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Does your accent affect how you’re treated as a customer?

The way we speak a common language can vary hugely, but does it affect the customer service we receive? I’d like to hear your experiences.

Are we treated differently depending on whether we have a Home Counties pronunciation, a Liverpudlian dialect, a southern US drawl or a Bangladeshi accent, to name but a few? 

And it’s not just accents: names can also carry a huge amount of significance. Together they are one of the most recognisable signs of social and ethnic background. 

Why are accents so significant?

Accents are important. Often, we make judgements about others – both conscious and subconscious – depending on how they speak or what their name sounds like. 

There aren’t many people who haven’t adapted how they speak in certain situations in order to make themselves better heard or position themselves in a certain way.

It may sound harmless enough, but this can also come at a cost. The flipside is we can also be on the receiving end, judged on how we speak, or what our name sounds like; whether it’s socially, at work or going about our daily lives.

Sometimes it might not matter. But at other times it does.

How do accents affect you as a customer?

It would be surprising if most customers hadn’t altered their accents at some point during a conversation with a retailer, an energy company, a bank or a telecoms firm – I think it’s the 21st century equivalent of putting on a smart suit for a meeting with the bank manager. 

And altering the pronunciation, spelling or shortening of your name is probably more common than it sounds too – just think of Hyacinth Bucket (or ‘Bouquet’) from the 1990s sitcom Keeping Up Appearances.

It might have been amusing in the world of television comedy a few decades ago, but when does this ‘code switching’ become a problem? 

If you can’t be treated in a fair and just manner without having to alter your accent – or your name – then there’s clearly an issue that needs to be addressed.

We’re interested in your experiences – how have your accent and/or name affected the way you’re treated as a customer?  

Have you had an experience where you felt you were treated differently from other people on the basis of your accent?
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I get treated rotten all the time regardless of my accent, and I don’t really have much of an accent anyway, it’s far too neutral, I only wish I could have a regional accent. And I can fake accents fairly well, my favourite one’s northern ireland. And I can do welsh accent quite well too, and geordie, and west midlands, and south african.

How’s your South African? It’s one of the hardest to pull of correctly.
And anyway probably only good for getting cavity searched at the airport… 🇿🇦

R Avery says:
18 December 2020

I was born in Essex but on the London side so never had a Towie voice. However I worked in Central London for 30 years so my voice was a mix. I was born to working class parents who did not speak with rough voices. People think I was educated at an expensive school. Nothing could be further from the truth. I had a varied work life. Working for some well known people. Accent played a big part in getting the jobs. I was treated better generally by virtually everyone. It has been an advantage except people who retained regional accents think I am a snob when drop ‘h’s’ etc and wonder why I get things achieved whereas they don’t.

Without changing humankind I am at a loss how it is possible to make people behave as though they have no life experiences which affect how the deal with other people in official and day-to-day meetings.

“If you can’t be treated in a fair and just manner without having to alter your accent – or your name – then there’s clearly an issue that needs to be addressed.”

There are some people who are naturals and effective in dealing professionally with all sorts of people and others need to learn from them. There are other people who lack people skills – but also bear in mind that the organisations they work for may deliberately make life difficult for them and customers.

On the other side there are customers who are unreasonable in their attitude and expectations – fortunately a minority.

I can only speak for 40 years in dealing with clients from a low level and to management. One skill certainly I think worth having is that of adapting to the correct level for the client or the person you are dealing with. This means avoiding technical terms for the techno-illiterate etc etc. So altering behaviours is both natural and helps society get along.

Unfortunately extending social behaviour changes to the very rare people needing to change their names seems a huge leap in the article.

I am left wondering if this is really something Which? should be addressing given all the other practical matters this charity has in its Articles that remain outstanding. Currys PC World and assisting practically with people taking them to court for breaches of Trading laws would seem a far more interesting story to follow in this Conversation.

In my experience there’s far too many folk out there who are far too grossly condescending and far too frequently despise anyone who cannot manage to operate on their level which infuriates me. Just because someone is severely disabled and therefore not able to work or drive or marry and have kids and take on all manner of hugely demanding grown-up commitments etc. does not make them remotely contemptible as far too many think. And it’s not just accents that some folk needlessly find fault with. Look how it is with things like golf or cricket clubs in affluent areas. You’re expected to have the right “social references” and it also helps if you have a double-barreled surname and drive a posh elite class car etc. And it’s the same with some employers too. I think such people have a lot to learn from little toddlers, they never have any prejudices or treat anyone with appalling disrespect, but instead they’re by far the most civilised generation of all.

