Why do people treat me better when I use a British accent?
December 23, 2007 1:35 AM   Subscribe

Why do people treat me better when I use a British accent?

I work at a movie theater, and I've noticed that people generally pay more attention to me when I use a British accent. For example, when I tell people to shut off their cell phones with a British accent, they actually seem to do it with a sense of urgency! Why is that?
posted by realpseudonym to Human Relations (54 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps because it's just out of the ordinary, so people subconsciously pay more attention to you.

Also, Britons just ooze quiet, yet serious, authority.
posted by chrismear at 1:56 AM on December 23, 2007

Because when you speak with a British accent to an American, the American has connotations of prestige, wealth, and sophistication[1]. And, therefore, whatever that British person has said must be followed intently.

That or people are going "This guy is crazy enough to use a fake accent on me. I better shut off my phone before he comes over and kills me."

[1] Based on empirical evidence of my husband talking to waitresses, shop clerks, bartenders, and student loan officers. It's especially good with student loan officers.
posted by Katemonkey at 1:57 AM on December 23, 2007 [11 favorites]

I've noticed that I tend to be extra polite and obliging to people with accents because I don't want them to think that all Americans are boorish.
posted by arianell at 2:07 AM on December 23, 2007 [5 favorites]

I'd be curious what your British accent sounds like. There was a long thread on the blue a while back about a Stephen Fry article that talked about Americans taking people with British accents more seriously - the accent most often seen as 'British' is the classic BBC received pronunciation, which is pretty rare these days. Are you doing a Dick Van Dyke-esque faux Cockney? Or do you know any Brits that you're basing it on?

It may just be as simple as the fact that when you put on an accent, no matter how accurate or not, you speak a bit louder. Or, like katemonkey said they may just be thinking 'what the hell is up with the usher's voice?'
posted by Happy Dave at 2:12 AM on December 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

The same reason most people (except my mechanic) pay less attention to me when I slip into Eastern Kentucky drawl. Americans think you're automatically more knowledgeable and to be taken more seriously. Just one of them cultural things.
posted by Roman Graves at 2:13 AM on December 23, 2007 [5 favorites]

By "use a British accent" I assume you mean "fake a British accent". That would mean that the people you speak of are amused, I think.
posted by trip and a half at 2:30 AM on December 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

No one really likes Americans, even other Americans.
posted by fire&wings at 2:50 AM on December 23, 2007 [6 favorites]

All accents carry connotations. The Received Pronunciation British accent seems to connote authority and intelligence almost everywhere in the US, but this is not always a good thing. I really wish I could turn mine off in some contexts travelling in the US, because to some Americans it seems to connote that I'm trying to convey that I'm a lot cleverer and more sophisticated than them. This can provoke unfriendliness, and as a third party I've also witnessed it provoke real aggression. As a result I end up softening my t's and adopting a rhotic style. Then what happens is British friends who overhear me doing it think I'm implying that I'm better than them at fitting in with the natives. So you can't win.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 3:00 AM on December 23, 2007 [3 favorites]

Perhaps when you're using a British accent you're just more polite to people? You're assuming the manners you associate with it.

I have a 'posh' british accent, and I'm pretty sure I get better treatment ocassionaly, even in the UK. (Though there have been times when it's the complete reverse).
posted by jonty at 3:12 AM on December 23, 2007

Are you wearing a Fedora when you do it? ;-)

Actually I found the Americans we encountered when in the States to be absolutely fabulously polite, helpful and responsive all the time. Except for one chap. But he was the exception the proves the rule. Everyone said it was because of my accent. Non-broad Australian.... sometimes mistaken for British.

I think it's because most people are polite to foreigners. Hoping they'll like our country, tell their friends, and spend lots of money.

