Should I stop speaking like a Yank?
November 14, 2007 8:06 PM   Subscribe

My boss would like me to drop my accent by developing a Southern one. Is this a bad idea?

I live in the South (in the US). I was raised in the Western US by Yankee parents, so I have a Yankee accent. Now I have a good job (that I don't want to quit, so please don't suggest that) in the deep south.

My boss and co-workers say they can't always understand me. Part of this is because I mumble a bit, but I try to enunciate when they say, "what?"

I've never been good at mimicking accents, so my speech hasn't changed despite living here for over two years.

Yet every time I've spoken Southern, they claim I do a good job, but to me, it sounds like a cheap imitation. It also seems like I would have to speak Southern full time on the job otherwise the locals will think I am making fun of them. I would feel weird answering my cell ("oh, it is my parents, speak normally" vs "oh, it is Bob, step up the drawl.")

A guy I spoke with on the phone later asked my boss if I was a foreigner. (But maybe to him, foreigner=yank.)

Is there anything wrong with adopting an accent? If you are a native Southerner, would it make you mad to hear a Yank without an accent? Is there anything I am not considering?

(posting anon because my posting history would easily lead people to where I work and I don't want to get harassed)
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (62 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is there anything I am not considering?

I think there is. When exactly are you "speaking Southern"? Is it perhaps when you are making a joke or doing an impersanation of someone, and are therefore speaking in a louder, clear tone than the one you usually speak in?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:10 PM on November 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

That's absurd. Next you'll have to become a Southern Baptist and marry one of their daughters. When does it stop? How willing are you to conform for a paycheck?
posted by 45moore45 at 8:11 PM on November 14, 2007 [2 favorites]

That is absurd.

Speak clearly, that's all you need to do.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:17 PM on November 14, 2007 [4 favorites]

They'll get used to your accent. It's like parents who understand every word their mush-mouthed three-year-old says. They learned the "language." Your coworkers will learn yours.
posted by clh at 8:17 PM on November 14, 2007

For what it's worth, I've had to modify my New Zealand accent when travelling in the US to make myself understood, and I felt terrible, as though I were taking the piss, but nobody seemed to mind. My partner had a job in a call centre in Texas, and she had to do the same thing. And nobody minded.

If it's a matter of personal pride to speak as you were raised, then don't do it. But if you're worried about people thinking you're mocking them, I don't think that's going to be a problem. I mean, lots of people end up with hybrid accents if they move around, and you'll just sound like one of them.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:21 PM on November 14, 2007

The larger philosophical question is: how much of your own identity do you sacrifice in order to conform to the expectations of others?

If you go through your life constantly changing who you are in an impossible effort to get everyone to like you then I personally think that would be a pretty miserable existence.

Take this as an opportunity to define your character. Whatever you decide I would encourage you to be who you are - not what people want you to be.
posted by quadog at 8:26 PM on November 14, 2007

There are coaches out there that can help you reduce your accent and learn to speak Midwestern American English. Look for "accent reduction" or "speech coaching".

Whether you go for mastering Midwestern English or ot, someone like this may be able to help you figure out why, when you try to "speak southern", you are easier to understand. Are you actually achieving a southern accent? Hard to say -- but whatever you're doing, it's helping. It may be that one or two sessions could help you identify and isolate the improvements.
posted by amtho at 8:26 PM on November 14, 2007

A speech coach may also be able to help you stop mumbling, and could even help you learn to use your voice very effectively in all kinds of situations.
posted by amtho at 8:27 PM on November 14, 2007

My boss would like me to drop my accent by developing a Southern one. Is this a bad idea?

Yes. It's an completely ridiculous request and when you tell old friends why you are now speaking as a Southerner they'll probably think you're insane or, at best, easily swayed by the retarded suggestions of others. Don't do this.
posted by dhammond at 8:28 PM on November 14, 2007

I wouldn't change a thing. The way you speak is a deeply ingrained part of who you are. It is reflective of the experiences you've had and the places you've been. Others might struggle to understand you at first, but by golly, they might just learn something (acceptance anyone?) if they stick to it! Encourage them to make sense of your incomprehensibly strange, foreign ways. You've come too far to have to undo it all to make them feel more at ease.

