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Dialects and accent can cost you

2008-07-07 21:53:04.421471+00 by Dan Lyke 12 comments

Speech Patterns and Racial Wage Inequality, from Jeffrey Grogger of the Harris School at The University of Chicago:

Black speakers whose voices were distinctly identified as black by anonymous listeners earn about 10 percent less than whites with similar observable skills. Indistinctly identified blacks earn about 2 percent less than comparable whites. I discuss a number of models that may be consistent with these results and describe the data that one would need to distinguish among them.

On the hiking list, there was recently a discussion on the pronunciation of "arctic", which I thought meshed nicely into the what do you call a carbonated sweetened beverage thread. This paper appears to say that if you're black but speak like a white person (all the broad sweeps of that pen apply), you've got wage parity.

This also seems to impact some notions that I've heard in adoption circles, that white parents who adopt black kids need to be sensitive to the cultural backgrounds of the skin color of their children. Maybe this'll lead to some re-evaluation?

For more kindling, Steven Levitt looks at the paper.

[ related topics: Children and growing up Sociology Work, productivity and environment Education Race ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2008-07-08 11:49:40.635156+00 by: petronius

I've always been fascinated by black co-workers who speak fairly standard "White" English to me, but who switch to a faster, differently pronounced "street" English when speaking to each other.

#Comment Re: made: 2008-07-08 15:47:24.332759+00 by: ebradway

So are you saying that speech parity equates to wage parity? Or is it that speech bigotry equates to wage disparity?

#Comment Re: made: 2008-07-08 15:51:26.425187+00 by: Dan Lyke

I'm saying that my reading of the paper and the article are that speech parity equates to wage parity.

I'd be interested in follow-ups that look at regional speech patterns among those of caucasian ancestry in the U.S.

#Comment Re: made: 2008-07-08 17:46:25.814105+00 by: JT

I've worked quite a bit to rid myself of my New Orleans accent in order to be more easily accepted as viable help when dealing with technical issues as a SysAdmin. If I pay attention to the words I use and special attention to not using the words "y'all" or "aight" then I get a lot more respect than when I speak in a more comfortable tone.

My girlfriend describes it as my "phone voice" but in actuality I'm trying to mask the southern accent which is automatically associated with some random point between white trash and inbreeding. It's worked in my favor quite a few times to be able to speak with an unidentifiable American accent when I speak to people from other countries, however it's a major advantage when I speak to people from other parts of our own country. With a southern drawl beginning a conversation, which happens when I'm very tired or distracted, you can almost hear the tone of voice change on the other end of the phone and people slow their words down and pronounce them differently as if they were speaking to a disabled child. It seems harsher judgments are made about a person when less information is available. If you can only hear someone's voice, assumptions and conclusions are made in leaps and bounds.

#Comment Re: made: 2008-07-08 17:54:46.159401+00 by: Larry Burton

My wife found her thick southern accent to be an asset when negotiating settlements with lawyers in northern states, especially in Minnesota.

#Comment Re: made: 2008-07-09 18:14:52.82045+00 by: polly

before the kids came back to school last year, the faculty participated in a professional development with a young black man who stated that "white speak" is where the money is at...we teachers need to teach our young black students how to talk white because that is the only way they are going to make it in this world. then he proceeded to show us how to use RAP to teach our lessons.

it crossed my mind as he was speaking (very white) how this WHITE teacher was going to teach her black students the white way of speaking. all i could hear were alarm bells. the best i can do is to speak clearly and make my students slow down while talking to me...modeling without coming out and saying "talk white". probably the quickest way to a lawsuit.

i believe he was not referring to southern speak either.

#Comment Re: made: 2008-07-09 23:47:10.753876+00 by: Dan Lyke

Polly, I don't know how old your students are, or, perhaps, more to the point, what their reading level is, but might be worth printing out a copy or three of that paper and leaving that lying around.

I can't navigate the political minefield for ya, but I think that being up front about the pragmatic notions of why you might want to be able to talk different ways, to tune your vocabulary and diction to your audience, is the right way to approach this. Not necessarily "my culture's way is better", but "this is the dominant culture, you may not like that fact, but you're going to have to deal with it."