Or, at least, that's my take on it.
posted by taff at 3:16 AM on December 23, 2007 [3 favorites]

If you sound like all the other folk on the street, you don't have to be listened to -- because you're boring, because you're seen as equals, and because so many Americans have You're Not The Boss Of Me (YNTBOM) syndrome. You're easily tuned out, as the kids say. If you switch to any other accent, though, they'll pay attention, and if you switch to a British accent, they'll pay attention and they'll think you're smarter than they are. It's the opposite of blond. You're still up against YNTBOM syndrome, but you've been heard and maybe you've subconsciously intimidated them. It just takes a few seconds of this to get the phones turned off.

The advantage, of course, comes from the common feeling that the European branch of the English-speaking world is culturally central, not just one of several equally interesting and equally authoritative branches of English-speaking culture. This attitude might have been valid a few years back, but I understand that the former colonists in America and elsewhere have since opened a few universities and even written some books.

If you can use your accent to advantage, do so.
posted by pracowity at 3:28 AM on December 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have yer standard RP British accent with a Welsh twang on occasion. Sometimes you get better service. Sometimes you get people in Scottish pubs who want to start a fight with you. (I'm Chinese, btw!)
posted by electriccynic at 5:20 AM on December 23, 2007

I haven't heard a single American ever pull off a convincing British accent, and by British accent I don't mean the ridiculous, rarely used RP or over the top cockney, but I suspect that most Americans cannot tell the difference (much like I can't tell the difference between a, say, Ohio accent and Washington accent) and just hear "British" whatever you try.
posted by wackybrit at 5:25 AM on December 23, 2007

My guess is that it is because many Americans (at least American mothers) tend to enunciate very clearly when they are angry or emphasizing a command. ("Go. To. Your. Room.") There's less of the blending of sounds between syllables and words than in normal spoken American English.

Depending on your particular British-esque accent, is it possible that you're just enunciating particularly well and hence subtly conveying authority?
posted by Mock Turtle at 5:32 AM on December 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Right now I am imagining The Daily Show's John Oliver (for whom my love burns with the heat of of a thousand Monthy Python suns) telling rude cinema patrons to shut of their bloody mobiles... that would make my day.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:48 AM on December 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm inclined to agree with Katemonkey and Roman Graves and everyone else commenting along those lines. It's quite a subconscious thing to apply stereotyped cultural value to accents, but I highly recommend the little documentary American Tongues by Alvarez/Kolker for a bit of human social insight, as dated as it is. (It's amazing how self-unaware we are, sometimes.)
posted by Ky at 6:00 AM on December 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think the you're-not-the-boss-of-me syndrome is right; someone with a British accent is exempt from or not a part of the competitive striving that is everyday American life. You're not from here, so my concession won't affect my status.
posted by atchafalaya at 6:01 AM on December 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Americans are drawn to people with english accents because they think they're posh and foreign, and yeah I agree on the boss thing that might apply too. Although not always. I have an old friend who's one of the rudest girls you'll ever meet, but she's this gorgeous former actress with long flowing ginger hair (here that's a nice thing, not so much in Britain) and a posh accent. I once watched her walk out on an awards show (we were with someone who was up for an award) by announcing, "This really is quite boring, isn't it. Well that's that. Come Lynn. We have much more interesting things to do, now don't we?" and as she was being rude everyone just stared at her enraptured by her voice. It was like they were hypnotized and didn't know how to respond, but if an American had said what she did it would've been totally unacceptable and there would've been conflict. Likewise I once dated a British guy who was kinda mental and I remember thinking, "Wow. I'm watching his mouth move and he's saying all of these things that make me want to run very fast right now. But his voice sounds so nice when he says them."

I don't think it's just British accents though. When I was in college I found that if I'm asking for directions or need help, I would get it much faster if I put a slight southern twang in my voice. Something about a southern belle needing rescuing, people will really snap to their feet.

