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Accent Discrimination

We Asked People with the 'Worst British Accent' How Much It Affects Their Lives

Accent discrimination can supposedly impact people both economically and socially, with 80 percent of employers saying they make discriminative hiring decisions based on them.

by Nick Chester
02 May 2017, 11:00am

Right after your face, the next thing guaranteed to turn new people against you is your voice. At least, that's if you have an irritating one, or an accent the person you're meeting has a personal prejudice against. Perhaps you're blessed with a strong Brummie or Glaswegian lilt and people immediately assume you're thick. Or a voice like Eddie Redmayne, and the misfortune of sounding exactly like someone who stands to inherit vast swathes of central London.

Either way, in an era in which discussions around privilege and identity regularly dominate headlines, accent discrimination is rarely the subject of serious debate. But it probably should be, considering studies indicate that 80 percent of employers make discriminative hiring decisions based on regional accents, and that accent-based prejudice can influence social and economic decisions. 

Those with posher accents are frequently perceived as being smarter and recruited for the best-paid jobs, while accents viewed as working class are generally seen as less suited for the top positions. Scouse, however, is perhaps the most maligned accent of all. A 2013 study revealed it's perceived as the UK's most unintelligent, unfriendly and untrustworthy accent.


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So does this research correlate with the experiences of people on the streets? Are those with regional accents genuinely marginalised, or are they able to shrug off the stereotypes and carry on unhindered? I took a clipboard to the streets of Liverpool and surveyed 100 passersby, figuring the best way to gain an insight into the true extent of accent discrimination was to look at the city it supposedly affects the most. 

The survey revealed that although regional accents can be a source of prejudice, they can also be beneficial in certain situations. Just over a third of those surveyed claimed to have been discriminated against due to their accent, but a significant number also said it gained them favourable treatment from other Scousers. 

James, a London transplant who's lived in the city for some time, told me that the fact he'd developed a Scouse accent meant he was more accepted by the locals. "I'm just seen as one of them, even though I'm black," he said. "They think, 'He's Scouse, so he's the right type of black.' If I had a different accent, they might see me as more of an outsider."

"By speaking in a certain accent, that shows people you're coming from a certain region, and that triggers an additional in-group/out-group discrimination phenomena."

The notion that people with a specific regional accent are biased towards those with different accents is backed up by the findings of research by Dr Stephan Heblich. He conducted an experiment in which subjects were given the choice of either cooperating or competing with participants with different accents during cognitive tests. The study revealed that those involved were more likely to cooperate with individuals with accents associated with their home region, and to compete against those with other accents. "By speaking in a certain accent, that shows people you're coming from a certain region, and that triggers an additional in-group/out-group discrimination phenomena," Dr Heblich told me.

Heblich believes that this is due to two factors: people's desire to be around accents they're accustomed to hearing, and the influence of stereotypical beliefs about certain regions. "I think it's a matter of familiarity, and I think it's because of old stereotypes," he said. "People in different places sometimes make small jokes about each other. Even if you make these small jokes and you don't really mean them, I have a feeling that they might influence behaviour in economically relevant actions."

Others seemed to think that although accent prejudice sometimes causes Scousers to be looked down upon, it has little effect on serious issues like employment. "People look at your skills and how you come across, not where you're from," said *Lee, pictured above. "I don't think they look at your accent."

Only 12 percent of those surveyed believed that accent discrimination had affected their job prospects. The most commonly reported prejudices were those that some might term "microaggressions" – casual and often subtle slights. One lady told me that a request she made for a specific table in a restaurant had been turned down, only for the table to then be given to someone with a posher accent. Another spoke of being looked up and down at the theatre as if she shouldn't be there the minute she spoke and revealed her Scouseness. 

It's worth noting that many of the participants felt they would have been subjected to more serious forms of discrimination if they lived or worked outside of Liverpool. Although accent prejudice is possibly a case of people discriminating against those with any accent different to their own, rather than specific accents being targeted, this is still likely to have a disproportionate impact on some regions. Many of the top jobs are in the south, and people with posh accents are far more likely to be in positions of authority than those with regional dialects, meaning that inter-accent discrimination disproportionately disadvantages people with northern and/or working class accents.

Heblich believes the solution might be for people to learn to drop their regional accents in favour of a "standard accent" when it's beneficial to do so. He stresses that it would be a shame for them to abandon these accents altogether, and that they could still use them throughout the course of their everyday lives. 

Another option, of course, is for people to simply stop judging others based upon arbitrary characteristics they have little to no control over. Mind you, sadly, we know how slim the chances are of that ever happening. 

@nickchesterv

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