It is indisputable that the way we sound has an impact on our communications—the 3 Vs. Communication Model designates that what we say, or verbal content is only 7%, the way we sound, or vocal content, is 38%, and the visual aspect of the communication, or non-verbal, is 55%. As someone who sounds with an accent, 38% of my communication needs addressing intentionally.
Learning a second language as an adult led me to speak with an accent, despite living in the USA for 25 years. “I noticed your accent. Where are you from?” I had lost count of how many times I’ve heard this question. When someone asks, I first want to know what is the other’s perceptions of my accent. For many, the question is a genuine expression of curiosity and an effort to connect. For others, it is a flag that I do not belong to their same social group because I don’t sound like them. They might shut down and stop listening when they dislike the way I speak. With time, I have developed an ability to capture the small nuances in verbal and nonverbal from the other person as they are processing my responses. The question of where you are from leads to nationality, and as you know, it is illegal to discriminate on national origin. In an age of social tensions, this question can become highly charged and even politized.
Dr. Katherine D. Kinzler, a psychologist from the University of Chicago, points out that when other people hear us speak, they infer many things about us, which may or may not be accurate. These are known as accent attitudes or preconceived notions of how a person sounds. When people judge a person based on their accent, they are not thinking about the person per se, they are thinking about the stereotypes associated with an accent, and they apply them to the speaker. And people believe their conclusions are accurate, not realizing they are bringing more of their stereotypes and not the person in front of them. You might notice a natural response when your interlocutor can bring their exposure to your culture. “My roommate in college was from ______.” And they say the name of the country. That is better than: “My cleaning lady has your same name.” I attended a work dinner one time, and one of the guests shouted out loud from the other side of the large table that I speak like Sofia Vergara. Everybody laughed but me, since I do not watch TV, I did not know the implications of the comment until I saw the first episode ever of ‘Modern Family”. And I realized that I do sound a little bit like her, LOL!. In my examples, people’s first impressions were already tinted by their memories of their roommate, cleaning lady, or TV show character, unless they are self-aware and culturally educated.
Accent Bias is an unhidden belief that imposes judgment about a specific person belonging to a cultural group based on stereotypes, using criteria of cultural acceptability. Is it possible that people with certain accents are disadvantaged in career progression and opportunities in life? If this is true, this can impact your ability to get a job offer since the employer might relate an accent with a lack of communication skills or might have doubts about your technical competence.
Some bilingual-bicultural career professionals experience linguistic insecurity. It can be that they have spoken in meetings and were treated poorly, or others have not understood them, or both. After an embarrassing situation, they shut down and miss opportunities to share their ideas and have a voice, which in return can become a career derailer. After such experiences, the person feels excluded and devaluated at work, which impacts engagement and performance.
Laura Huang published How to Overcome Workplace Prejudice about ‘Foreign Accents’ in the Financial Times. The author cites that recruiters, executives, angel investors, and venture capitalists experience biases. They tend to rate those with foreign accents as least influential, least likely to be team players, least innovative, and, as such, least qualified for upper-level management positions and start-up capital funding. These differences in perceptions have their roots in prejudices about how people sound and might have nothing to do with the candidate’s actual abilities and potential. There is also the gender factor, impacting more women with foreign accents because they might already face lower wages and fewer opportunities for vertical growth.
You might work for an organization with inclusive workplace practices that embrace or at least tolerate diversity. The fact that you had advanced with your foreign accent would attest to the inclusivity of your workplace, even if you had to make a daunting effort to make it.
I want you to know there are many advantages of being bilingual in the workplace. You can tap into the many opportunities when you realize that bilingualism can improve your competitiveness in the job market. Speaking another language gives you another perspective. Also, it makes you more creative and well-rounded.
As a leadership coach, I work with many bilingual-bicultural career women who have missed promotions. I help them embrace their bilingualism and tap into the strengths of managing two and sometimes three software of the mind when they speak three languages.