Linguistically, I judge native English speakers not on their accent but on their grammar and vocabulary. There are plenty of multilingual Eastern Europeans in the UK, especially in London, whose quality of English grammar and vocabulary is far higher than the average native English speaker. If they can get it right, then why can’t so many native English speakers? Everyone should make an effort to speak and write their native language without basic errors, even if that native language is English. It is excusable to make mistakes in second or third languages (which I admit to doing), but not in one’s mother tongue.

We have a diverse range of accents in the United Kingdom, especially in England where accents vary over distances as short as 20 miles, unlike in Russia where the accent is uniform for hundreds or thousands of miles. We should celebrate our rich diversity of local accents and consequent regional identities, but we should never celebrate bad grammar and vocabulary in the birthplace of a global language like English, which is indicative of a poor education system and apathetic speakers. In France, for example, I don’t experience the level of linguistic incompetence in French that I hear in the UK in English, so this is not caused by disabilities or dyslexia or anything similar. In my experience, Ireland produces the world’s highest quality English grammar with a lovely accent. Why are the British, especially the English, so bad at the language that they invented?

This is a very broad topic because it includes a whole range of other influences that reflect our class structure, educational backgrounds, lifestyles, and mannerisms. People naturally try to create an individual identity for themselves so they can move freely within the circle to which they feel they belong or aspire. Communication is the key to this in so many different ways. In terms of the spoken language, accent is just one of a number of aspects including vocabulary, diction, and elocution, and there is no doubt that people play games with pronunciation for effect. Sometimes there is a ‘code’ in which the accent is a discriminator.

I wonder whether perceived discrimination on account of an accent is possibly based on some other social disadvantage like being unable to express oneself clearly and coherently, or a lack of self confidence, or being out of one’s depth intellectually in the particular company. With so many news items depending on vox pop interviews on the street it seems to me that a general lack of articulation is the chief drawback as people fall back on social media language and language shortcuts. Accent is usually irrelevant.

I am a bit surprised by the comment in the Intro that “it would be surprising if most customers hadn’t altered their accents at some point during a conversation with a retailer, an energy company, a bank or a telecoms firm” and it would be interesting to know what the basis for that is. I can’t imagine any advantage will come from adapting one’s accent in order to speak to a call-centre operative. Such contrived mutations are likely to be unconvincing, as are most attempts at mimicking another person’s accent if it is not natural to the speaker. It is perfectly normal nowadays to speak to staff in other regional or provincial centres and have to tune in to their accent, intonations and inflexions.

I appreciate that there are challenges for those whose first language is not English and it would be worth exploring the degree to which they are disadvantaged in transactions because of their accent and not on account of other factors.

A little off topic but a colleague of mine always used to speak much more loudly than normal when making overseas phone calls. Subconsciously, perhaps, he felt he was helping the recipient although some believed it helped the phone call travel a longer distance.

Many Brits seem to run down their country whenever the opportunity arises. What message does this give the rest of the world? Is it really justified?

I am unable to change my accent but believe that being polite and showing empathy for people that I am dealing with is an effective way of getting their help, though patience can be necessary too.

It’s worth remembering that those we are dealing with may be following instructions from their employer rather than using their own initiative and that rather than the employee should be the target for criticism. Having seen how staff at customer service desks are treated by some people, it must be a horrible job.

Well of course it does! Anyone who has been abroad (either within or outside of the UK) will have experienced noticeable dicrimination, both positive and negative, based on their accent. Has nobody ever gone out of their way to be extra helpful to a tourist, based purely on their accent, rather than the clothes they wear or other telltale signs?

At its most extreme level, a different accent to the locals determines whether you should be overcharged in a shop, taxi or restaurant, or even treated more favourably. Perhaps a free gift, a tour past the main city landmarks en route, an aperatif or a glass of the local wine to try with your dinner.

Whilst more obvious abroad, this type of discrimination is not binary. Everyone does it, all the time and often subconciously. So what is the point this Convo for Which? Don’t we already have enough snowflakes who think they are special and need to be treated with extra care just in case anyone happens to offend them?

I am all against blatent discrimination when it is based on race, disability, age or another obvious characteristic, when it is something that is not within your control. But accent? I was born in North America, and was bullied at school because of the way I spoke. As a result, people I meet now think I come from Somerset / Devon.

Good luck with this campaign. And I’m looking forward to receiving compensation for my years of “accent discrimination”, which has had a lasting effect on me as a person. Where can I apply?

In many cases, but not for example regional accents within England, discrimination by accent is covered by Section 9(1)(c) of the Equality Act 2010, which defines “race” as including “ethnic or national origins“.

@NFH – Of course, you are right on this point. It is odd that I would have better legal protection in England if I reverted to my mid-Atlantic rotic pronunciation, rather than my West County Wurzell.

It might be the basis for some employment discrimination case, if it could be shown to be at the root of the issue. However, I doubt it would have any traction in a legal case involving a consumer transaction. Don’t like the way I pronounce “Cheddar”? If my money is not good enough for you, then I can always take my custom elsewhere.

