Ishbel Smith says it is wrong to encourage people to change their accents
It’s a brave blogger who starts by stating she has empathy for Margaret Thatcher. Especially one whose father used to work in Ravenscraig and whose grandmother was a Red Clydesider. Perhaps I should clarify.
One of the many legends told of our first female Prime Minister narrates how she had to (had to) change her voice and accent in order to be taken seriously. Her authorised biographer wrote: “The hectoring tones of the housewife gave way to a smoothness that seldom cracked except under extreme provocation on the floor of the House of Commons.” Her transformation from “shrill middle class housewife” to statesman (yes, statesman) is still cited as evidence that in order to be truly effective, one must speak “as a man” and “without an accent”. Now, I have blogged elsewhere about speaking as a woman (and don’t get me started again on that one, because you may regret it. But what about speaking without an accent?
Of course, there is no such thing as “no accent”. In the UK, there are thousands of different accents. And as much as accents have shifted over the years, Henry Higgins of Pygmalion and My Fair Lady fame would still be able to identify much of where a person was born, educated and worked just by listening to them. It’s not a unique gift - we can all do it. But would we all be as judgmental as the man who notoriously sang “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”
Ever been on holiday in a far flung place and heard an accent from home? You notice it (and usually rejoice in it). Ever been debating a local issue and heard an accent from outwith your locality passing comment? You notice it (and usually reject it). Communities gain strength from many complex connections and accent often acts as a marker for shared experience, insight and understanding. However, it can also mark the outsider. Instinct is a powerful thing and we are hardwired to be suspicious of the other.
So it is no surprise that when outsiders try to join communities, try to work with new people, or try to influence others, they are often advised to speak in a way that avoids them being labelled or even rejected because of their accent. People are told to “tone down” their regionalism, their class and even their gender (which is where my empathy for Mrs Thatcher begins – and probably ends). For in essence what that means is that they are advised to tone down who they are.
This is wrong. Yes, speak at a pace which helps your audience hear what you are saying; yes, try to make sure that people understand any slang you are using; yes, even consider the diction of some key words (where’s Henry Higgins when you need him?). But you are at your most convincing when you speak as yourself - not when you are pretending to be something (or someone) you are not. If you are confident in who you are, the audience you are engaging with will react more receptively than you could maybe imagine. There is nothing like speaking from the heart.
And whatever you do, don’t try to mimic or emulate the accent of others to try to fit in. Audiences are pre-sensitised against mimics. Can you imagine if Jacob Rees Mogg were advised to put a Glasgow accent on next time he came to speak to a Scottish audience? True, it wouldn’t be the only reason that his pitch may go awry, but it would be patently ridiculous. Why should it work, then, in reverse?
I used to love My Fair Lady but I now view it with some sadness – for I liked the Eliza Doolittle who danced and sang and embraced everyone in the streets. By the end of the story, I felt some of her soul was lost along with her accent. Maybe that explains something of Mrs Thatcher – maybe some of her soul disappeared with the much aligned shrillness. The most effective ingredient in getting an audience to listen, to engage and maybe even to be convinced, is when the speaker speaks from their soul, when they are understood as genuine in what they say – and what better way to be genuine than to speak in the accent that is genuinely your own?
Margaret Thatcher took the advice that she had to change her accent, and her life did change as a result. But did it really change for the better when things are looked at in the round?
Ishbel Smith is the founder of communications consultancy Heart In Mouth