There’s been quite a bit in the news recently about regional accents, and how they can act as barriers, both socially, and in the workplace. Because of my line of work, they come into my mind quite a lot. I call their effect The Axe Factor (it’s catchier than The Accent Factor), and I really did believe that the prejudices associated with some of them had softened considerably over the years. It seems I was wrong.
When I went to drama school, in the sepia-tinted days, it was definitely the done thing to try and eradicate accents like mine (a mixture of West Yorkshire and Tyneside), and replace them with what we called Standard English, and is now more commonly known as Received Pronunciation (RP).
It was about that time that regional accents began to be heard on radio and television. They’ve become more and more widespread over the years. I reckon that this is a good thing, but I have an important reservation. One of the positives about the old RP training for broadcasting was that the voices tended to have a pleasant, resonant sound. So even if a good deal of the population perceived that accent as ‘posh’, at least the sound was usually easy on the ear. When the RP accents began to fall out of favour, less attention was paid to voice training, and the baby tended to be thrown out with the bath water. In many cases, the regional accents that began to be heard in broadcasting had a hard edge, reflecting the way that most people with those accents spoke.
A lot of experts on the effects of accents divide them into social and employment issues, but to my mind, they’re really one and the same thing. It’s a fact that people generally perceived to be of a working-class background (mainly because of the sound of their voice) tend to be more readily excluded from the higher echelons of society, and similarly from top jobs.
And research indicates that those who do manage to bypass societal ceilings, on average are paid less for doing the same jobs as people perceived as having a higher social status.
Is this really all about one’s accent? It can play a big part, but it’s not only The Axe Factor. Just to complicate things, we live in a society where we’re highly conscious about how we look, much more so than how we sound. Let me clarify that: we’re often aware of how other people sound, but not so much about the sound of our own voice. It’s easy to understand why we focus on our appearance: we have constant, instant reminders of our looks. They’re called mirrors. They’re everywhere!
And, if a mirror reminds us that our looks might benefit from being improved, we have all sorts of potential remedies – from hands-on practical ones (taking up jogging, enrolling at a gym, going on a diet), to cosmetic ones (a change of hairdo, new clothes, make-up. [Could that be the Max Factor?]).
On no level is there an equivalent for the voice. A conscious effort has to be made in order for you to hear how you sound. You have to record yourself.
It can be a pain in the backside to do, and really easy and convenient to forget about afterwards – out of hearing, out of mind!
And even if you do remember that your voice could benefit from a bit of work, there are no cosmetic treatments. It’s either do some form of work on your voice (vocal gymnastics?) or give it up as a bad job. It may be unfair to be categorised by your accent, but it seems that we’re stuck with it. You either decide to do something about it, or you put up with the situation. You may well decide that your accent does need work; but is it really your accent, or is it something related to but differing from that? Could it be the sound of your voice – your voice quality? It’s a point that rarely comes up in discussions like this; and most individuals find it hard to separate voice quality from accent. In fact, two people can have identical accents, but the voice of one may be a lot more pleasant on the ear than that of the other. Let’s think of them as Voice 1 and Voice 2. It’s a bit like comparing the sound produced by two different acoustic guitars. Let’s assume that Guitar 1 is well made and has a spacious resonating chamber. It will produce a rich sound when played.
Whereas Guitar 2 is not so well put together, or even in a delapidated condition. Its sound will be inferior to that of Guitar 1.
There’s not a lot that can be done about Guitar 2. But Voice 2 can be helped. Not only can an accent be softened if its owner so chooses, but any harshness in the sound of a voice itself can also be taken away. So, the possessor of Voice 2 now has four choices: to soften the accent; to improve the voice quality; to do both; or to do nothing. There is a catch! Unfortunately, this type of work takes time. There’s no magic wand. It needs guidance: but at least you do have that choice – to do something about your voice, or not.
Did I say four choices? Well, there are more. In an earlier blog, I mentioned Call-Centre Woman. I spoke to her last year. Her voice was warm and attractive. What gave her added lustre was her personality. How you interact with others is inextricably linked to the sound of your voice. And again, with work, it’s possible to free your personality from the shackles of shyness and inhibition. I complimented Call-Centre Woman on her voice and manner, and she told me that a lot of people commented just as I had. So, it’s not just nit-picky old voice coaches who notice these things.
There are even more choices that Voice 2 could make, but I have to let the cat out – so they’ll have to be for another time. (My cat’s name is Pelé, I have to treat him gently as he’s still disappointed at not being called up for the Brazil World Cup squad. He’s very handsome – in fact, he’s the Tom Cruise of the village cats… only slightly taller. And his miaow is gorgeous!)