Even when I worked in global organizations for more than two decades, there were times I wanted to get rid of my accent. Then I joined Toastmasters International, and everything changed for me. Through years of practice in the safe environments of my clubs, I found my voice. After years of struggle, I finally came to terms with my accent. I learned I had important stories to share. I learned how to organize my ideas to present them impactfully to different audiences. Now, my foreign accent is part of my brand, and I am relentless about not giving my power away when someone makes a mixed comment about how I sound.
Here are 12 tips for you to consider. Some of them come from my own experiences as a bilingual-bicultural professional.
- Embrace your identity by recognizing that your bilingualism is a strength and a part of who you are. Educate yourself on the topic and be ready to share the value that you bring. For example, did you know that a bilingual brain is more adaptable than a monolingual? Dr. Katherine D. Kinzler’s book: “How You Say It” is a great source!
- Incorporate your bilingualism into your brand, and create a personal statement that embraces the way you speak. I introduce my accent in my ice-breakers because I anticipate my audience wants to know my place of origin. An intentional introduction allows me to manage first impressions confidently while being audience-centered.
- Focus on getting results. Your performance is the best demonstration that you are qualified to do your job, regardless of your accent.
- Seek resources to improve your language fluency if you are ineffective in certain areas of your job. Consider joining Toastmasters to learn public speaking skills. Your firm might have a corporate club. This could be a worthwhile investment in yourself with a long-lasting impact on the rest of your life!
- Know your strengths and own your areas of improvement. Seek ways to retool and improve your communications constantly. When I started using Grammarly, I became more confident about my written work and was more willing to share my ideas more openly.
- Assume a growth mindset by permitting yourself to accept your imperfections in the way you sound, especially when your pronunciation is not to the pair of a native English speaker. Don’t seek perfection but progress.
- Seek opportunities to tap into your multiculturalism. It could be that you can explore an international market for your organization and open new business opportunities because you are familiar with other cultures and are bilingual.
- Learn toolkits for effective communication practices during meetings and in other environments when you want to share your ideas. Practice being to the point and more concise when you have the room.
- Learn to inoculate yourself against the stereotypes, biases, and perceptions of others. You might get inspiration to educate your coworkers about your culture of origin and expand their awareness, helping them break stereotypes or limiting beliefs. They will be better off, and you will feel better in your workplace, a genuine win-win approach.
- When you feel psychologically safe, let others know how you feel after uncomfortable interactions related to your speaking. Your coworkers might not be that aware of their micro-aggressions and might shift their attitude toward more respect.
- If you work in a global organization, you can join a task force in an international team to work in a global initiative. Immersing yourself in a diverse linguistic background will make you feel like a ‘fish in water,’ Surrounding yourself with other multilingual colleagues might ease the pressures of being different. Also, you will gain visibility, new experiences, and impact.
- If you are in a job transition, seek to join organizations with a proven track record of diversity and inclusion. Ideally, conduct informational sessions with a few of the firm’s bilingual employees and ask them about their experience. When in interviews, pay attention to the nuances of native speaker interviewers. Were you feeling energized or drained? How did they make you feel? The interview environment is a micro-cosmos of the organization’s culture. Choose wisely, seeking cultural fit.
While there is a movement toward more diverse workplaces, there is a long way for inclusivity when we have to endure covered discrimination because of how we speak.
Speaking with an accent in the workplace can be the most enlightening experience when you become a living testimony of all the effort, discipline, and strength of character to make it where you are. You might be the one who had not received a promotion when you were ready. You probably were disqualified from a selection process when you met all the requirements. You might feel excluded from social gatherings at work when you are the only ‘foreign.’ Yet you are still unique and resilient because you have learned to overcome the barriers that others create while staying true to yourself in a predominantly monolingual culture. Being bicultural and bilingual is your edge. Claim it and be who you are entirely, especially when others notice your accent and ask you: Where are you from?