Research by employment law advisers Peninsula found that two-thirds of job applicants had tried to hide their accents durning interviews and that most employers knew of cases where people had been discriminated against because of the way they spoke.
We should take this with a small pinch of salt as Peninsula are prolific survey producers and they haven’t said much about the questions they asked in this survey. Nevertheless, the findings do seem plausible, based on anecdotal evidence.
It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.
Of course, there is no legal protection against accent discrimination, although anyone who felt they were being persistently picked on because of their accent could probably claim that they were being bullied.
So is a regional accent behaviour? Is a refusal to change the way you speak the same as, say, refusing to smarten up the way you dress? Or is it something you are, as hard to change as your skin colour or sexual orientation?
The answer seems to lie somewhere in between. Some people can change their accents with enough training and practice. Like learning any new skill, it is much easier when you are young. I once read some research, which I can’t find so it must have been published before the Interweb was invented, that found changing your accent becomes much more difficult after your early twenties. After the age of 22, the authors reckoned, most people would find it almost impossible to lose their accents, although some modification was still possible.
That said, why should you change your accent? Should you have to pander to other people’s prejudices? Those who are confident about themselves often make their accents a feature of who they are. It becomes part of their ‘personal brand’ (yes, yes, I know but everyone’s at it these days). BBC presenter Adrian Chiles speaks with the hated Brummie accent but, rather than hide it, he has made it a badge of honour.
But there is another good reason not to change your accent. Unless you are a very good mimic, the chances are you’ll make a hash of it. There is nothing more embarrassing than someone trying to hide their accent and failing. I come from the northern half of England where people tend to say ‘boos pass’ rather than ‘bus parse’ and use ‘tooffened glass’ not ‘tuffened glarse’ in their windows. A few years ago, a lad I knew from school started to mix with some posh southerners. He tried to bury his accent under what he thought was a good imitation of Home Counties English. One evening in the pub he told his drinking mates how rich his new girlfriend’s ‘grarndfather’ was. We waited until he went to the bog then the rest of us fell about laughing.
You see, no-one says ‘grarndfather’, not even very posh people. Even the Queen doesn’t say ‘grarndfather’. In his attempt to fit in with his new friends, our old school-pal had started to speak with his own interpretation of a posh accent. Sadly, he was well wide of the mark.
The tragedy was that, while those of us who had known him for years thought his attempts to talk posh were amusing, his new friends were almost certainly laughing at him behind his back too. They would probably have had more respect for him had he been true to himself, flat vowels and all.
While there may be some benefit in trying to modify your speech to get rid of some of the worst excesses, I would never suggest that anyone tried to completely change their accent. Fretting about the way you speak will only reduce your self-esteem and make you sound even more awkward. At worst, as with my friend, it can make you sound ridiculous.
Ignore the critics, both inside and out. As Adrian Chiles has shown, in the right hands, even a Brummie accent can be an asset.