Sunday, June 24, 2007

Confidence and Accents

I read this post and the comments it generated with lots of interest, then this one turned up too. It's a subject I was talking about recently with a friend and one in which I am fascinated.

I have come to a conclusion that people of all sorts DO change their voice and accent in order to blend in with their surroundings and environment. But the amount that a person will change their voice or accent is a direct reflection of the amount of self confidence the person has. It's something I have concluded after some, although hardly statistically significant, observation of people who do a lot of public speaking and presentations.

The people who have a large dose of self confidence are the ones whose accent remains largely unchanged wherever they are. The ones who lack self confidence, at least in some areas, are the ones who try to change their voice to suit the environment. It makes perfect sense to me, it's a reflection of a person's security in themselves.

Accents are also key to a person's identity aren't they? How often do we judge a person becase of their accent? Most of us will continually judge people we meet from their voice. Let's face it, if you heard David Beckhams's voice and didn't know that it was him you probably wouldn't conclude that he was a teacher or a Doctor would you? You wouldn't take a listen to Stephen Fry and think that he's a footballer.

When I was in Sri Lanka a while ago I had dinner with Java Jones. It was the first time we had met face to face. Whilst we were chatting he mentioned that he had expected me to be "more Sri Lankan" than I appeared. It was an interesting comment and when we discussed it further we figured that he had expected me to have a Sri Lankan accent, something I don't even borrow on Sundays. It was interesting how Mr Jones had built up an impression of me almost solely from reading my blog, how he had expected one accent and I had turned up with a different one, but also how we all make these assumptions. If I heard my own voice, with its dreary South London tones, then compared it with Java's sultry Sri Lankan lilt, I'd totally assume that he is Sri Lankan and I'm British. Technically true, yet I also consider myself as Sri Lankan.

But, I do find that my voice and accent changes a bit when I am talking to certain people in Sri Lanka, specifically people whose English isn't as good as others may be. The older I have got the less my voice shifts, a reflection of my inner confidence I think. But I still catch myself when talking to an old Aunt or someone and I notice that many words take on a "Singlish" sound to them.

I was discussing this accent thing with someone the other day and she said that she thinks the phenomenon is also a sign of adaptibilty, that people who shift their voice and accent in order to make themselves understood are simply attempting to blend in with their companions. This must be true too, we all crave acceptance by our peers although we have different ways of showing that craving.

The whole issue of people putting on "false" accents and returning to Sri Lanka after a couple of months in England with an accent like Vinnie Jones' one is just laughable for two reasons. First is the fact that it is clearly put on for effect. I can't understand why many people often hold Western culture with such high regard, perhaps it's largely because of the influence of TV and music and the MTV generation. But secondly it's the fact that these accents don't sound anywhere near genuine to a Londoner. If you think that Dick van Dyke's cockney accent was a good one then you may fall for the charms of a Colombo boy trying to sound all "gansgta" but that's about the only type of person you'll impress.

So, this is a big moment for me. For about the first time since I started to blog I have reached a conclusion in a post. Normally I start off with good intentions and then ramble to a point that is so far removed from the start that I finish in mid air. This time I have a conclusion of sorts, the first I have had since chemistry lessons at school.

It's this; the amount that a person changes their accent and voice in the company of others is a direct reflection of that person's self confidence. So the more you change the less self confidence you have. But, the important point is that it's self confidence in relation to the people we are interracting with, it's not absolute.



Beatrice Hannah said...

I think false accents are totally obvious usually.

But lots of people I know with regional British accents talk differently depending on where they are, both accent and the way words are used (me included). This is not a purposeful thing, but happens automatically. It's partly necessity as people need to communicate with each other and be understood without subtitles, but I think there is much more to it than that.

Most Scots people think I am English, but most English folk pick up on my vowels (burred rather than bird, Purl rather than pearl etc). But when I go home, after about half an hour my accent is definately stronger, and having lived with a Geordie in the past people from Newcastle can also make my accent change.

Its not a lack of confidence, just something that my brain does in response to the people I am with. When my way of talking changes I can communicate certain cultural things that there is just no RP English for. It's about sharing. And even if I didn't want it to happen there is nothing I can do to stop it!

by the by I am hoping that on my return to the UK the verb to be will make an appearance in my vocab again!

SpectralCentroid said...

Well, some people really do have to adopt local accents not to blend in socially, but to be more effective professionally. In a time critical situation, the last thing you want is for someone to keep second guessing what you say. Don't know how much this is true universally, but I've also noticed that westerners find you more reassuring if you sound more like them.

Plus, regardless of what who says what, heavy Sri Lankan/Indian/Paki/Chinese accents will not get you laid with American girls. European accents on the other hands have the exact opposite effect.

That being said, carrying back accents home is kinda lame. However I'm not sure if certain little changes would stick or not. For instance, if one has been in the US for a while, would they continue to pronounce the 'a' differently? You know, the American 'past/fast' as opposed to the British 'past/fast'.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with you, i dont think the amount you change your voice has anything to do with confidence. Perhaps the pitch of your voice has somethign to do with confidence.. the higher the pitch if you are nervous etc, the deep pitch if you are trying to impress.. etc

But accent, and changing it, if it is automatic, involuntary.. its just about adaptability, communication, being simply understood. There's that classic comedy skit when the Brit goes somewhere and speaks, he is not understood, so he speaks louder, believing the other guy is deaf, never thinking that he simply isnt understood. ..communication and language arent about what is said, it is all about how it is received. Simple.

Archangel said...

While your point is taken, I doubt confidence is always the main contributor to accent change.
It may also be a way of accommodating communication barriers we tend to confront with Westerners.

I myself have experienced the Western observation that Sri Lankans speak very fast - too fast for the average foreigner to comprehend without the aid of repetition. Having prior knowledge of this may result in one of us deliberately changing our style of speaking to facilitate greater understanding. This may further result in a slight accent shift.

The example above is not an example of where the Sri Lankan suffers from low self-esteem but rather an instance of where the Sri Lankan has adopted a patronizing attitude to the poor foreigner. A bit like talking slowly to a child or a retarded person minus the love and affection.

Thank you for reading.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

I think I failed to explain my thinking in one key element of this post. I don't think that people change their accent deliberately because they lack confidence but I do think it can happen involuntarily and that is more likely to occur in the person with lower self confidence. The self confidence of the person may also be affected by other factors such as geographical location. So, for example, when in Sri Lanka, my accent may change in order to blend in, but when I'm in London I would expect a "foreigner" to alter his accent to blend in with mine.

n said...

word on what SC said on a no go with American chicks with a Sri Lankan accent. Now a fake British like a charm:)