That's a more conservative take from the "don't do it" camp. The rebellious side of me wants to let loose and rant on about how utterly asinine your boss' "request" very tempting to unleash here. But I also know that the rest of the hive will do it much more eloquently.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:30 PM on November 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

If it's a client-facing job, I'd consider taking your boss's advice, but if it's just for the sake of your coworkers, I imagine they'll get used to it if you stop mumbling. After all, they probably watch most TV (i.e. everything aside from local news) with no problem, right?
posted by juv3nal at 8:38 PM on November 14, 2007

What exactly do you mean by a Yankee accent?

Unless you sound like JFK, or someone from Southie, or a Maine lobsterman I don't see why you'd need to change accent to be understood, and I'd think that you'd be better off finding out what it really is that makes it hard for you to be heard.
posted by Jahaza at 8:41 PM on November 14, 2007

In general, it sounds like it would be a good idea to try to be aware of what parts of your accent are making it hard for you to be understood and to make it a point to speak clearly, don't mumble, and generally pay attention to your diction. I don't, however, think you should try to consciously adopt a Southern accent.

I'm from Tennessee, but have only a very mild accent (unless I've been drinking, around my grandparents, or drinking around my grandparents) and I find the idea of a person trying to ape a Southern accent absurd and borderline offensive.

I lived in Boston for five years and have been in San Francisco for three. Only in Boston, and only rarely, did I encounter people whom I really could not understand or who could not understand me. It makes sense that you would learn to modulate or clarify your speech to be better understood in a given situation (my Anglo-French-Indian friend whose parents grew up in Kenya but who went to high school in Atlanta is a master of this). I speak very quickly and have always had to be aware of that when I'm at home in the South. I think many or even most people have to do this at sometime, and in my experience, when you've lived somewhere for a while it sort of starts to happen naturally. But to fake an accent? Ugh, no.
posted by mostlymartha at 8:42 PM on November 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've lived in Kansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Massachusetts and California and found that when you move somewhere new you have to get used to how other people talk and they have to get used to how you talk. And outside of trying to speak as clearly as possible, there's not much that anyone can ask of you.
posted by jaybeans at 8:45 PM on November 14, 2007

I think the 'fake accent' bit is a red herring here, and that the real problem is that your boss and coworkers have trouble hearing you right. My guess is that the exaggerated fake accent is also slower and clearer than your usual speaking voice. Try make a policy to speak extra slow and extra clear at work, and see if that satisfies your boss.

If I'm wrong, and it really is a foreign/local issue, I have no idea.
posted by lorimt at 8:53 PM on November 14, 2007

This is the dumbest fucking thing I've ever heard. I am a South Carolina native, albeit without the accent. Just speak clearly. Seriously, this is really odd.
posted by chiababe at 8:54 PM on November 14, 2007

I think you should do what you need to do to make yourself understood. If that means talking slow or enunciating more so be it.

But I really hate it when people cop accents. I deal with a lot of Americans who are really interested in Ireland, and occasionally you'll meet someone who has a sort of ridiculous Irish accent and you'll ask them where they are from and they'll say New Jersey. They went to Ireland when they were 18 and came back talking like that. It's fucking ridiculous and annoying. I believe your accent is set by the time you are 8 years old.
posted by sully75 at 9:02 PM on November 14, 2007

I was being a little cheeky in my earlier response. Basically, this is their problem and not yours. You can accommodate them by speaking a little slower or enunciating, but them asking you to change your accent comes across to me as pathetically lazy on their part. We are talking about an accent difference's two similar variations from the same language from the same relative* geographic area! What is your boss going to do if he need to do business with an ESL speaker...hire a translator?

*We're talking about intercontinental variations, which is the very least of extremes when you compare British English to Jamaican English to Australian English, etc.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:07 PM on November 14, 2007

My boss and co-workers say they can't always understand me.

