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Do you speak with an accent?

July 7, 2008

Accents and “getting ahead” – a newswire story in June caught my eye: “some visible minority managers believe they have to shed …even their accent” to succeed in Canada’s corporate world. (“Canada’s minority managers feel they must assimilate to get ahead”-June 25/08/canwest news service)

Catalyst, an international organization working to advance opportunities for women in business, recently released a study based on 19 focus groups involving professionals from across Canada. More than 17,000 managers were interviewed. The Catalyst study found that some visible minority managers believe they have to “assimilate” to “get ahead”.

Respondents cited their belief that “shedding accents” as well as learning idiomatic expressions of “mainstream Canada” helped them with job promotion. In particular, some south Asian participants stated their perception that “dressing/speaking” like white colleagues helped them climb the corporate ladder while black participants “were more likey to believe their race, rather than their culture” was a barrier to advancement. The study, fourth in a series on the status of visible miniorities in the workplace, was sponsored by the Royal Bank, Deloitte and Touche and IBM Canada.

I’m curious – for our readers out there – what’s it like in the corporate world, or in any work setting, if you self-identify as a “visible minority” or “person of colour”?

And what’s your experience if you don’t self identify as an “other” but work with people who do?

If you are an IT worker in, for example, Toronto, working with a team of colleagues who meet only by webcast/telephone, do you feel you have to “negotiate” accents in order to get the job done, in order to communicate with your co/workers?

As a unilingual communications worker, I’ve sometimes found myself struggling with “other people’s accents” – so there’s a juxtaposition – a brown skinned woman, whose only language is english, sometimes inadvertently revealing impatience with my colleagues. Yikes. Has this happened to you? On either end of the receiving line of the “accent” divide?

One of my favorite Canadian writers is the award winning poet, Gary Geddes. Born in Vancouver in 1940, he received his PhD in English from U of T and the critic George Woodcock, another Canadian icon of english letters, describes Geddes as Canada’s best political poet. Here’s a quote from Geddes about self-definition as “other” which i keep printed out on a card on my writing table.

“Our culture in Canada, perhaps even more so in BC, has always been anti-intellectual, afraid of the mind and …of the imagination, resources cherished in many other countries. I had to work hard to overcome the sense that I should be seen and not heard, that my accent was odd and my thought processes were unattractive. We all live with that as Canadians.”

An old white guy, a prominent Canadian poet, sayin‘ you know, stuff. What do you think of that? Do you think you have an “accent”? Does your accent hinder your perception of “getting ahead”? Of “fitting in”?

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. July 13, 2008 7:03 pm

    sorry: meant to add – this ‘deep socialization’ in English often involves a deep vertical-English inflection, which can help to get at deep-rooted meaning in the language. People with accents, coming in at a 45 degree angle from another language (if you like) may have to drill longer to get to semantic bedrock… A parallel – few authors can write beautifully in a non-native tongue.

  2. July 13, 2008 6:56 pm

    My exp in IT is that Asians are given the benefit of the doubt of being smarter-than-whites-at-this. Accents don’t really matter. But.
    Much of the high leverage semantics stuff – the use cases and subsequent object modeling, for instance, which starts with declarative statements about work domains or spheres – these require a deep grasp of English culture and English idiums. And these people tend to be the architects and IT leaders.
    “To complete a quote and transform a quote into an order, customer service personnel want to VIEW, TRANSFORM and MODIFY a quote (where ‘-transform’ refers to changing its order/quote status, and ‘modify’ refers to changing product composition and quantity of product(s), or delivery information)…”

    This is a simple example… there are much more complex ones. Many elite jobs ( architect) require not so much a canadian-eh accent, but a socialization in the english language that is pretty deep, and recognisable to the (english speaking) industry vertical.

  3. canworldjon permalink*
    July 13, 2008 6:50 am

    I know St. Anthony’s! Up near the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula, and a short drive from UNESCO L’Anse aux Meadows site. It’s tiny— must have been a radical adjustment from Mumbai.

