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I Got This Job Because of My Accent, Thank You

In America, as with the rest of the world I’m sure, accents are a fascinating thing. They tell us where people are from, possibly where they’ve been, and what caste/class that person is a part of. Foreign accents in this country are considered charming, which is why 8 times out of 10, a guy with a Scottish brogue or Brazilian bur will pull more girls in the club than the dude who sounds like he hopped off the back of a meat packing truck, even if all 3 have similar levels of attractiveness. This week, I got to see that type of discrimination at work that had previously only existed in my mind: that being intonation discrimination. Oh it exists. And you may have been a victim of it without even knowing.

For anybody interviewing for a position, there are certain personal physical attributes you have to worry about that in an ideal world you otherwise wouldn’t have to. Am I too fat? Will my dreadlocks be a problem? Is my skin too dark? Is my skin too pimply? Unless you are working in an IT dungeon/cage where no one is ever going to see you until you’re summoned by automated request to connect some wire on the top floor, your appearance is of no concern to anyone. And while I’m on the topic, isn’t that sad? – The IT guy doesn’t even get the benefit of someone walking down the hall to ask him to troubleshoot a problem. He gets an automated request via some internal query.

As someone who has had over 10 jobs in 6 industries in 11 years, I’ve interviewed quite a bit. Overtime, I have fine-tuned my interview skills. I know what colors to wear, what catch phrases to use and exactly how much pressure to apply in a hand shake during my interview. I have also discovered that my accent played a major part in whether or not a got the job. To ensure success, I do the one thing that many a Black person in my position has been mocked and reviled for by my race: I “talk white”. And by “white”, I speak loudly with a standard American accent that can’t be traced to any region, and I sprinkle my speech with $5 words that (generally) impress the interviewer. I also keep abreast of “white” topics – which can range from the frivolous (like Jon & Kate) to the solemn (like who really killed Jon Benet?). Even if my potential employer were Black as me, it’s an unspoken code that we never discuss out of bounds topics -like Flava Flav or Tavis Smiley- even if they are as nasty or enigmatic as Tiger Woods or Ted Koppel.

We’re all safe with Tiger Woods.

This week we started interviewing for the second content writer to join the team at my job, since the other one quit after the second day. The first guy just bombed. And I mean bombed bad. He kept using the word ‘adaptive’ instead of ‘adaptable’ to describe himself. The director, who is English, had a field day with the phrase after he left. Nice guy, but he seemed nervous and appeared to be lying. His skin turned pink every time he talked about his experience and he kept clutching his hands close to his chest as if trying to withhold some secret. The next day, we interviewed a lady named Alicia Brown. She had a Master’s degree (from Phoenix or Strayer or some such McUniversity) and seemed pretty strong on paper. With a good ‘resume name’ and a higher level degree, she seemed to have all the missing pieces and I was sure we’d found our girl…until she opened her mouth.

With my history self-imposed accent schizophrenia, I was appalled that she had not learned to do the same. She was intelligent enough – no one gets a Master’s, no matter what the source, without intelligence – but she just didn’t sound intelligent.  A Southern drawl is one thing; a Black Southern drawl is a horse that lives in a completely different color spectrum. I leaned forward in my seat, looking her in the eye, willing her to add more “errrr” to discourse and less “ahhh”. It’s ‘ask’, not ‘ax’ daggonit! Please Alicia, for the love of Christ, say ‘yes’, not ‘yeis’. It was all to no avail. She smiled charmingly when the interview was over, thanking us for the opportunity. My eyes were transfixed on her gap tooth and the cluster of coiled hair that had steadily been snaking its way up her chest and finally peeked over the top of her blouse to bid us its personal farewell.

I held out hope that she would pass muster.

“The Director doesn’t like her,” said Vladimir, his alto Serbian inflection permeating through every word.

“Really? Why not?”

“He said he doesn’t think she has the personality to be on the phone with the sales guys…like she’s not bubbly enough.”

“I think she was bubbly enough,” I countered. “I think she was very friendly.”

Later on, the Director asked me for my view. I told him what I liked about her. He reiterated that she did not seem to be upbeat enough. I disagreed. He then said he was concerned the drive was too far for her and that she would get burnt out. I noted that I drive 45 minutes to an hour from Roswell to get to work, and am not burnt out yet. He finally ran out of ‘acceptable’ objections.

“I’ll be honest, I’d choose you a billion times over her to be on the phone with one of our sales guys,” he confided. “I just don’t think for someone with a Master’s, she was very articulate.”

“Yeah,” I said, staring at him blankly. “I guess not.”

This article has 5 comments

  1. David S.

    I’m tempted to interview for a developer position in a black southern drawl just to see the result. Will they bounce me even after I ace the technical screening?

  2. Malaka

    You would probably get to the final round if there were numerous candidates, but they would pick the person with the less “inferior” accent.
    But think about it David: You’re in Ghana. You have 2 guys -> One that speaks with a LAFA a la GIS and another whose dialect is straight outta Chorkor with zero refinement. You want them both to build, I dunno, a molecular beam. Who would you, honestly, rather have a conversation with on a day to day basis and receive status reports from?
    Although LAFA’s are extremely annoying in their own right, they’re going to win 9.5 times out of 10 over Chorkor.

  3. David S.

    I dunno about that one. My field is overrun with foreigners, many of whom have a decent command of the English language but with some of the most annoying accents you will ever encounter in your life. I’ve done tons of interviews with people where it actually hurt my ears to listen to their answers to my questions. But the thing about the tech sector is that it’s a very objective field. It’s not about how the person’s writing makes you feel, it’s about whether whatever they are building works. If you build a plane and it flies you are a good engineer. If you build it and it crashes, you suck. It’s that simple. As long as the chorkor guy can design the molecular beam, or explain to me how he would design it if I hired him he’ll get the job. But it’s easy for me to be objective in a objective field. I can’t say that I wouldn’t hire the LAFA guy if I was hiring an accountant, or a lawyer, or someone in my marketing department.

  4. Khadija

    I would go with the LAFA because whether we like it or not impressions do matter. I was conducting an interview last month for a teaching position and I asked the candidate what was his weakness and he replied “English.” His accent was decent but come on don’t give me the impression that you will have difficulty with English if it is the language of instruction. Duh! Some folks just don’t think.

  5. Malaka

    I almost fell out and died laughing over that one!

    You’re going in to interview for a position as an English teacher, and yet your weakness is “English”?? Killing ME! LOL!!

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