It ain't about right and wrong, it's about what is, and it doesn't matter whether your students view it as a situation of submission or of condescension to people who don't speak a particular dialect. In fact, you might even want to lay it out to them in those terms.

#Comment Re: made: 2008-07-10 17:14:29.986315+00 by: topspin

"Where the money is at" is in communication and being perceived as being able to perform and communicate. There are well-known stereotypes still entrenched in the business world and society which "select for" a certain look, speech, demeanor, etc. As Dan says, "it's about what is" and playing the game to win is a fact of life. These things are changing and I think the NEXT generation (beyond the one Polly teaches) will face a world where "white America" is rapidly morphing into "brown America" and being comfortable with black, latino, and asian idioms and culture will become essential.

JT: I'm also told I have a "phone voice" (clear, calm, authoritative) at work, but I've been further accused of having a "waitress voice" (??? I dunno, I'm just hungry) but neither are conscious choices at this point. You are right on the money about making assumptions based upon on limited cues from a phone conversation, but I don't view that as demeaning or negative. I need to communicate with the caller and whatever language or idioms I feel will accomplish meaningful communication is all that matters.

For example, telling someone they've been given a "calcium channel blocker" to reduce their blood pressure might, in some individuals, mean I then need to spend several minutes convincing the individual that they cannot help control their blood pressure by limiting milk and dairy products, nor will the medication make his/her bones brittle. People tend to fixate and not using inflammatory words like "calcium blocker" or "incredible tush" can make life much easier, even if those words are correct. <grin>

#Comment Re: made: 2008-07-10 17:21:42.852067+00 by: Dan Lyke

Wait, "incredible tush" is inflammatory? No wonder...

#Comment Re: made: 2008-07-10 19:31:32.370724+00 by: Larry Burton

Topspin, did the revelation about the importance of good communications come into play after a conversation with a waitress?

#Comment Re: made: 2008-07-10 23:59:53.965835+00 by: ebradway

Y'all really should go out and rent My Fair Lady. It's very topical.

It seems likely that speech "quality" correlates with educational level which correlates with income level. For many folks, speech is purely a means of communicating day-to-day events and not more abstract concepts. For these people, speech can be very lazy and follow the patterns of the people they are interacting with.

There is an exception, however. I have met several people who continue these "lazy" speech patterns and are adept at communicating complex, abstract ideas and concepts to lesser educated people.

polly: What you describe sounds kind of gimmicky to me (not that the educational system has ever gotten stuck on "gimmicks" and trends ;). I would think the best way to improve the quality of students' speech is to encourage enthusiasm in the subject at hand so the students desire to communicate more than their everyday banter. And that requires more advance speech, especially if you ask them to communicate with people other than their peers. Of course, instilling enthusiasm in a subject is the holy grail of educators.

#Comment Re: made: 2008-07-11 12:02:39.991648+00 by: polly

ebradway, you are preaching to the choir. i teach 6th, 7th, 8th grade. we/teachers are afraid that this generation is a "lost" generation. their reading levels are low to none, and skills are minimal. they are impacted by their environment and lack of parental support. short of taking them home, we/teachers are doing everything "in our power" to help our students. not all public schools are this low achieving...my school is inner city. those out-lying schools, whose parents are supportive through money and involvement, have the higher test scores and successful students. the inner city schools work hard and try every possible way to make a difference with our kids.

unfortunatly, due to pressure from central office, principals are expected to "FIX" their schools through professional development and in-services with central office expecting immediate results. these "quick" fixes ultimately become the dog and pony show that i mentioned previously (teach them to talk white). that speaker did mention (more than once) that he usually works with students, which we all thought would have been more appropriate.

on a lighter note, when my daughter started out in customer service with blue cross/blue shield, she had to deal with a LOT of cranky customers. she utlized a "little girl" voice when speaking to older women and "jessica rabbit" voice when speaking with men. it worked great with her call ins to the point that they asked to speak to her everytime they called. this is amazing considering that when she was younger working drive thru at kenny roger's, she treated the customers like dirt. lol...if you changed your mind more than once she got ugly. i think the only reason why she got to stay on drive thru was because she was fast, i don't think it was for her people skills at that time. plus the manager eventually became my son-in-law. love is so blind.