Funny enough a British accent can actually make life easier in britain too, though. I find when I go to a British bank and ask for a pen in my American voice, people often say, "Whot?" or ask where I'm from, but if I ask for a pen with a British accent, people just hand it to me quickly. Also, when traveling in other countries... people learn the Queen's english so if someone doesn't understand what I'm saying in English they will often get it if I say it again with a London accent. A subtle (and good, not fake sounding) British accent is handy to pull out of the hat once in a while.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:01 AM on December 23, 2007 [6 favorites]

I doubt the types of people who would need to be chewed out by a movie usher would be able to discern a real accent from a fake accent. And even if they had an inkling you were faking it, I'd think it'd result in funny looks more than immediate submission. I'm sure people in general will always assume someone's accent is genuine, esp with someone on the job (unless of course they use that accent authentically and can easily spot a fake).

Have you tried any other accents? French, German, Scandinavian, "friendly" Southern, New York, etc?
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 9:22 AM on December 23, 2007

Because Americans are stupid. We think anyone with a British accent is, by default, smarter and more refined.
posted by HotPatatta at 9:23 AM on December 23, 2007

I have a British RP accent and I live in Canada.

This means, if I ask nicely, people will take me very, very seriously. It also brings with it a certain degree of trust - people are willing to extend more risk with me.

If I say something negative, it is taken to be extremely insulting - whatever direction (positive or negative) I throw my tone, the accent increases the momentum.

The disadvantage is that people are slightly afraid of it. When I use my Canadian accent people are a lot more warm and welcoming.
I gain by the authority of the accent, I lose out socially because I am taken far too seriously!
posted by niccolo at 9:43 AM on December 23, 2007

No one really likes Americans, even other Americans.
posted by fire&wings at 2:50 AM on December 23

Nailed it.
posted by devilsbrigade at 9:43 AM on December 23, 2007

As for Americans faking accents convincingly, when Spinal Tap first came out our English friend didnt realize at first it was a parody.
posted by canoehead at 9:48 AM on December 23, 2007

I haven't heard a single American ever pull off a convincing British accent

That's a common claim amongst Britons, and it's either selective hearing or a load of crap. "Oh, we can do yours spot on, but you're far too ignorant/our accents are far too refined for you to effectively mimic them." Plenty of Americans who are living in/have lived in the UK can do convincing regional accents. I do an elderly Welshman that would completely convince you, until it was revealed that I'm an American-- at which point you would state that it's a fair try, but you knew all along that there was something wrong with it.
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:54 AM on December 23, 2007 [4 favorites]

To an awful lot of people in the U.S., British = "those people I saw on TV". Americans live in a whopping big country, isolated from the rest of the world, and a big chunk of the midland population lives in whitebread suburbs and small cities inside of that.

On my last job one of my co-workers was a wonderful British woman in her 50s, with a darling "tea and biscuits" accent, who once told me that ("I don't want to be a bother, but....") the most exasperating bit about being in the U.S. was that people couldn't help but quote bits of Monty Python sketches to her.

Regional accents from Britain are likely to be read in the U.S. as being from elsewhere. Another acquaintance from Yorkshire was almost always read as Australian.

Even more disconcerting to an actual Irish person when they're complimented on their "English" or "British" accent, which I've witnessed on more than one occasion.
posted by gimonca at 10:00 AM on December 23, 2007 [2 favorites]

In the general run of things, too, people are often more polite to people who are more distant from them, if there is already known to be some connection - eg, meeting someone's family or meeting a stranger from the same place while traveling. (The "you always - sometimes only - hurt the ones you love" phenomenon.) A foreign accent accentuates (haha) that difference, and British native speakers share a native language with American native speakers, so the semiconnection is already there.

Now try French and German, and report back.
posted by caitlinb at 10:05 AM on December 23, 2007

I think it's because the 'standard' American accent is fundamentally and historically a stripped down instrument of commerce between disparate groups, meant to be comprehensible and inoffensive to natives of various regions, as well as easily learned by immigrants, and as such well over toward the 'creole' end of the spectrum (a la Derek Bickerton).

A standard British accent is a marker of membership in an elite and a tool for the domination of lower orders-- ornamented, cultivated, striking, hard to learn, very difficult to imitate and determined to be so.

