Accents in the workplace

Strong ‘local’ or ‘regional’ accents not likely to be a barrier in North America

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

Accents are a marker not only of where people are from, but also their education, upbringing, ethnic background and social class. In some cases, there is even an element of personal choice in how people speak, and people are able to change their accents by “code switching” from one mode of speech to another.

I find it especially interesting how people can have a very different accent from others who were born in and grew up in the same city. This is very common in the British Isles, where someone can literally have a different accent from her next door neighbour — mainly due to social class, education and upbringing.

What school one attended can make a big difference (i.e., private school versus a state school). But even local working class accents can differ over an incredibly short distance. I actually heard that accents can vary more within 20 miles ‎in the British Isles than they do across all of North America.

While that statement is probably a huge exaggeration (compare Texas, New York City and Newfoundland accents) there is at least some degree of truth to it. For instance, I don’t personally think Torontonians sound too different from Calgarians — or people in California or the Pacific Northwest for that matter.

However, I can think of one interesting example in North America where 500 metres makes a huge difference. That would be the international border between Canada and the U.S. – particularly in the Buffalo-Niagara region (and possibly also in Windsor-Detroit).

Linguists have found that many people in the U.S. Great Lakes region have what’s known as the Northern Cities Vowel Shift — where certain vowels are pronounced differently than they normally would be (especially a’s and o’s). For example, to a Canadian, someone from Buffalo might sound like she’s saying “posta” instead of “pasta” and “chaklat” instead of “chocolate.”

Because there’s little to no evidence of the vowel shift occurring in Canada, someone from Niagara Falls, Ont. speaks very differently from someone across the river in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Nevertheless, it’s nice that we here in North America generally find regional differences in accents merely fun and interesting. While there is a standard North American accent (which is very similar to the way most Canadians speak) we have no real equivalent to “Received Pronunciation” (also known as “the Queen’s English”) in North America.

Accents not as bound by classism here

I don’t think we are likely to hear many people being discriminated against in the job market because they have a strong “local” or “regional” accent. Because of that, we aren’t likely to hear the type of advice recently given to job applicants by British employment minister Esther McVey not to hide their accents at interviews.

Accents just aren’t as bound by classism in North America. And while there are regional differences, I can’t see someone not landing a job because they have a strong Newfoundland or Chicago accent. I also couldn’t see someone being discriminated against because he speaks too “posh” (which does still happen in certain circles in the U.K.).

However, even in this part of the world, differences based on class, ethnicity and nationality can result in animosity and discrimination. While it may be perfectly acceptable to have a bona fide occupational requirement that someone be very fluent in English, it generally isn’t acceptable to require an employee to speak “clear, accentless English.”

I would also argue it’s not a best practice to discriminate against someone because of his accent, although it might not technically be unlawful – other than in jurisdictions where “social condition” is a prohibited ground of discrimination, or where the discrimination can be shown to intersect with another prohibited ground like race or nationality.

While class distinctions are much less pronounced in Canada than they are elsewhere, it would be ridiculous to suggest they don’t exist here at all. I can actually spot a Canadian with an extremely blue collar background‎ by the way he speaks, regardless of which part of the country he is from.‎ While it’s a huge stereotype and an exaggeration, there are Canadians who speak more or less like Bob and Doug McKenzie.

Of course, some jobs would be best not filled with someone who speaks like a complete “hoser,” but I would argue that’s more down to diction and vocabulary than actual accent (although that plays a part as well).

Latest stories