Killing the Southern Accent


How we perceive our world is heavily influenced by how those around us perceive it. Or how they project it.

For instance, a Southern accent is often used in media, particularly television and movies, to project the image of someone uneducated and not very bright. Think of Gomer Pyle, Forrest Gump, or Boss Hogg. Now I’ll grant that each of these characters were in television shows that had other southern characters that were bright and clever.  However, those characters usually had less accent. Apparently it is assumed by some that more accent equals less intelligence.

George Washington Portrait

Of course there was a time when people of the South were, at least in some circles, held in much higher esteem. Prior to the Civil War, Southerners were often considered differently. Every region of our country had many poor, uneducated citizens, regardless of accent. At the same time, many Southerners were considered not only great statesmen and diplomats but also great military leaders and intellectuals of influence.

George Washington led the forces of the American Revolution and our government. Thomas Jefferson was the lead author of the Declaration of Independence. James Madison is considered the father of the Constitution and George Mason the author of the Bill of Rights. All were Southerners.

Even as years passed, Southerners continued to be seen as smart and savvy. At the start of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s first choice to lead the Union Army was General Robert E. Lee. A Southerner.

It is true the South has influence in government again and there have since been recent presidents from the South. At the same time, I have been told on multiple occasions that specifically because of my Southern accent, I may not be taken as seriously in business, especially by company leaders. It was suggested I should take lessons to kill my Southern accent. Such suggestions bring three thoughts to mind:

1.  My accent may stand out more because many regional accents, due to the homogenization of language by television and movies, are starting to slowly disappear across our country. What a shame. Language styles in each part of our country are part of the unique cultures that make us all interesting and diverse.

2.  Surely company leaders across the country are smart enough to realize accent stereotypes are just that, stereotypes, not necessarily reality.

3.  Interestingly, #2 above is frequently not true.

At the risk of sounding overly defensive (which I don’t think I am), it also makes me wonder which should be considered the least intelligent: The person with a pronounced accent OR the person that can’t see past stereotypes?

Interestingly, there are very positive aspects of such an accent. While some people are quick to discount someone with a Southern accent, I have found times it has been very helpful in business. I’ve been involved in business deals where my colleagues from northern states said my accent allows me to be more direct without offense. They claim I can say things they can’t because my accent projects greater sincerity and helps build rapport.

Although I realize there may be some people that might not take me seriously due to my accent, I’ve decided that’s okay. In fact, it is possible that anyone that can’t see past a stereotype of language (or other stereotypes for that matter), may struggle to properly see other aspects of our project together. Successful projects usually have the vision to see past assumptions and find better ways to do things. This requires the ability to see the world from the perspective of others.

Naturally, the assumptions about accents can be about more than just Southern accents. It can be any accent. Like most communication issues, it is not always about just the words but how they are presented and, most importantly, how they are heard.

All of this reminds me of something I heard from Dr. Johnnie Vinson, one of my professors at Auburn University, “We may talk slow. That doesn’t mean we think slow.”

 


Glenn S. Phillips is the author of Nerd-to-English: Your Everyday Guide to Translating Your Business, Your Messages, and Yourself. His website, www.nerdtoenglish.com, will lead you to more information about effective communication training, risk assessments and genuinely helpful tips. You can email Glenn directly at glennsphillips@nerdtoenglish.com.

© Copyright 2012.  Glenn S. Phillips and Forte’ Incorporated. (205) 985-1111

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About the Author

Glenn S. Phillips works with leaders who want to leverage technology and understand risks within. An author and blogger, Glenn is often quoted in national media, plays a really ugly tuba (it even has a bullet hole) and is a fan of dark chocolate and great puns.