So, that's the issue then. I find it very hard to believe that your boss asked you to develop a southern accent, and I sense (perhaps falsely) that you stated the question that way to gain sympathy. At present, you are not speaking clearly enough for other people to understand you. You need to develop a speaking pattern that is easier for the people around you to understand (particularly because one of those people has the power to determine whether or not you have a job).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:14 PM on November 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

You're likely to pick up the accent anyway. I've heard it called the 'shopkeeper effect'—people subconsciously adapt their speech, including pronunciation, to the people they work with/for. Just pay attention to being clear, and let the accent go where it goes.

When it happens, I believe it's really not any bigger of an imposition on your identity than all the other accent/register shifts that you move through in a day. You speak differently with clients than with your boss than with your family than with the checker at the supermarket, you speak differently about sports than you do about politics than you do about romance, you speak differently on the phone than you do in person ... that doesn't mean your identity is at the mercy of your interlocutor, your subject, or your medium. It just means you are a cooperative speaker. Ain't nothing wrong with that.

I am a little surprised if you've been there for two years and have never subconsciously adopted the accent. I talk to Southerners for an hour or so and I find myself slipping over. Granted, I do feel a little like I'm playing a role. But it's a fun role. It happens more when we're hanging out, shooting the breeze, having fun, telling tales. You do spend time with the locals socially, don't you?
posted by eritain at 9:16 PM on November 14, 2007

What a pile of bullshit. Of course you should quit.

But if you think it's awesome, well, you may as well just start talking Southern, because you're obviously blind to how totally out of touch with reality they must be to make some kind of completely insane demand like "you talk funny, change it."
posted by blacklite at 9:51 PM on November 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

You may pick up the accent eventually, as repeated exposure can do that sort of thing. But to be asked to develop it so that others can "undertsand" you? It's silly enough to be comical. Presumably, regardless of accent, your boss speaks English? If you feel that you mumble, then by all means, work on that -- speaking clearly is not an accent thing, it's about being intelligible. But as long as you enunciate and speak clearly, you don't need to develop an accent to be understood.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 9:55 PM on November 14, 2007

Nthing that it's asinine for you to attempt to force yourself to pick up a southern accent.
posted by desuetude at 9:59 PM on November 14, 2007

Bah. A pox on them.

Also, learn to speak clearly, no matter your accent. I find sometimes my brain runs ahead of my mouth and I end up with bad diction - and a funny accent. (Apparently, I speak like a Kiwi when I'm not paying attention, which is interesting in a brisbane native ... )
posted by ysabet at 10:04 PM on November 14, 2007

Also, if they want southern, maybe try out an Australian accent? That's rather south ;P
posted by ysabet at 10:05 PM on November 14, 2007

I would say it is silly (or, rather, completely out of line) for the boss to ask you to change the way you speak. However, I think there is nothing wrong with deciding on your own to alter the way you speak to your Southern acquaintances, in order to make yourself more understandable to them. In a way, you can think of Yankee English and Southern English as two different languages. (The difference between a language and a dialect is notoriously fuzzy, so this isn't quite are ridiculous as it might seem.) Thinking of it this way, you'd be doing precisely what every immigrant does. I do the language-swap all the time. When my mom calls, I talk to her in Russian, when my college friends call, I switch gears and talk to them in English. Doing this sort of swap might seem strange at first, but you'd get used to it quickly.
posted by epimorph at 10:09 PM on November 14, 2007

occasionally you'll meet someone who has a sort of ridiculous Irish accent and you'll ask them where they are from and they'll say New Jersey. They went to Ireland when they were 18 and came back talking like that. It's fucking ridiculous and annoying.

I think how much one adapts depends on a number of factors. For instance, I picked up Swedish in a matter of days to the point that my cousins were awed at my accent ("for an American!") so I imagine I could switch to Californian or Southern or Canadian with similar alacrity. There are obviously others like me who can adapt or prefer to adapt. But some people live their whole lives somewhere and the accent never rubs off.

A lot of African Americans are adept at what linguists call "code switching". At a party with other blacks they can talk as "ghetto" as anyone. Getting drinks with white coworkers they use standard grammar and constructions. This is in part because such things are a social marker as much as anything else.

