Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Don't be a phoney

Accents are often under scrutiny when you study English Language: Howard Giles's "matched guise" experiment showed that even read the same script, many people will find certain accents more believable or trustworthy. Here an article from the Independent earlier in the month, suggests you shouldn't try too hard to sound posh as you might not get the response you're after...

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Cultivating a phone voice is all well and good, but stay true to yourself, says Andrea Wren
from the Independent from 05 May 2005

As if there's not enough to think about when you are stepping out into a brave new world after graduation, you can add your accent into the equation. You may have laughed at your mother for answering calls in her "phone voice", but you could find yourself doing it as well.

Posh is passé. A recent survey from independent communications consultancy The Aziz Corporation said that almost half of UK company directors and senior managers believe that a plummy or posh upper-class accent is now a hindrance rather than a help when it comes to succeeding in business. "The days when speaking with 'the right accent' was a prerequisite to rising in the business world are all but gone," says chairman Khalid Aziz.

But this doesn't mean that a broad, regional brogue is any better for business: the survey found that having what it described as a "working-class" accent is considered even worse than a plummy one, with 86 per cent feeling that it is a disadvantage in business.

In fact, those who fare the best, according to the report, are the people with a "neutral" accent, with 64 per cent of respondents believing it to be a strong advantage. So should it be, then, that graduates attempt to change the twang they've grown up with and start neutralising their tones? Well, it might depend on the type of career they are looking for.

Stuart Baddley, careers adviser for Select Appointments, thinks there are two main issues graduates must think about when considering how accents impact upon their career. "There are accents that fit, such as local ones which are identifiable with their audience; and accents that don't, because they are connected with class or culture." So, while you may speak the Queen's English, if you are working on an inner-city youth project, it might take time to gain trust from the people you are working with.

Jan Murray's experience reflects this. She edits a magazine for young people in care and having had elocution lessons at an early age, her Liverpool roots are impossible to detect. Murray says, "I've had young people start off very hostile towards me who have later admitted they thought I was too 'posh' to understand what they were going through. I notice that lots of the social workers I work with have quite strong south-east accents and that seems to break down barriers with young people."

However, Karen Todd, a local sourcing manager for Asda, feels that her Tyneside accent helps in her dealings with local farmers. "Some of the customers I meet may never have dealt with a large retailer before. Having a Geordie accent means I can win their confidence and trust." So, while the survey claims that in the business world we should be opting for neutral tones rather than posh or working class, some career sectors beg to differ.

International voice coach Janet Howd (, who trains actors and non-native speakers, says, "What is important is whether people understand you. In public speaking, for instance, the audience is the centre of attention. We should be placing the emphasis on pronunciation, rather than accent, to make our voices clear to others."

If you work internationally, this is important. Of her last job, Neamh Whorley says, "I worked with clients from Europe and was aware that my Yorkshire accent and dialect would not be understood by them. I had to train myself to not slip into slang so I would not confuse people."

Baddley's advice to graduate job-seekers is to do your research about the culture of the organisation you are applying to. Ask yourself, "Will I fit?" At interview, think about your "sitting down presentation skills", which includes your verbal communication. Though he doesn't suggest you should try to change your accent, nor cultivate a phone voice reminiscent of your mother's, Baddley does feel that you might need to tone it down if it's particularly strong, so that other people know what you are talking about.

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