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Will the Business World Ever Shed Its Foreign Accent Bias?

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Before the arrival of the Spanish, the ancient Mexican people of the Totonacs added wheels to their children’s toy animals, but for some reason, they didn’t make wheelbarrows. Although they were only one step from the cart, they didn’t take it.

One of the great thinkers of the twentieth century, French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss used gamblers as an example to explain why people like the Totonacs didn’t think to make obvious use of available inventions. There are not cultures more inventive than others, he argued. Simply, isolated cultures cannot enjoy the same cumulative effect as those which, like gamblers pooling their resources together, combine their play.

In 2016, forming such coalitions in the office is equally important. You may have the equivalent of the wheel on your desk and need someone from another latitude that has the complementary idea required to build a cart—or sell it. The often unspoken hesitation is that foreigners come standard with accented speech, and some think that because of this, working effectively together will be difficult. Unfortunately, this assumption is founded in stereotype and prejudice.

As workforces around the world become increasingly multicultural, the harmonious cohabitation of different accents in the workplace—and between global content teams—rises in importance. Because in the end, failure to foster such a workplace may prevent you from creating the next great invention.

Totonac Wheeled ToyVisualize What Can Go Wrong

Last week I Skyped from Barcelona with my Mexican colleague Ana Sordo (a multicultural content strategist at Skyword) in Boston. She told me how her professional beginnings in the US were made harder by her accent-related problems. Ana gave me a couple of examples of little things that can make life difficult for outsiders. For instance, people asked if her name was Ana or Anna—with a double n—and as a native Spanish speaker, she couldn’t hear the difference. And that time when she pronounced the word “writer” with a G all the way through a presentation, and her boss asked her at the end what a “gwriter” was. Being a native Spanish speaker myself, I knew exactly what she was talking about.

Ana’s story ends well for two reasons. First, because she found the humor in it. Second, because she had a friendly and supportive team. But sadly, as research from a “Frontiers in Psychology” study confirms, that’s not always the case. The researchers found:

  • Language processing that involves emotion-related aspects is sensitive to a speaker’s accent.
  • Foreign-accented speech decreases positive affective valence (or intrinsic attractiveness) and goes along with a negativity bias, which possibly suggests, according to the study, heightened attention to negative words.

In a similar study, 10-month-old infants were offered toys from people speaking their native language and others who spoke a foreign language. The proposed theory was that the infants would be more receptive to accepting toys from people who spoke the language they were used to hearing, and that bias is developed early on in life.

Indeed, Professor Katherine D. Kinzler with the University of Chicago found that infants show an instinctive prejudice for the sound of their own language, as they were more likely to take toys from native speakers. The study concludes: “Social preferences do, however, rely on language: a useful predictor of group or coalition membership in both modern times and humans’ evolutionary past.”

If we give credit to this sketch for BBC Scotland by the comedians Iain Connell and Robert Florence, even voice recognition devices may have inherited human distrust toward unfamiliar accents.

With Accented Speech, Mind Violated Expectations

Three experiments performed with 590 college students allowed Beth Livingstone, assistant professor of human resource studies at the ILR School of Cornell University, to learn how accent bias influences consumer choices, business deals, and hiring decisions.

Livingstone and her fellow researchers exposed the students to different messages, like a two-minute advertisement about a Starbucks-competing coffee shop “coming soon” to their college town. Messages were delivered in a standard American-English accent or nonstandard accented speech, such as an Indian or Chinese-English accent. Then, they observed the variation in their subjects’ reactions.Emotional Connection Test with Starbucks Add

What did they find out, exactly? They concluded:

  • Individuals are more likely to choose a company or a product when a message is read with an American-English accent than a non-native accent.
  • People hold certain expectations about company messages, and their expectations are violated when speakers have accents. In turn, that affects workplace and consumer choices.

These studies prove that the consequences of accented speech and foreign language on effective communication are real. If you want to get rid of the bias, find a way to manage the expectations.

Manage Expectations: How to Address Implicit Bias

Stereotypes and expectations are not the same, and regarding accented speech bias, the second seems to matter most. Unlike stereotypes, expectations are invisible. Until they start to cause trouble, you didn’t even know they were there. That sounds pretty much like implicit bias, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it: “Implicit bias is a term of art referring to relatively unconscious and relatively automatic features of prejudiced judgment and social behavior.”

Implicit bias is so entrenched in our mind that we’re not aware of its presence. You may wonder where that gap between who we are and who we want to be comes from. We’ve built a world that has nothing to do with the tribulations of our ancestors in the African savanna during the evolution of the species. Our forebears developed an innate dislike for any group of strangers and resolved their differences by killing each other (which, sadly, still exists in some parts of our world). But now that cultures are existing side by side and homogenizing, we need to figure out how to behave in complex surroundings. Enterprise companies are a big part of that new world (along with other contrivances like the US primaries or the stock exchange, whose workings will probably always elude everyone).

Obviously, the most effective way to tackle discrimination in the workplace is through fair laws and internal procedures. But still, there are tricks to help our better instincts kick in.

Let’s try to avoid ending up like the teacher in this episode of the show Little Britain.

Visualize What Will Go Right and Get the Emotional Connection

Before you get into the nitty-gritty of coming up with a solution, know that tedious speeches about inclusion won’t work. People already agree with you that we must be inclusive. Remember: Implicit bias is taken for granted; people don’t know that they think what they think.

In 2013, Calvin Lai and Brian Nosek at the University of Virginia asked scientists to come up with ideas to combat unconscious bias. Of the 18 proposals they received, what worked best was showing their subjects counterstereotypical images, like pictures of widely admired black celebrities.

In the case of accented speech, I believe that counterstereotypical voices should do the job nicely.

Where can you find them? Take a walk to the nearest Goethe-Institut and attend a poetry reading, or watch a subtitled German movie with your team. Share a TED Talk featuring your Swedish-accented marketing hero. Play for them an ad with your favorite French actor or a popular Italian female swimmer. Use the voices of widely admired foreign accented people the same way you use their images in a product video.

Now you can even watch some of your idols taking roles in foreign films. Or some of the shows you like presented by foreign anchors.Emotional Connection and Foreign Accented Speech

Once you have dived into the best sounds in town, it’s time to come up for air and make an emotional connection. As Ana Sordo told me, good humor and a team effort are of the essence.

When both parties agree to work together, the connection just happens—which means that one side learns to laugh at their own mistakes and the other to be open and supportive about those same mistakes. It’s that easy. Manage expectations, lose the bias, and make sure that the next giant leap for mankind does not lay forgotten in your drawer.

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