Speaking with a strong accent could mean you’ll get paid less

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‘Wages differ sharply between those with a weak accent or less and those with a medium or stronger accent,’ a new study said.

An accent’s twangs might not just affect a person’s speech — it could trim their paycheck too, according to new research.

German workers with “distinctive regional accents” earned about 20% less yearly than workers with a “standard” accent, according to a new study revealing the economic toll of snap judgments on a person’s speech.

The accent-based divide was as significant as the gender wage gap in Germany, where women earn about 21% less than men, wrote University of Chicago and University of Munich researchers in a study circulated Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

That 21% wage gap is about the same size as the gender wage gap in America, where accents can also diminish pay or warp assumptions about someone’s background, according to research and speech specialists.

“You hear people joke about his stuff,” said one of the study’s authors, Jeffrey Grogger, an economist and University of Chicago urban policy professor. “Clearly there are cases where it’s not so funny. It’s not a joke. Twenty percent is a lot money.”

On the whole, German workers without a distinct regional accent earned €17.62 euros an hour in 2016 while workers with an accent made €13.94 an hour, Grogger noted.

Converting that hourly rate to dollars and adjusting for December 2019 inflation, the worker without an accent would make more than $39,500 annually, assuming a 40-hour workweek with two weeks off. The counterpart with an accent would make $31,300.

Linguistic differences, pay differences

Like anywhere in the world, Germany has its mix of accents and assumptions about the people who have those accents.

The language’s “standard” version derives from the way people speak it in Hanover, according to Grogger, who speaks German. But there are variations on the standard. The word for “I” is “ich,” but Berliners pronounce it as “ik” and Bavarians say “e,” Grogger said.

The researchers looked at 2016 data and interviews with a representative panel of German households. The interviewers rated the strength, if any, of the regional accent.

“Wages differ sharply between those with a weak accent or less and those with a medium or stronger accent,” the study said.

Workers with noticeable accents tended not to work in more lucrative jobs requiring more face-to-face contact with colleagues and clients, the study found. It was difficult to pinpoint exactly why that what happening, Grogger said.

At least one theory was that people who tended to interact well with co-workers also tended to be more productive — and boost their wages in the process. But if colleagues chortled at a worker’s pronunciation, teamwork could be tough.

Researchers controlled for factors like the education of a worker’s mother, where they grew up and their test scores. The wage penalty for an accent persisted, Grogger said.

‘Where are you from?

The findings are another reminder of the many ways people consciously and subconsciously peg others based on superficial evaluations. People decide within seconds, for example, whether a person is rich or poor based on their clothes, according to recent research from Princeton University and New York University psychologists.

Likewise, past research suggests that height, weight and perceived beauty can all play into wages too.

The findings in the German accent study echo Grogger’s recent look at wage penalties for people with Southern accents and what he described as “African American Vernacular English.”

Grogger looked at the wages for African-American workers and Southern white workers in an article published last fall in the Journal of Human Resources. Grogger played audio recordings of workers in an ongoing earnings study and asked anonymous listeners to describe the strength of their accent.

The results revealed the racism and bias many African-American workers are up against, Grogger said. African-American workers with a so-called “mainstream”-sounding voice earned 12% more than other African-American workers, according to his study, which controlled for schooling and aptitude test scores.

African-American workers in his sample who were not identified as “black” by listeners had a much smaller wage gap of 97 cents on the dollar to similar white workers, he noted.

Grogger did not find a wage penalty for Southern whites with a heavy accent. Past research says some people view the speech as a signal of pleasantness, but not competence or smarts. One 2019 survey ranked a Texas accent as the most attractive in the U.S.

Fighting a perception of being ‘ignorant’

In Birmingham, Ala., Deborah Boswell saw a parallel between her work and the study on German accents. She’s the president of an executive coaching company, Professional Speech Services of Alabama, and one aspect of her job is helping clients reduce, but not erase, their Southern accents.

About 30 of Boswell’s 300 clients in a year ask for help with their accent, often because they want to build their business and they’re sick of hearing, “Where are you from?”

Boswell remembered getting asked the same question herself one time. “I felt like I was vermin,” said Boswell, who also offers an audiobook titled “Taming Your Wild Southern Accent.”

“It would be nice to tell you ‘Oh it doesn’t have an impact,’” Boswell told MarketWatch. “In reality a strong Southern accent can work against you. The perception is we’re ignorant, we’re uneducated.”

Rochel deOliveira, the owner of AccentsOff Speech and Voice Improvement in Manhattan, remembered having one successful Mississippi businesswoman for a client. “I feel like people think I’m stupid when I’m up here in New York,” deOliveira remembered her saying.

Though most of her clients come from other countries, when she does have native speakers trying to modify their speech, “the majority are from the deep South.”

None of clients explicitly say they want to drop the accent to make more money, but they express the idea differently. “They want to make sure nothing gets in the way of their career. They don’t want to sound different than their peers,” deOliveira recalls them saying.

In 2014, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a U.S. Energy Department research facility, caused a stir with an offer for a later-cancelled Southern accent reduction class. “Feel confident in a meeting when you need to speak with a more neutral American accent, and be remembered for what you say and not how you say it,” a notice said.

Some get rid of their accent so they can communicate better with colleagues

Laura Brewer, an accent specialist who owns the Knoxville, Tenn.-based Confidence Learning Services, wasn’t surprised by the new study’s findings. Many of her clients are non-native English speakers, usually Indian and Chinese software developers trying to improve communication with co-workers.

“They are tired of being pigeonholed because of pronunciation,” she said.

People can make all sorts of instant judgments about someone else based on their speech and accent, but Brewer noted “the assumptions are unfounded. … Like any assumption, you want to check that and see where that’s coming from.”

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