  4. reneethewriter permalink
    July 10, 2008 6:23 pm

    Hey canworldjon,

    Thanks for the great vibe…i started out my life in Canada with my parents in St.John’s; we also made it up to St.Anthony where my parents worked at the Grenfell Mission. This was in the early 60’s. My parents migrated straight from Bombay/Mumbai so it was quite the experience – one they cherished. Yay Newfies!!

  5. canworldjon permalink*
    July 10, 2008 3:17 am

    Jennifer: Rick Mercer rules. 🙂

    Renee: where in NFLD? loved the post, by the way!

  6. fmf permalink
    July 9, 2008 9:37 pm

    I think it depends on the social/racial climate of the situation…and which particular accent is in question.

    In the most professional of environments (a workspace which some of us take for granted) I haven’t seen or heard of outright discrimination based on accents. However, in just about every other work environment I think having an accent is a disadvantage most of the time. Some are more charming than others and can benefit the speaker. I find it more of an issue in America than in Canada. A person with a heavy southern drawl or a New Jersey ..whatever they call it there…it tends to bring immediate assumptions on the persons disposition and intelligence.

    Hmm, I can’t remember if you were specifically looking for the ESL accent or accent in general. You certainly don’t need a second language to be incomprehensible to others. I couldn’t understand a British countryside collegue for the life of me. Spoke to her for 45 mins and I can’t even tell what on earth we talked about. Frustrating.

    As for culturally defined thought processes? I think that’s another can of worms.

  7. July 9, 2008 5:08 am

    Another of my accent-related prejudices: I tend to find people with Newfie accents to be terribly funny. As in Rick Mercer-funny. My sister-in-law has been dating a lawyer from Newfoundland for years, and I find everything he says to be utterly hilarious. Must be all those years watching ‘This Hour’.

    Another accent story: my mother-in-law came to Canada from England in the 1950s with her family when she was a teenager. She was a couple of years younger than her sister, and yet she retained her Essex accent almost unaltered until she died, while her older sister developed a ‘Canadianized’ accent that still sounds vaguely British but has particularly harsh ‘R’s, possibly due to spending lot of time in the U.S.

    BTW, isn’t it interesting that an accent might just determine the outcome of the next Canadian federal election? How sad is that?

  8. reneethewriter permalink
    July 9, 2008 3:15 am

    Hi canworldjon,
    I enjoyed reading about your Dad – very much. Would you believe i started out my life in Canada in NFLD Yay Newfies!!

    Accents fascinate me – especially the way the come and go; get enhanced; and your Dad’s story resonates with Gary Geddes experience re – “I had to work hard to overcome the sense … that my accent was odd …We all live with that as Canadians.”

    Thank you for your patience for those of us who may struggle with second languages – that is good karma.

  9. canworldjon permalink*
    July 8, 2008 12:58 am

    How about a different dimension to the Accent Canada question? My dad is, you know, one of those white guys, but he’s a Newfoundlander with a strong Newfoundland accent born of a childhood and formative years living in a remote outpost fishing village. When he deciding to leave his hometown — the local community collapsed with the cod stocks — one of the biggest obstacles for him to overcome was his accent: many in the “business world” refused to take him seriously with a thick “newfie” accent.

    I too bear the mark of Atlantic Canadian roots, but my accent is subtle enough that I only rarely get some comments about this or that phrase or pronunciation. Yet, I tend to have over-the-top patience with those struggling with their second language (enter joke: because we eastern Canadians have such trouble with our first language).

    There’s split personalities… how about split language lives? One of the interesting things about my father is that he’s able to switch his thick accent on and off so well; day to day he uses his more benign “Canadian” accent; but catch him on the phone at night speaking with relatives back on the Rock, and he’ll be ranting like he never left.

  10. reneethewriter permalink
    July 7, 2008 10:29 pm

    Dear Adrian, greenjenny, orcaeyes, and d’wayne marsonis: thank you all for taking the time to post today – i love readin’/thinkin’/hearin’ about Accents in Canada.

    My apologies for the broken links in this post – i tried to fix them up, but alas, not workin’.

    the Catalyst study is “Career Advancement in Corporate Canada: A Focus on Visible Minorities – Workplace fit and stereotyping at and follow the links.

