The Effects of Accents on Business

Researchers Robert Mai and Stefan Hoffmann have written an article that incorporates the work of many different professionals who have studied accents in business-related communication. They have also drawn some of their own conclusions. According to Mai and Hoffmann, there are three central accent effects and three levels of consequences for business communication due to accents.

The three categories of accent effects which together impact “business-related outcomes” are the social identity effect, the activation of stereotypes effect, and the processing of speech and the message. The social identity effect occurs for consumers during the first few seconds of their communication with a representative from a particular business. The presence of a regional or foreign accent causes the listener to assign the speaker to either an in-group or out-group category. An initial impression is formed prior to processing the message. Listeners tend to favor in-groups and discriminate against out-groups.  This tendency even occurs in young children when they select friends, according to a study by Kinzler, Shutts, De Jesus, and Spelke (2009). Satisfaction with a company and decisions about purchases are influenced by “accent-based social identity effects.” If the salesperson and the customer have similar speech patterns, a bond is created, which tends to lead to a more favorable evaluation of the company and its products. Mai and Hoffmann have proposed that “social identity effects are more relevant for services than for goods.” They wrote: “Accent effects may occur more frequently if consumers are uncertain about whether a product or a service meets their needs, or if they have difficulties in ascertaining quality….Thus, accent effects may be more prominent in credence-based industries such as the insurance or health care industry.” 

The activation of stereotypes effect can also occur quite quickly. While these stereotypes can vary across language communities, they are based on social groups, aesthetics, or countries. Perceptions of communicator characteristics such as status, competence, social attractiveness, trustworthiness, and credibility are, according to Mai and Hoffmann, guided by the stereotyping effect.  Studies have shown that “speakers with prestigious accents are evaluated more favorably in terms of status, social class, and competence than those that are associated with less prestige.” According to Scott, Green, Blaszczynski, and Rosewarne, research suggests that globally General American English and Received Pronunciation English (a type of British accent) are considered to be more acceptable by businesspeople than other English-language accents because they are typically the easiest accents for most people to understand. These authors believe that businesspeople “who desire high levels of English-language accent acceptability around the world should develop either a General American English or Received Pronunciation (British) English accent for business purposes.” While they stated that accent modification should be voluntary, they believe it should be available for those who want to pursue it (2007). The personal characteristics of the listener determine whether accent-related stereotypes that impact business outcomes will be triggered.

The processing of speech and the ability to comprehend a message are made more difficult by foreign and regional accents that are difficult to understand. Additional cognitive resources must be used to decode accented speech. Accents themselves tend to distract listeners, which interferes with the processing of a speaker’s message. In a study conducted by Boaz Keysar and Shiri Lev-Ari, non-native speakers – especially those with more pronounced accents – were judged to be less credible due to the increased difficulty in processing their speech (2010). When accents are difficult to understand, the ability of the listener to recall the message is reduced and the persuasiveness of the message is diminished. Mai and Hoffman suggest that “the more salient a regional or foreign accent [is], the more likely it is perceived as a source of problems in the business encounter.” Research has revealed that accented speech can be just as intelligible as standard speech. When accented speech is intelligible, positive consumer reactions can result. The authors advise managers to seek speech training for employees with “very strong regional and foreign accents.”

Mai and Hoffmann suggest that researchers further assess the impact of accent effects on three business-relevant levels: speaker characteristics, the perception of the company’s message, and actual consumer behavior. Consumer judgments about speaker characteristics such as competence, social attractiveness, and personal integrity are influenced by accents. The perception of a company’s message is influenced by accents. Accents also have an effect on consumer behaviors such as purchases of a company’s products and/or utilization of the services that they provide. Mai and Hoffmann wrote that “there is ample evidence that accent has a detrimental general effect on consumer attitude and purchase intentions.” Consumers, either consciously or subconsciously, transfer the judgments that they make about a representative of a company to their companies and their products and services. 

Whether you work for a business or you have your own business, if you have a pronounced non-native accent that is interfering with your ability to convey messages to your customers, clients, or patients effectively, an accent modification program with a speech-language pathologist is an option that you should explore. 

“Accents in Business Communication:  An integrative model and propositions for future research,” Journal of Consumer Psychology 24, 1 (2014), 137-158, by Robert Mai and Stefan Hoffmann.
“Accent Trumps Race In Guiding Children’s Social Preferences,” Social Cognition, August 2009, Volume 27, Issue 4, Abstract, by Katherine D. Kinzler, Kristin Shutts, Jasmine DeJesus, and Elizabeth S. Spelke.
“A Comparative Analysis of the English-language Accent Preferences of Prospective and Practicing Businesspersons from Around the World,” The Delta Pi Epsilon Journal, Volume XLIX, Number 3, Fall, 2007, by James C. Scott, Diana J. Green, Carol Blaszczynski, and Davie D. Rosewarne.
“Why don’t we believe non-native speakers? The influence of accent on credibility,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (2010), 1093-1096, by Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar.