Last night, your correspondent enjoyed a most pleasant dinner with the bureau chief of an international news organization in Buenos Aires. This foreign reporter, who has a Spanish name and surname and an impeccably American accent, said he would occasionally encounter strange looks when people found out his name. There was a mismatch they could not account for.
That, too, was what another former college peer of your correspondent in England felt. A Nigerian-Briton, this friend – now a distinguished economist – was the son of a black father and a white mother, but he most definitely looked black. Yet he spoke with an upper class British accent. He laughed at the shocked faces that would meet him after making appointments over the telephone – with professors or hiring managers – and they would be taken aback when the person that turned up did not match the accent they had heard during the phone interview.
Yet the opposite is true, and worse. What we mean by “opposite” is that foreign accents apparently hold back the careers of otherwise qualified professionals. According to an article in the Financial Times, “In experiments that eliminated the effects of race (by using groups that were equally populated by Asian and white people), they found those with American accents were 16 per cent more likely to be recommended for a job and 23 per cent likelier to receive funding for their business pitches than those with foreign accents.”
That surely is unfair. And so is the bias – if statistics and research are to be believed – for taller people, who tend to make more money and have better prospects in careers other than professional basketball. This correspondent (who may have inherited his height from his Corsican great-great grandmother, and perhaps his ambitions, too) is especially alert against this form of discrimination.
But, more seriously, we think the foreign accent bias is a passing disease. With the U.N. reporting that 240 million people now live outside their countries of birth, it is only a matter of time before many of us have the “wrong” accent. You surely get used to this polyphony in places like New York or London, but also at any office of a global company anywhere. So you may want to save that money for an “accent correction” course and spend it better elsewhere, perhaps inviting out your colleagues for dinner or drinks, and getting them used to your own voice. As for the short people, there is not much to do. Except, perhaps, feeling vindicated by Napoleon. Who cares about his Corsican accent? He is the biggest hero in the Pantheon of republican, egalitarian, revolutionary France. And he was an emperor, and he wasn’t even French.