As Wilde said, "the British "have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language."
posted by jamjam at 10:21 AM on December 23, 2007 [3 favorites]

Different ways of behaviour are appropriate in different situations. We know how to behave in a certain situation because of certain social cues.
Apparently a British accent triggers the "I'm in a situation that needs good manners" response in Americans.
No big deal.
posted by jouke at 10:36 AM on December 23, 2007

Lots of good explanations in here, but could also just be confirmation bias.
posted by agentofselection at 10:52 AM on December 23, 2007

Try and think of some typical circumstances under which someone with the accent you're imitating would be working in an American movie theater.

I'm sure you can think of some, but here's the most common conclusion people are going to jump to: you're the owner, or are a visiting executive from the holding company that owns the chain, or some such thing. That's why they're listening to you.

The fact that you are from a (first) world so far away, but are for some reason standing there bothering to tell them to shut off their cell phones, means that you probably have the authority to kick their asses out if they don't shut off their cell phones.
posted by bingo at 11:13 AM on December 23, 2007

Funny enough a British accent can actually make life easier in britain too, though.

I had this experience a number of times living in England, too. Especially helpful in a pub or out shopping in flea markets. And I totally agree with the commenter above who said that the notion Americans can't fake a British accent is bollocks. Once you get comfortable with the way people form their words in a region, it can be pretty easy to mimic something if that's what you're good at. I loved listening to accents and picking out what made one special to one area or another. Sadly, I've been gone from England too long to reliably distinguish regional accents or even to be sure when I'm hearing Scottish vs. Irish, etc.

We had an experience at our local supermarket with some manager with a British (I think) accent. I caught myself thinking, "Nice accent but you're a real dick." Heh. Makes no sense.
posted by amanda at 11:27 AM on December 23, 2007

misslynster: An interesting tangent of sorts, but pen is one of the weirder cases of vowel pronunciation merging. Well, weird to this armchair linguist. I don't know if it applies to your case, though.

Back to the regularly scheduled thread now.
posted by Weebot at 12:10 PM on December 23, 2007

A group of English travellers we met in Sri Lanka last year told me that my English accent was totally convincing. Some people just have the knack...I do (according to native speakers) passable Russian, Italian, French, Spanish and Mexican (there's a huge difference) accents as well.

I've found that regardless of which one I use, Americans tend to pay attention. Considering I'm using goofing around when I slip into one, isn't always the desired reaction.
posted by JaredSeth at 12:41 PM on December 23, 2007

Though I'm Canadian as a maple weevil, the familial accent that's been trapped by a couple of generations of Aspergers sounds close to the posh-er variant of a british accent. It's not British, it's the over enuciation of sounds, which makes you extremely coherent. For a comparison, Times New Roman is easier to read than a handwritten scrawl.
posted by Phalene at 12:44 PM on December 23, 2007

using usually

it isn't

My written english, on the other hand
posted by JaredSeth at 12:44 PM on December 23, 2007

I think a British accent has a sort of cachet to Americans. A year ago I had lunch with a group of people who are all university professors at Ohio State. One of them actually said that everything I said sounded so clever and they all agreed.

I talk rubbish, mostly, btw.
posted by essexjan at 2:06 PM on December 23, 2007

My British fiance (who was raised in Kent) claims he can talk people into things when he uses his "Oxford Voice" (he went to grad school there) and some NLP. (And the people he's persuading are other Brits -- he's not tried it on "Seppotonians" yet.)

I think it's a load of hooey. :p
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 3:02 PM on December 23, 2007

I'm American and even I can tell when someone is faking a British acccent.

Saying "cell phone" instead of "mobile" (MOE'-byle) would have tipped me off right there.
posted by wfc123 at 3:09 PM on December 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm American and even I can tell when someone is faking a British acccent.

Exactly. While you are working on your accent you should give yourself a title.