Coming back to you, what the problem may be is that you are perceived as an outsider, whether you think you are acting as such or not. It's sort of like the way that even the most gutter British accent can be read as "sophisticated" in American contexts, or that a plummy Brit with a thoroughly macho job or heterosexual lifestyle is read as "gay". Maybe there's a similar mistake at work here.

Now, I don't want to start judging, but I do think that the modern "redneck" mentality is fed in part by severe inferiority complexes. I hear so many country music songs that are about someone telling the singer what to do or how to act, and you know they don't like it. Is it just possible that your accent is coming across as a problem of that variety?
posted by dhartung at 10:20 PM on November 14, 2007 [2 favorites]

Years ago, I lived in Nashville and worked with Germans who had learned a little English in their grammar school back home in the '50s, then done little with it, until they moved to America, and functionally re-learned English, but with the heavy regional mid-Tennessee accent every Nashvillian thinks of as "soft and gently refined." So, they spoke Westphalian German, German schoolboy business English, and broad southern English, in a mixed up way that was particularly comical to a kid born in Nebraska, and raised in Kansas, who had his own constant pressure from inlaws and acquaintances to cultivate the Nashville "sound," in daily speech.

And finally, in the years I lived there, I came to be able to drink Jack Daniels and speak like I had, even when I hadn't, simply because it was simpler to live, that way. When speaking with my sons, who still live around there, it's apparently just much easier on them if I still make those accommodations, and they'll subtly remark on my "accent," until I do (I guess their imprint of how I "should" sound is that I should sound like a '70s polyester wearing Big Hat Country DJ, but with a better vocabulary, and less profanity). Some areas of America remain pretty provincial, even in this day and age, and if you're living in those provinces, there is no point in pretending you aren't.

I think you can soften your consonants, and lengthen your vowels, and relax your clipped Yankee rhythms, and still maintain your personal integrity and sense of humor. There is a certain charm to learning the taste of regional accents tripping off your own tongue.
posted by paulsc at 10:47 PM on November 14, 2007

People who insist on keeping their own regional accent in spite of living long-term in a different region and being perfectly capable of speaking as the locals do can come across as a bit condescending, particularly if they're from a part of the country or the world that is perceived as thinking it speaks "properly."

Nonsense. There's no reason you should actively try to introduce any sort of affectation to your speech. Where you are moving from or to is irrelevant.
posted by oaf at 11:00 PM on November 14, 2007

I grew up in Georgia and never had the accent, even though my parents did. For me, it was because I talk too fast (too impatiently), which does not give an accent time to take hold. You might consider that rather than an issue of accent, it could be that you are speaking too quickly for the other guys to pick up. You could try to speak more slowly without necessarily throwing in the accent part of .
posted by troybob at 11:05 PM on November 14, 2007

Southern accents range from honking Kentucky hillbilly to slow melodic Dixie drawls to clipped Cajun that sounds to my Alabama ear like Brooklynese.

Seems like what you're really asking is "how me talk better?" and the answer to that is simple: slow waaaaaaay down and enunciate. To your ear, this may sound Southern. To your coworkers, it just sounds more intelligible.

I tend to parrot the speech patterns of people around me, and if I moved to the UK, I would probably have some sort of awful affected Madonna-esque pseudo-accent within weeks. Others don't do that. But you still hafta be understood, and the way to do that is slow down and enunciate, in whatever accent.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:17 PM on November 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

From experience, you're essentially screwed in certain work environments if you don't 'talk local', and by 'local' I mean hyper-local. I can't imagine being able to work, say, at a builders' merchant or farm supply place. But in those situations, the right accent and register is nigh-on impossible to fake.

Code switching, on the other hand? You can learn to moderate certain aspects of your natural accent, take detours around the things that provoke the most 'what?' (esp. regional-variant words) and so on. (Have a listen to the local news anchors, because they usually won't be local locals.)

