Proper Accent Etiquette – Do’s and Don’ts
Since I left my home country, there are two questions I am faced with the task of answering on a regular basis. Both irritate me for different reasons. The first, because it took me a really long time to articulate the feelings that it brought up within me when asked. The second, because I find it plain annoying.
Person: “I detect an accent.”
Me: “Correct. Ten points to Ravenclaw.”
Person: “Where are you from?”
Person: “But you don’t sound very Australian.”
Me: “I don’t understand your statement, so I won’t respond to it.”
Before I moved abroad, I didn’t think much about the way I talked. I was routinely teased in any case, due to the way I pronounce certain words, thanks to the wonderful influence of my English mother. Now, I appreciate my accent more than ever. It’s a little piece of home that I get to take with me, everywhere I go.
Accents are a mark of national identity, that many people wear proudly. Proper accent etiquette is definitely something that needs to become more widely known and practiced.
Fortunately, I have comprised a list of “do’s and don’ts” to follow when interacting with individuals whose accents differ from your own.
Do ask, don’t guess
I almost never take a gamble when I am trying to ascertain where people hail from. It is just not worth the risk. If you get it wrong, you may end up inadvertently offending people and that is not a nice thing to do.
I cracked down hard on this rule, after asking a colleague what part of Ireland he was from. I had been to the country three times and had lots of Irish pals, so I felt pretty confident. He threw back his head and laughed.
“I’m from Bristol!” He cackled, tears of mirth rolling down his cheeks. I was mortified.
“I am so sorry!” I apologised. “I’ve never met anyone from Bristol – and you curl your words like the Irish do.”
“Do I?” He chuckled. “I thought I just talked like a retarded pirate.” *
He seemed unfazed, but he probably went home and cried himself to sleep that night.
Ask people where they come from. That way you won’t offend anyone, nor will you end up looking the fool on the occasions where you are totally off the mark.
Don’t insult their intelligence
I have a friend who is Malaysian. People will often ask her where she is from. Then, they will say to her: “You speak English really well.” She understands that they are probably not trying to be condescending. Yet, she still wants to strangle them with her bare hands.
“The icing on the cake is that English is my first language,” she told me once, rolling her eyes. “I didn’t learn to speak Malay until I was eight years old.”
After all, if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
Or alternatively, go sit next to Alice Roosevelt Longworth.
Don’t compare accents
In the discussion of antipodean accents, I often hear the following generalisation:
“Kiwi and Aussie accents sound really similar.”
Yeah, and so do Canadian and American accents. And the Scottish and Irish are pretty much interchangeable. Welsh and English are one and the same. Look at how many millions of people I just insulted, with a few short, fragmented sentences.
To the untrained ear, people from certain parts of the world do sound quite similar. But those people can hear the differences in their accents. They may be offended (or depending on the political climate of the countries in question, they may cash in on it), but either way, they will think you are silly.
Don’t get lost in stereotypes
A dear friend of mine moved to Switzerland a couple of years ago. She is a stunning looking woman – tall and fair skinned, with long blonde hair. When she tells people that she is Australian, they stare at her, then state:
“But, you don’t look Australian.”
As she has pointed out, this is a fairly generalised comment to make about the one country in possibly the entire world, whose identity is built upon immigration.
Don’t make jokes about how if I stay in the UK long enough, I will lose my Australian accent forever.
Playing on people’s fears isn’t a nice thing to do.
*His words, not mine! ↩