Just think how impressive "Lord realpseudonym" would sound and the authority it would give you at your workplace.
posted by mlis at 7:04 PM on December 23, 2007

Saying "cell phone" instead of "mobile" (MOE'-byle) would have tipped me off right there.

Unless they were simply, y'know, using local terms for things in order that people would understand them more easily. Which seems a reasonable thing to do.
posted by chrismear at 7:43 PM on December 23, 2007

I haven't heard a single American ever pull off a convincing British accent

On the other hand I've never heard a single Briton ever pull off a convincing American accent. Not even A-list actors. They always come off very nasal.
posted by randomstriker at 8:30 PM on December 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

randomstriker: Hugh Laurie as House?
posted by Joleta at 9:04 PM on December 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

randomstriker: Christian Bale?
posted by joshers13 at 1:43 AM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

randomstriker: Mark Addy as Bill on Still Standing?
posted by Amanda B at 1:51 AM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Joleta: Hugh Laurie's American accent sounds like a guy with a head cold laboriously spitting out words (especially in earlier episodes). Still, it's easy to chalk that up to House's individual speech patterns, so it's not a distraction like a truly bad fake accent would be.

On the other hand, I'm always impressed by Aussie actors' American accents, unless they're trying to imitate Southerners (and that's one that most Americans can't even pull off).
posted by Drop Daedalus at 2:18 AM on December 24, 2007

I think Hugh Laurie does a great American accent on house. But saying Americans can't do a British accent is rubbish. The Brits themselves are always going on about how great an accent Renee Zellweger did as Bridget Jones. And when Brits first find out I'm an American, they always "try out" their American accent on me, shouting "Have a nice day now!" in the most mangled, exaggerated faux Southern accent imaginable. But as I've lived here for four years and still can't even begin to do a convincing English accent, I certainly don't begrudge them for trying : ).

So really, what Mayor Curley said.

And in reposnse to the question, I suspect it might have something to do with you subconsciously more polite when using the accent, as people have mentioned.
posted by triggerfinger at 2:36 AM on December 24, 2007

The Brits themselves are always going on about how great an accent Renee Zellweger did as Bridget Jones.

Her accent was a good plummy, barely used, RP-esque accent. Sure, it was a good rendition of that sort of accent, but it was hardly the sort of accent an average London dwelling mid-20s female would have and therefore not authentic.

My British fiance (who was raised in Kent) claims he can talk people into things when he uses his "Oxford Voice" (he went to grad school there) and some NLP. (And the people he's persuading are other Brits -- he's not tried it on "Seppotonians" yet.)

Perhaps I am too working class or something, but I, along with most of those I've ever socialized with, would happily take the piss out of the snooty RP accented types rather than respect them! :)
posted by wackybrit at 10:28 AM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

wackybrit -- Oh, I agree. He doesn't try it out on random people -- just people he needs to "see things his way." Example: A good friend of his got evicted from his flat, and the landlady wouldn't let him take his books or medication. My guy walked over and had a discussion with the landlady using the "O.V." The landlady relented (she was pretty adamant before) and the fellow got his stuff back. Now it could be that she was just in a better mood, or or intimidated by 6 foot 1 inch guy she's never met interceding on his mate's behalf, and that all the while she was thinking "wtf is up with the way this dickhead speaks?"

I'm reserving action until I hear and see the effects of the "Oxford Voice" for myself. He's already done the "Michael Caine/East End Geezer" voice on me, which makes me giggle nervously (it sounds quietly threatening, and he doesn't blink).
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 11:22 AM on December 24, 2007

Action? I meant judgment.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 11:23 AM on December 24, 2007

Some people just have a good ear, so I think saying "Americans don't do good British accents" and vice versa is crap. I know people who've lived in America for 30 years and still sound like they just arrived. But some people (Meryl Streep is an easy example) just have a good ear. If I travel somewhere for a week, it takes me about 4 days back home to start sounding like I normally do. Whatever goes into my ears, I start to absorb it and automatically reflect it back without even trying or realizing it. Since I have friends from all over, my natural voice has become an amalgam of all of their accents and sayings... a little bit Canadian, a little British, a little Austrian, a little Texas... and if I walk into a shopping mall in San Diego, I'll easily walk out calling people dude without even realizing it.

