be done. Interacting and getting to know people, challenging our perceptions, and creating an environment that’s inclusive for everyone is a starting point.
So next time you hear an accent, challenge your perceptions and your initial reactions. Ask whether you’re basing those on what is being said or the way it’s being said. It may take time, but the more you challenge your own perceptions, the easier it becomes.