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When Words Get in the Way

When I was in kindergarten, my parents were called to the local school offices because the district speech pathologist had diagnosed me as having a speech impediment: my Southern drawl. We had moved to a small town near Buffalo, N.Y., from southern Mississippi. Both of my parents had very strong accents, and the cultural stereotypes against us came out very quickly, even affecting my mother’s ability to secure a part-time job. The speech discrimination drove my mother the craziest, especially once it affected my school life. I can still remember sitting in the pathologist’s office repeating “r” sounds ad nauseum. I suppose they were successful because when I moved back to the Deep South as an adult, most natives expressed surprise that I also was a native since “I didn’t sound like one.”

I mention this because of an interesting study that recently came out on perceptions of regional accents.

Southerners sound dumb but kind, the authors propose, while Northerners sound more intelligent and “in charge.” As the story reminds us, accents have been a part of social constructs for millennia.

In the job market, I have seen regional accents come into play a surprising number of times. I once heard someone who had interviewed a native Minnesotan say that he wished he’d had closed-captioning for the interview. I have heard people complain about someone from Massachusetts sounding like a cartoon character. Even at academic conferences, I have heard questions aimed more at the accent of the presenter than at the contents of the paper. “Talk some more,” one questioner offered, “I love hearing that Southern accent of yours. It’s nice to hear good ideas delivered with such a twang.” I once knew a young scholar from the South whose birth name was “Jimmy Dick” and who possessed a very strong accent; I advised him to change the name on his résumé to “J.D.” and to attempt to level out his accent.

I would like to think that I am overstating the biases in academe, but my sense is that regional discrimination is alive and well (and it cuts in many different directions).

What advice might you offer to someone who is applying for a job in a region where he or she has not lived?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Tim Morgan]

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