But if your job description now includes playing Jim-Bob for the customers, you might want to ask for a raise to pay for membership of Actors' Equity.
posted by holgate at 11:24 PM on November 14, 2007

I discovered on moving abroad that I have a far more pronounced northern English accent than I ever thought I did, and non-native speaking Europeans and Yanks have trouble understanding me if I speak as I grew up talking. I have adapted to make myself comprehensible to those I interact with, whilst lamenting the lost joys of communication in English as God intended she be spoke. This has in no way eroded my sense of who I am and I slip back easily the minute one of the brothers gets on the phone. Operating often in a second language has taught me to see that there is no sin on certain communication focusing on achieving ends. If you can adapt in that spirit I see no harm, although I would agree that insistence that you must is a little offensive. If it's just a suggestion that it might be better if you do, then why not?
posted by Abiezer at 12:09 AM on November 15, 2007

Erm, perhaps offensive was the wrong word. I mean, I make an effort to listen when spoken to by bad speakers of English and usually get their meaning. I used to work in a pub and successfully served severely mentally handicapped people who came in from the local care home. They couldn't really articulate but you learned to hear what they were saying. So I do find it a bit shit if folks won't meet you half way. But don't be afraid to go that distance yourself either.
posted by Abiezer at 12:13 AM on November 15, 2007

What everyone else said: Just quit mumbling.

Still, it couldn't hurt to say Y'all every now and then.
posted by Reggie Digest at 12:29 AM on November 15, 2007

To reiterate above, just focus on the parts of your speech that your coworkers have trouble understanding. Does that mean speaking up? Slowing down? Maybe drawing out a few vowel sounds when you're in a meeting or on the phone? Then fine. We all do that when we're thrust out of our home-accent.

There's no need to change your whole accent, though.

I'm a Canadian working in London. With my girlfriend, I have as Canadian an accent as they come - interchangeable Ds and Ts, aboot, etc.

At work, especially when I'm in a meeting, I adopt a sort of mid-Atlantic accent. It's identifiably Canadian, but I try to minimize the parts of my speech that my coworkers consistently misunderstand.

It's all part of the give and take of living in a different culture.
posted by generichuman at 12:51 AM on November 15, 2007

If you think there's a legitimate need to talk more like a Southerner (customer service job? clients who want to think they're not being served by yankees? call center?), then you should do your best to conform, especially since you said you really like the job. If it's just to make your co-workers comfortable, explain that this makes you feel uncomfortable and don't do it.

I'm pretty sure they're not asking you to do anything unconstitutional or anything ... if anchors have to adopt a neutral tone, I doubt there's anything to stop your boss from insisting on a southern one.
posted by Happydaz at 1:17 AM on November 15, 2007

Talk more slowly.
Talk more loudly.
Enunciate more.

These are probably things you do when you are talking in your fake accent. Now learn to do them when you aren't faking an accent.
posted by grouse at 1:30 AM on November 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

>just focus on the parts of your speech that your coworkers have trouble understanding

I think this is calm, logical advice.

I was in the US a while ago and I needed to buy a mailing tube. I went into a number of places and asked for one in my normal accent, which pronounces it something like "tioob" or "choob". After I while I realised people didn't know what the hell I was talking about and asked for a "toob" instead. I didn't modify my accent or put on a fake american accent, which would have felt very weird and uncomfortable. I just fixed that one word to accomplish the task at hand.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:00 AM on November 15, 2007

I work with a lot of folks from India, and it took me a while to get used to the accents.

Now those accents fall into two categories for me: ones I can understand because they are speaking clearly and well-paced, and ones I cannot because they're rushing through it or mumbling.

It would be ridiculous for us to ask them to "Speak more American", but "can you please slow down/speak up" is perfectly reasonable. You should do that.

Also, what AmbroseChapel said.

And finally, don't be surprised if you have already started picking up the accent despite your not intending to. My whole life I pronounced "Milk" as "Melk", and "Roof" and "Ruhf". My wife gave me a hard time, but it was the midwesterner in me. After several years in California, I suddenly noticed "Milk" and "Roof" come out of my mouth sounding like they're spelled, and I didn't even notice.

also, "a" doesn't sound like "uh" any more
posted by davejay at 3:39 AM on November 15, 2007

that's totally bizarre. i have lived in both the north and south, and there are very few american accents that are -that- hard to understand. unless you grew up, like, in rural maine or some teeny island off of massachusetts, how thick could your accent be?

work on the enunciation--which is probably a good idea anyway--but i wouldn't try to put on a fake accent. maybe take some sort of acting class or toastmasters.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:22 AM on November 15, 2007

I'm not exactly from the most southern state in the union (Virginia), but outside of northern Virginia, we do have an accent, and I have to tell you, if you showed up at work and I heard you say something like, "Ate chet? Y'all mind if little ole me tags along? I'd luv to ha-yuv my sm' pah." I'd think you were being condescending. If you came speaking in your natural voice, I'd think you were being yourself, which is cool.
posted by 4ster at 5:24 AM on November 15, 2007

Stop mumbling. Enunciate. And, most likely, talk slower.

