Jul 022011

My British accent is an asset in the US, or so people tell me. My ‘merican husband swears it lets me get away with things I shouldn’t. I think that most folks here are curious and friendly and I think my accent might inspire more of that. But isn’t curiosity and friendliness the human condition anyway?

What’s rarely understood is a British accent is a barrier in some contexts here. I maintain that it can stop communication dead. Try going into the Philadelphia Parking Authority to buy a residents’ parking permit with a British accent and you’ll see eyes glaze over as soon as you open your mouth. You can almost hear the clerk thinking: ‘I’m not going to understand you – I need to stall you and send you away’. So when they tell you to go home to get more documents that you know you don’t need, you ask, ‘But do you understand?’. They shake their head.

Something that happened today: I’m applying for medical insurance from a company called Blue Cross and they wanted my last three blood pressure readings. As a patient, I’m entitled to this information but Blue Cross is not. So I needed to contact my doctor’s surgery. I filled in a consent form. I sent them a cheque. I called (many times) and waited on the phone (often being cut off). I needed to come into the surgery, they couldn’t tell me over the phone, they didn’t have the records, it would take two weeks, they’d mail me (sometime) …

Today Betsy from Blue Cross kindly agreed to conference call them with me. She had no right to the information but Betsy has a lovely midwest accent. She only got cut off once before we got put through. And then she just had to ask for the readings and they told her right away. Ha! I couldn’t believe my ears!

I think there might have been an element of collegiality operating here – one health care professional talking to another. But I also think her accent was crucial. Betsy sounded familiar and trustworthy. I want an accent like Betsy’s!

And all this has been a rather long introduction to a video on Americans’ views of British accents. (Thanks for passing it along Sabrina – So glad to see your excellent blog ) expanding. More! more!

So any thoughts on what British accents mean to Americans – or vice versa?

 Posted by at 5:59 am

  3 Responses to “A double edged sword”

  1. Hello Vickie:
    Back in the seventies, John T. Molloy wrote a “how-to” book called “Dress for Success,” about succeeding in business (it spawned the phrase). He did a survey of accents among a group of what I assume were representative Americans, about the value of a cultured accent. The winner? A London cabbie with an eighth grade education. That in itself, proves nothing, and in your particular situation I think the socio-economic status of your interlocutors had a great deal to do with your problems. As far as a midwest accent implying collegiality, I think the operative issue here is one of simple comprehension. To a poorly-educated Northeastern American, even a clear, well-modulated Standard British accent can be a trial. A Scottish or northern English accent can be incomprehensible, or for that matter, a central Mississippiean accent. I’m a writer and editor with an excellent ear for dialect and language (I speak fluent, though rusty French, and I recently fooled my London-educated surgeon with my RP accent which I assumed one afternoon just for fun); he never noticed, even though he knew I was a New Jersey resident), but when watching an English show on television, I don’t always get everything they say. To conclude this rather verbose response, various accents register negatively with different groups of people; that also can be a bit of the problem.

  2. Well that’s it in a nutshell, right??
    Well done!

  3. Marc – what a pleasure to meet you and thank you so very much for these wonderful thoughts. There’s so much that rings true here, and I’m sure you’re right about about the midwest accent being very comprehensible.

    And how funny that a London cabbie won the cultured accent test! London cabbies are famous for having excellent memories, but cultured accents? Ha, no!

    For folks who don’t know, the drivers of London’s famous black cabs have to pass a very rigorous test called ‘The Knowledge’, (short for the knowledge of London) where they have to memorise all the street in London so they can immediately work out the fastest route from A to B. It’s no mean feat. It generally takes about 3 years of study and cabbies generally fail about a dozen times before they pass. My father-in-law was a London cabbie and he literally walked the streets to learn the routes and dreamt about the street names (nightmares, I think). These days I think trainee cabbies might use motorbikes.

    Back in 1980, a London cabbie won ‘Mastermind’ – a very erudite BBC quiz show. The media loved it because it was a wonderful story of intellect over formal education. He’d left school around sixteen with just one O’level (a kind of exam we used to have – getting at least five was the minimum for getting into most further education courses) According to this site he presented some radio shows for a couple of years but he has continued to drive a cab up to this day.

    It would be fun to find out what accents American perceive as most cultured/comprehensible/likeable. Maybe we could devise an test to compare with Malloy’s and see how much (if at all) things have changed in this globally connected world.

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