Some people are fascinated patterns of speech and it's not something you are really "putting on" to impress people. Accents are kind of like a code to me... I have fun thinking about it and trying to crack them. I'll listen and think to myself, "Oh, okay, so when you're from here, this 'a' would sound like 'aayyyyyy' instead of 'ahhh.' But if you live over there it would sound like 'aye.' Huh." It's fascinating. I'm one of those people who stops people in the subway to ask where they're from because I want to see if I pegged the accent. I just LOVE it when I find out I'm right. And it's especially fun when you learn another language and then you can figure out why their English accents sound the way they do. When I do a Yugoslavian accent (used when doing impressions of an ex), it almosts feels like I'm juggling marbles in the back of my throat or something. If I try to pronounce English like the Arabic speakers I know, the focus feels like it's on the top front of my mouth more, and Arabic Rs feel like they roll much more delicately and more on the tip of the tongue than with Spanish speakers.

A lot of people don't think about any of this crap, but it's really interesting to me.

Anyhow, when I was in Oklahoma six months ago or whenever it was, when I got to the airport I found out I'd missed my plane because I'd written down the wrong time. I was trying to plead with people to find another flight for me, and as we were talking I started listening to myself, noting that I was talking with bits of an accent that wasn't mine. After 8 days in Oklahoma I was mirroring the local accent without trying or being conscious of it. But then I thought to myself, "You know, I'm probably more likely to get help if I don't use my California tone with these people anyhow." (People from LA talk WAY too fast and too hard for a lot of people from elsewhere to even understand sometimes.) So suddenly there I was, pleading for help with a twang and mirroring the people I was talking to. I spoke much slower, more drawlier, and peppered it with phrases I'd heard my friend from OC and her family in Tulsa constantly using. And the twangier I got, THE NICER PEOPLE WERE. They started out saying the change of flights was going to cost me $400, but by the end they ended up booking me on another flight by just exchanging my e-ticket and not charging me another dime. By the end, we were making jokes and hugging... and I honestly do feel if I'd sounded like I was from LA I would've been sleeping in the airport. So hey, if accents make life easier once in a while, I say GO FOR IT.
posted by miss lynnster at 1:23 PM on December 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

See here.

All Americans think they are the middle waterfowl depicted there. We unconsciously assume fancy/proper English speakers (I'm sure you're not doing Cockney or Brummie or something) are the waterfowl on the left in some undefined way. It's a power dynamic, an invisible but lasting historical vestige of a time when Britons ruled the world with supreme confidence and everyone else aspired to be them.

As an alternate or supporting explanation, I think we also assume people who speak that way are these charming bastions of decency and good breeding with nary a cross bone in their bodies, and we don't want to expose them to our mud-caked colonial coarseness by replying in the YNTBOM way we might use on our countrymen. We want to please them and wish them well on their way to whatever pure and upstanding destination they must be heading to. "Behold this unspoilt flower! What rare treasure is this? Pray do not prick the bubble of purity that shields him from this vile world!"
posted by kookoobirdz at 10:59 PM on December 24, 2007

I don't know about everyone else, but I respect Madonna much more, now that she speaks with a British accent.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 7:55 AM on December 25, 2007

...a really bad fake one, that is.

Gwyneth Paltrow nailed it in Sliding Doors, though.
posted by genghis at 1:38 PM on December 25, 2007

As a Brit, I do find that the RP "Excuse me!" or "Do you mind?" when Johnny Foreigner is trying to queue jump works awfully well (because we do like our queues) :o)

I hasten to add that my normal Brit accent is closer to Brummie.
posted by arcticseal at 3:13 PM on December 28, 2007

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