I'm originally from Texas and when we moved to Massachusetts (when I was 11), I made a conscious effort to lose my southern accent. I can affect it in an aping way most of the time and pick it right up when I'm around another Texan.

We moved back to Texas for a year when I was a teenager and nearly everyone I spoke to told me to slow down.
posted by jdfan at 6:18 AM on November 15, 2007

The heart of the issue is: your mumbling and the fact that you're dealing with people who speak differently than you do, are connected.

When you mumble to people who recognize your speech patterns, they are much more likely to know what you're trying to say, because the parts that they do hear are familiar, so they can fill in the rest. When you're talking to people who aren't programmed to recognize the nuances of your speech (not just the words, but the stresses, the slurs, the words mashed together, the final letters dropped, etc.), then you have to take out all those things. This doesn't mean you have to full-on adopt an accent. However, if you say "store" with a hard R, and everyone you work with says "sto," and it's a word that you use at work on a regular basis, then you might as well just start saying that particular word the way everyone else says it.

This reminds me of a time when I was living with a bunch of Americans and Brits mixed together. One of the Brits, whose background was Pakistani, was named Harj. His British friends pronounced his name with the same silent-but-significant British R that you hear (or don't hear) when British people say "Oxford." To the Americans, this sounded like "Haj," so that's what we thought his name was, and at first, that's what we called him. But eventually he got annoyed and pointed out that there was an R in his name. I was surprised to discover that he was just fine with me saying "Harrj," with a hard American R, even though to me, that sounded much farther away from the way he pronounced his own name than the way I'd been saying it.
posted by bingo at 6:32 AM on November 15, 2007

All you really need to do is slooooowwww down...bonus points if you listen for common words that we southerners pronounce differently and then pronounce them that way. But if you just slow down your speech that will go a long way.

PHony southern accents annoy me. Actors who fake Southern barf me out totally. I can almost always tell.
posted by konolia at 6:34 AM on November 15, 2007

If you are a native Southerner, would it make you mad to hear a Yank without an accent?

Of course not! That's all we ever hear on TV or in the movies. It's not like Southerners have never heard people without their own accent before.

I can tell you this though--when actors fake Southern accents, it's both obvious and hard to listen to. (I'm a lifelong Tennesseean.)

I'm guessing you're in sales of some kind. I probably don't have to tell you how big the "good old boy" network is here, and how powerful it is in business. I work in a sales office, and am amazed at how new sales people all start attending the same churches and begin playing golf within months of getting hired. Is that weird? I think so. But it's not unusual.

So you might ask yourself whether you want to work at a company that wants you to start making changes like that. But for god's sake, don't mimic a Southern accent. It always comes off as insulting.
posted by zebra3 at 6:37 AM on November 15, 2007

Yes it's a bad idea. I'm Irish. I use weird slang, have a Dubbillin accent and call kitchen cabinets "presses" and garbage "rubbish". At my varied American or Canadian workplaces my colleagues have laughed at the way I speak, asked me to repeat myself, etc but never asked me to adopt their accent. I would think they were insane. And my family would think I was insane.
posted by jamesonandwater at 6:48 AM on November 15, 2007

I was born in and lived in Atlanta as a child, but lived in Kansas City from age 9-17, where I acquired a Midwestern accent. In college, I spent my summers waiting tables in rural Georgia. I found that a slight drop back into the accent (and mannerisms - like using "sir" and "ma'am", referring to soda as "Coke", etc.) meant better tips and nicer customers. I didn't feel like a total fraud because I do still lapse back into the accent when I'm around my family. But no one at my restaurant explicitly asked me to stop talking like a Yankee.
posted by candyland at 6:57 AM on November 15, 2007

I don't believe that these people can't understand a neutral (ie Yankee) American accent. They don't watch T.V.? Unless you have a very strong regional accent, I don't think your non-Southernness would make you incomprehensible.

