The other day I introduced a new co-worker to my pub quiz team. My American and German friend said that they really loved his accent; he’s a well educated British guy…well aside from the British and guy part, I said I assume he was well educated – you can tell from his accent. I was trying to explain to them that while, on the surface, it seems that Britain doesn’t have class systems anymore, you can tell a person’s upbringing, education and “class” by their accent.
Accent is a funny thing. I read a paper when I was in uni about how different accents make you feel certain ways, and so companies take advantage of this – for example, the Scottish accent will make you warm to the person and feel calm, so they put a lot of Scottish people in call centres. I had trouble in uni because of my accent – I have a typical RP, or “Queen’s English” accent, which usually tells people that you are well off and posh and stuck up. So this is how people thought of me, despite me telling people that I am normal, went to an average school and lived in some pretty rough areas when I grew up. People would take what I said and twist them to make it sound like I was looking down my nose at people, or just make rude and snide comments about my accent.
In Britain there is a north-south divide which I wasn’t even aware of until I went to uni. I’m from the south, and while people sometimes make jokes about Liverpudlians, or maybe about people from Newcastle, there’s rarely any bad mouthing of people from the north in general. The stuff I experienced at uni in Liverpool was just one part of it – when I was dating a guy from Middlesborough and I went to go stay with his family up there, his uncles and cousins had lots of stories and comments about how rude and stuck up and horrible southern people are. So when someone speaks the way I speak, all these images are brought up for a lot of people – even though I’m not like that.
On the flipside, my accent can (sadly) help me out in the working world – or at least in England. I’m not sure how true it is, but I’m told that people with RP accents are more likely to score top jobs and make good impressions in interviews. In an article I read this week, too, a brain surgeon comments that him being an East London boy is an unexpected thing, given his profession. Again, this comes down to accent – people don’t expect people with a “rough” London accent to do such a skilled job as brain surgery. Another good example is this woman from BBC News -
Most BBC news presenters have “clean” southern accents, but she has a very strong northern accent. She’s the business woman on the show and often explains all the complicated economical news, but some people find her accent very off putting, or out of place in this job.
Even my American friend couldn’t understand when I explained all this to her, so I think maybe, in the English-speaking world at least, it’s a British thing. Are there stereotypes or prejudice placed on certain accents where you are from?