“I speak with an accent or know someone who speaks with an accent.” If you live in North America, there’s a good chance this statement resonates with you. But does an accent really affect professional credibility and the ability to communicate effectively?
All signs point to yes. For most North Americans and many people around the world, English is the dominant language by which society operates. When a person speaks English (or any language, for that matter) with an accent other than what native speakers are accustomed to hearing, it can cause stereotypical assumptions and subconscious discontent, ultimately affecting one’s credibility and capacity to communicate.
Yet immigration has turned much of North America into an ethnically diverse melting pot, and in order for domestic companies to maximize productivity, spark innovation, and create inclusive work environments, cultural differences such as speech accents need to be acknowledged.
We call that acknowledgement cultural awareness
Cultural awareness – being aware of other cultural values, beliefs or perceptions – is a major concern in the business world, as the regular course of activity often requires a number of people from varying ethnic backgrounds working together.
Many people and organizations realize that language barriers exist, as people of different ethnicities often speak with heavy accents, possess more difficult-to-pronounce names, and have varying levels of English fluency.
The challenge on both sides of the table is to accept and embrace cultural differences, and work on ridding the associated negative images.
Your accent affects your image and ability to communicate
It’s incredibly challenging to get rid of an accent – some people keep their accents their entire lives, despite living in North America for 30 or 40 years. Many immigrants and ethnic groups possess proficient English comprehension and vocabulary, yet their accents affect their professional image and communication effectiveness.
Simply having an accent submits you to a variety of stereotypes, both positive and negative. Mariel Borelli, who hosts a show called Babel on CBC Radio, explores the ever-evolving language of English.
A recent episode explains that rhythm, pace, and tone are all aspects related to foreign accents, and that simple things such as stressing the wrong syllables or speaking at an awkward rate can hinder the effectiveness of communication.
Subconsciously, people tend to dislike things that require exerting additional effort. When speaking with people who have accents, their less-than-perfect pronunciation and syllable emphasis may require extra attention to follow and comprehend. This may come off as an annoyance or inconvenience.
All accents are not created equal
Oftentimes when a foreigner is speaking in English, he keeps his native tone of voice. Mariel explains that individuals who speak smoother languages such as Spanish and French are often identified as happy or free, due to the natural tones of voice common to their languages.
On the other hand, languages such as Cantonese, Russian or Punjabi flow more jaggedly, and their natural tones seem more serious to North Americans. This can come across as being angry or having a bad attitude, even though they are using the tone of voice and flow of speech customary in their native tongues.
Having a particularly strong accent can also lead people to believe you aren’t quite qualified for the job, because you may not understand common North American business ethics or practices. It can also give off the image that you do not completely comprehend the English language. Even from within a company, speaking with a heavy accent can stunt your upward movement.
But I don’t have an accent
Even if you don’t have an accent, you may still be affected by the diverse individuals you interact with. Pronouncing names, objects, or places in another language may be something you aren’t very familiar with, and can make you come off as unintelligent or unworldly.
You’re meeting with Mr. Nguyen this afternoon. How are you going to pronounce his name? Unless you said something close to “Mr. Win”, there is a good chance that your contact may either be offended or lower their opinion of you.
Quite often in work environments, ethnic groups tend to stick together. This is largely due to increased familiarity, and a certain degree of comfort attained when speaking and interacting with people of their own heritage.
If you can’t pronounce their names or common terms correctly, you may be viewed as the “typical American” who can’t learn anything about a culture other than their own. Caucasian workers often cast jokes and stereotypes about minority groups, but minority groups also create their own jokes and stereotypes about Caucasians.
Although hilarious at times, stereotypes push preconceived notions upon us and are continual sources of hurt for a staggering number of people all over the world. Whether you have an accent or not, the goal should be to lessen the cultural and linguistic differences that separate us. You may also want to review best practices when dealing with those who speak ESL (English as second language).
Even your (easy to pronounce) name creates perceptions about you
Simply having an ethnic sounding name can also hinder your image. Such as with a strong accent, a heavily ethnic sounding name may lead people to believe you aren’t familiar with standard business practices, or that you don’t completely understand the English language.
The situation can also flip, and managers and directors with ethnic backgrounds may tend to avoid individuals with simple American names such as Hank Smith or Bob Jones. Very common names can relay the image of simplicity and lack of depth in personality or expertise.
The solution is to brand yourself wisely, control what is controllable, and be proactive in shaping the way others perceive you.
Cultural awareness is a two way street
In order to create diverse, inclusive, and productive work environments, we all need to work together and conquer our cultural differences. Language and heritage are fundamental elements that make us different, but it is from leveraging our differences that we can gain broader perspectives and create better solutions.
Effective communication is key, and immigrants and minority individuals should be proactive about broadening their English skills. Practice pronunciations and expand vocabularies, even if it’s just a little at a time.
The same goes for native English speakers, who should open themselves to a world full of amazing cultures, languages, and people. It’s hard to know where to begin; looking to some of your ethnic co-workers may be a great place to start, and I’m sure they would appreciate it.
Be culturally aware. Stay proactive. Embrace differences.