Having said that, there's nothing wrong with trying to speak more clearly if people are having trouble understanding you.

(I have exactly the opposite problem: I tend to pick up accents immediately, so quickly that people think I'm mocking them. I have no idea why I do it, and I can't really control it.)
posted by craichead at 7:18 AM on November 15, 2007

Yeah, I think it's condescending and disrespectful for them to ask you to change your accent.

I do think it's reasonable for them to ask you to speak slowly and clearly.

This from someone who has been told her whole life to slow down and stop mumbling. I know it's easier said than done.
I've found some of the suggestions in this thread very helpful.

posted by bassjump at 7:37 AM on November 15, 2007

You did have the abilty to speak and did speak prior to hiring right?

Employers cannot enforce rules to in effect alter, or demean or act disfavorably towards your national origin.

Nowhere does the law say the national origin has to be another nation does it?

So tell them, in any accent you please, to drop dead.

Or get the Mary Tyler Moore show on DVD and skip to the Tex Baxter parts and study up on a new nice non-regional voice.
posted by Freedomboy at 8:03 AM on November 15, 2007

Its hard for me to picture, even where i stay in the hills of alabama, any employer other than a redneck tractor shop asking someone to adopt a southern accent, so i'm gonna vote for just slowin down your talkin.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 8:06 AM on November 15, 2007

a neutral (ie Yankee) American accent

The normal American TV accent isn't based on New York or Boston; it's based on the Midwest. (Similarly, Canadian TV personalities don't have Toronto accents.)
posted by oaf at 8:56 AM on November 15, 2007

Nthing the "just slow down" advice - I moved from Chicago to Texas, and had a series of call-center jobs. The pace is the biggest change. I've developed a pretty credible drawl, but if I get excited I slip back into my native tongue and my rate of speech about doubles.

I will say, though, that if I got a good ol' boy on the phone while working in tech support? The heavier I drawled, the easier it was to work with him. Actually, most customers seemed to respond positively to a slightly southern tone - it just sounds mellower, I guess.

(The exception was New Yorkers - fast and blunt was the way to handle them, or they got impatient and annoyed.)
posted by restless_nomad at 9:01 AM on November 15, 2007

anonymous: Yet every time I've spoken Southern, they claim I do a good job, but to me, it sounds like a cheap imitation. It also seems like I would have to speak Southern full time on the job otherwise the locals will think I am making fun of them.

Methinks they're all making fun of you. Really. I can see no other reason for them to do this. Your fear that they "harass" you if they find out you're posting this indicates to me that that's what kind of people they are.

That's not necessarily bad. Just know that they're doing it. And be willing to do it back.
posted by koeselitz at 9:09 AM on November 15, 2007

I agree with the "just slow down and enunciate; you don't need to change your accent" crowd. But I also wanted to respond to this:

That's absurd. Next you'll have to become a Southern Baptist and marry one of their daughters. When does it stop? How willing are you to conform for a paycheck?

That's absurd. Conforming to one request, if that's what anon decides to do, does not imply that he's automatically forced to abide by any future requests, no matter how outrageous. "When does it stop?" Whenever anon decides it does. "How willing are you to conform for a paycheck?" Nearly everyone who gets a paycheck has to conform to some extent, and whether this is something anon should conform to is exactly what he's asking about. Throwing the exact same question back at him is not helpful.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:12 AM on November 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

As the great linguist Mr T. once said...."Don't give me no jibber-jabber!" If you are speaking clearly there should be no problem.

