Only very rarely are foreigners or first-generation immigrants allowed to be nice people in American films. Those with an accent are bad guys.
–Max von Sydow
I used to say that whenever people heard my Southern accent, they always wanted to deduct 100 IQ points.
Whether your presentation is persuasive or not depends on many things. How well you’ve thought out your message. Your audience’s attitude toward you. Whether they see you as authoritative on your subject. And, it turns out, your accent. The results of a recent study showed what many frequent presenters already knew– people with accents are often seen to be less credible than others. Researchers found that people, after hearing simple statements in accented English:
“Instead of perceiving the statements as more difficult to understand, they perceive them as less truthful,” Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar said in the study
The result of this unconscious mental operation has an “insidious impact on millions of people, who routinely communicate in a language which is not their native tongue,” they said, adding that an accent might reduce the credibility of job seekers, eyewitnesses, reporters or news anchors.
In the first study 30 people listened to phrases such as “a giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can” or “ants don’t sleep” in Austrian-German, Korean, Italian, Polish, Turkish and other accents and graded them as to how likely they were to be true.
“People were just influenced by the accent, so when people had an accent people rated the sentences as being less true than when people heard them without an accent,” Lev-Ari, a post-doctoral researcher in psychology, explained.
In my experience it’s not just foreign accents that are an issue. Trainers from Texas have told me that they sometimes flatten out their accents when dealing with people from other parts of the country in order to be taken more seriously– but that they sometimes turn the accent up a notch in order to wage a charm offensive. Personally, I was shocked when I had an HR manager ask me not to assign a trainer with a heavy Boston accent to teach a writing class because she thought that the accent would diminish the trainer’s authority. I was disappointed, but she may have had a point. What’s more important, giving everyone the chance to teach a class, or making it effective?
There are a couple of ways we can use this information. Speakers should be aware of their accents and try to minimize them if they might otherwise impact their ability to be persuasive. Remember that you may not think of yourself having an accent where you live, but that people from London, India, Japan or Rome may hear you differently.
I hope that knowing the effect of a speaker’s accent can help us all be better listeners, too. The truth is that we all have an accent somewhere; just because a speaker sounds different than you do doesn’t mean they aren’t right.
(For the record, my brief internet research shows that some ants do sleep, but that a giraffe can go longer without water than a camel can).
Read more: Accents and Persuasion