    I’m not sure whether the authors of the study defined “black”/”white” but greenjenny’s posts are worth think’ about re the variety of accents in any group of people, including people of colour.

    As a brown who speaks only English; or “Anglish” as i like to call it, i do think Canadians do some funky stuff regarding what gets defined as “acceptable”/”understandable” and in British Columbia, oh boy, that gets played out on the WISE (welsh/irish scottish/english and “everyone” else continuum…

    I’ll try and post more on this…i’m re/reading John Porter’s The Vertical Mosaic (1965) which first explored ‘accentism.’

    thanks everyone. more, later.

  11. July 7, 2008 9:41 pm

    I have an accent, although difficult for people to define because it is a result of the multicultural mix of my family. It has never handicapped me, although I think I speak slow enough for anyone to understand. I caught the habit of speaking slowly after many years of traveling in foreign countries, where speaking slowly is the key to understanding and being understood.

    My husband has a very thick French accent and sometimes find it hard in meetings to communicate properly (he’s in IT), he is going though a lot of work to shed some of that accent but decided people would have to deal with some of it (it’s cute anyways he thinks!), some of his colleagues are from south Asia or from Japan or even worse are from the UK(!), they all have accents!

    Living in Vancouver helps because almost everyone you meet at work comes from a different place. I’m pretty sure it’s as hard to understand a very thick Scottish accent as it is to understand a Japanese person who has been learning English for only a couple of months. (No offense to the Scots, I count some of “them wee nutters” amongst my close friends…) )

  12. July 7, 2008 8:48 pm

    (That would be an “ugly anti-immigrant sentiment“. I hate WordPress.)

  13. July 7, 2008 8:45 pm

    I would have been very interested to know if there were any significant differences within the “black” focus group between recent immigrants and those who were born here, or between those with strong accents and those without. I always find it annoying that “black” is used as such a blanket term in Canada when surely the experiences and issues for a child of Jamaican immigrants, a descendant of American slaves, a Somali refugee and a black person from England are all going to be vastly different.

    In fact, I have often wondered how much racism in Canada might actually be attributed to ‘accentism’. As a white Canadian of British ancestry, I know that I have a bad tendency to subconsciously assume that people with British accents (especially ‘upper class’ ones) are smarter or better educated than people with a strong American accent, or even just a regular Canadian one, regardless of skin colour. It’s a ridiculous stereotype, of course, but I can’t seem to shake it. And I’m pretty sure it’s not just me.

    I wonder if it isn’t a residue of Canada’s British roots and the rigid British class system that we tend to judge people more on how “well” they speak than on the colour of their skin. And I wonder how much this applies in other Commonwealth countries. Are certain Indian or Pakistani accents considered to be ‘better’ than others in those countries? Do people from some Caribbean island nations look down on others because of how they speak?

    Anyway, that’s the generous interpretation. The ungenerous one would be that it’s a symptom of an ugly anti-immigrant among some Canadians.

  14. d'wayne marsonis permalink
    July 7, 2008 8:26 pm

    If you speak wtih an accent and your accent makes you difficult to understand, you’ll be at a disadvantage. Most people won’t want to make the effort to understand you because they’re busy and and they really don’t like expending more effort than is necessary. Like all (b)others you have to work harder and succeed. If you prove yourself valuable to them, they’ll listen and make the effort. cf. jean chretien vs stephane dion.

  15. Adrian permalink
    July 7, 2008 7:14 pm

    Alas, as a bilingual Canadian (though my French is surely declining), my only experience on the other side of the accent divide is when I speak French. This is particularly curious in France where my French accent is identified as “American”. In fact, whenever I chose to correct people on this, they were always slightly disappointed and certainly less impressed with my French as a Canadian than as an American. In short, the “American” accent tended to impress, and mislead as to where I was from. People do draw conclusions about you and the act of having to “correct the record” can be frustrating and ponderous.

    I hasten to add my experience is hardly analogous to the real problems people face described in your article above.

    Will be interested to hear the responses. to your piece.

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