And as far as taking on an accent, screw that, you will come off as condescending. Instead, start incorporating their slang into your vocabulary. They will appreciate that a lot more.
posted by kaizen at 9:18 AM on November 15, 2007

accents and speech patterns different than your own are fraught with complexities that, when done incorrectly, can rat you out like asking a novice to play a complex piano piece ... eventually you'll hit enough 'wrong notes' to be sufficiently cringeworthy.

as someone who has evolved my speech patterns and vocabulary, it is extremely difficult to do. i, too, navigate in worlds where i am forced to 'tone down' my speech, or alter it significantly in order to be understood. while the advice here to "slow down and enunciate" is good on a general level, it only tackles one level of the communication barrier. the next level is comprehension, which takes into account vocabulary as well as pronunciation.

do you think that perhaps your vocabulary, in addition to your accent, is part of why this issue has been brought to your attention? if so, you may wish to rethink what is going on in your workplace as a challenge similar to learning a foreign language, which to some degree it is, even if you and your colleagues speak American English as your base language.

maybe you can approach whomever suggested you change the way you speak and ask for very specific instances where your speech patterns and/or vocabulary set you apart from the native environment. much like learning a foreign language, dialect, and slang, it helps to have the perspective of a 'native' speaker to guide you through the complexities.

good luck der eh! <---example of speech from childhood i had to leave behind!
posted by kuppajava at 10:16 AM on November 15, 2007

Speech patterns identify and describe us much more than we might like. I grew up in the deep south, but had some pretty severe speech pathologies and all that accent was therapyed right out of me.

When I moved to Atlanta, any last vestiges were slowly erased until now I talked like an anchorman. However, for the last decade it has been part of my job to speak to rural communities on different topics and somehow I found it in my heart to speak with a very nice little southern accent. They like that, they liked me. Once you learn to identify different speech patterns you can learn which ones are best to pull out for different audiences and its not fake and its not lessening yourself. Its getting the job done.

If your boss and coworkers have a hard time understanding you, the onus is really on you to modify your speech so that they understand you. Speak clearly and more slowly, pay attention to the way you form your vowels in your mouth. That should help get you to a good middle ground where they at least understand you.
posted by stormygrey at 11:59 AM on November 15, 2007

Dude, theyre fucking with you. Seriously. A request like this is a sign that either:

1. Your boss is a hilarious character who is playing pranks on you.

2. Your boss is a pretty intolerant asshole.

I say just let this slide and if he keeps bringing it up to just tell him you feel uncomfortable with such a suggestion.

Also, do you really think this wont end in a bar room beating? "Hey, whered you grow up? Seattle you say?"
posted by damn dirty ape at 4:11 PM on November 15, 2007

Just develop an even "worse" (from his perspective) accent:

Some suggestions:

Using the word "mon in every sentence: Hey, Anonymous, how's you new accent coming? "Great mon! Hey boss mon! Been to the islands mon?"

Bad cockney: Hey, Anonymous, how's you new accent coming? G'day, gubna! "The wa'er in Majorca don' taste like wot it ough' a"

Stereotypical Hip Hop: Hey, Anonymous, how's you new accent coming? The shizzle, dawg, youknowhatimsayin? You know how we do it, yo!

Boomhauer: Hey, Anonymous, how's you new accent coming? "Yomangetwhatnohowallmanyouknowwiththeyallandwhatnot."

Hopefully your boss will get the point.
posted by 4ster at 7:59 PM on November 15, 2007

I don't know why everyone has such a stick up their ass about this. This sounds like something you could have fun with. Modifying your pronunciation could teach you skills that you haven't even considered. It will help you tremendously if you ever get the idea to try to learn a foreign language in the future. Also, when you speak more like the people you are around, they tend to feel more like you're one of them.

First of all, it's a job, and they're paying you. If they want you to do things in a certain way, why not? It's not like they're telling you to show a little more cleavage, or something over the line like that. My on-the-job philosophy is: they're paying you money, so it's their time, not yours. As long as they're not asking you to do something illegal, do it their way with a smile.

Second, we humans are special because we're extremely adaptable. A big part of your value comes in your ability to adapt to different conditions. If you can change the way you talk, then you have that skill.

If my boss asked me to clean the bathroom or make coffee, no problem. I'd do my best. It's their time. If my boss asked me to change my accent, I'd have a ball with it!
posted by strangeguitars at 4:36 AM on November 18, 2007

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