My Scottish accent once resulted in a visit from the police….

Many years ago I was temporarily in a rented flat while house-hunting. An officer came to visit me one evening as part of the Yorkshire Ripper enquiry, having been tipped off that there was someone with a Wearside accent living there. He quickly recognised that I had a Scottish accent and when I asked if it was my landlord who had reported me we had a good laugh.

Reminds me of my trip to America with my sister a few years ago.

We were sitting in a restaurant enjoying a meal and a good sisterly chat when suddenly, quite out of the blue, we were joined by a young local gentleman proclaiming “Gee what a cute little accent, where are you from?” “We’re Brits” we replied, and then followed a long conversation about how accents in a small island, not much different in size to one of their States, could vary so much which he found quite fascinating.

I do have a problem talking on the phone to people with a strong northern or Scottish accent and found the sub-titles very useful when watching Rab Nesbitt on TV! Also, as so many NHS consultants and medical personnel now have Asian accents I have trouble understanding what they are saying and do feel embarrassed when I have to keep asking them to repeat what they have just said.

I don’t feel any need to discriminate between accents as each is akin to its own regional identity. I don’t expect everyone to speak Queens English and neither do I consciously discriminate between peoples status according to the way they speak, preferring to focus instead on an amicable and friendly interaction and exchange in conversation. Occasionally when I have been privileged and fortunate enough to meet with and experience a profound ‘spiritual’ connection in conversation with a complete stranger, accents are irrelevant. It is a very rare occasion, but when it happens it is a joy to behold.

The whole point of Rab C Nesbitt was that his accent and diction were deliberately difficult to understand, even for Scottish native English speakers. Subtitles spoil it a bit!

I often find that it’s not my accent so much, or lack of it, that causes me communication problems, but just the way I talk. I’ve been lumbered with far too many appalling disabilities including not being able to talk clearly enough and my speech coming out too fast so that some people are well nigh impossible to communicate with, as if I was foreign and speaking a different language and I often find that voice operated automated services on the phone are well nigh impossible to use which is discrimination in my opinion, far too many services are like that these days and they absolutely infuriate me as they constantly lock me out and it must happen to others too and it needs sorting out. And there’s certain english words like notoriety and linearity for instance which are supposed to be pronounced very differently to the way they look and I like to pronounce them my way which suits me and that infuriated one of the teachers at school who insisted on trying to force me to conform to the norm and act just like all the test and conform to standards just like a machine which I furiously resented and still do. And today’s society expect me to conform just like a mass produced manufactured component rolling off a production line and automatically like whatever “everyone else” likes, like dogs, alcohol, pubs, sleazy tabloids, porn, gambling, gossiping, slandering and rumour-mongering, partying, baking frying heat and rowdiness etc. which I DON’T like one single bit.

I have a bit of an odd accent. Twenty years in England turned my Northern Irish accent into something a bit strange. I am aware I sound super posh now I am back in Belfast and find I put on a stronger accent when I am talking to people in shops here so they don’t think I am snooty! 100% just my own hang up I am sure though.

When I first moved to England I was in Liverpool. Locals were always very friendly in shops but other students were a bit suspicious of me at first so I think I subconsciously softened my accent. I certainly don’t miss drunk people on nights out asking me if I am a terrorist or if I had seen a bomb explode.

I was born and brought up in north east Scotland and speak Doric at home as do most of us who were born and brought up here. We have an ongoing campaign to try and save the Doric as it is slowly dying. I, myself, am guilty of it in that my parents who were farming folk were true Doric speakers whilst I am not nearly so broad spoken. Perhaps it is because of my working life I had to speak English as people outside NE Scotland wouldn’t have had a clue as to what I was saying. There are two things that annoy me though. We Scots are usually portrayed with a Glaswegian accent and game show hosts try to mimic Scottish accents as they do with welsh and Irish. By the way I’ve nothing against Glaswegians it’s just that the whole of Scotland don’t have that accent. I may have been lucky but I don’t think I have ever been discriminated because of the way I speak. In fact it’s the opposite when I’ve had to speak to someone from outside Scotland they often make nice comments about my accent.

Eileen Palmer says:
24 December 2020

My problem is to try and understand the foreign accents from companies, banks and building societies.
I have often had to abort a prospective purchase because of poor diction.

Just to add some information from other countries [the charity’s founders were keen on learning from other countries] There is a bill in France outlawing discrimination on the basis of how people speak. Effectively there are many accents in France and they are all now to be acceptable.

Also in France, the electrical manufacturere SEB has a network of 6000+ repairers. Darty has also a repair scheme running up to 15 years for major products. Of course costs of repairs may be a problem. To this end starting Jan 1st most electrical products will have to display a repairability index number.