Accent Bias: The Impact of Speaking Styles on Negotiation Outcomes
This article has been written with the help of Ronja Hübscher, Voice & Dialect Coach
Consider how accents influence negotiation outcomes. An individual’s accent can subconsciously sway the negotiation, either positively if there’s a personal affinity for the accent or negatively if the accent evokes less favorable impressions. This phenomenon, known as accent bias, reflects our perceptions of socioeconomic status linked to specific accents. It affects all participants in a negotiation, impacting both those who exhibit the accent and those who respond to it. The success of a negotiation can be closely tied to the nature of the accent, the participants’ awareness of their own biases, and the strategic use or counteraction of accent bias.
Many people change their accents to alter their image as a speaker. One small shift in pronunciation can make it appear as though they were from another region or social standing altogether. Something as small as changing the way someone says the ‘th’, adding or dropping the ‘g’ at the end of ‘-ing’, or adjusting how wet the ‘t’ is being pronounced, is already enough to change the perception of a person. Switching from ‘free’ to ‘three’ in reference to the number three, for example, can trigger a different reaction in the listener because of existing biases. This so-called code-switching can be used to influence a counterparty’s behavior and push forward a certain agenda.
Accent bias can further prompt people who have regional or foreign accents to modify how they speak to accommodate the listener, to facilitate the conversation, or to reach an agreement in a negotiation. Any speaker of a ‘non-standard’ accent, including regional and foreign accents, tends to take on the burden of a rocky conversation. They often think that it is their fault alone when miscommunication or language mishaps occur, when in fact the line between intelligibility and ignorance is very thin. While some accents are less easy to understand and take a little more time go get fully accustomed to, it is still the listener’s job to try to comprehend and not dismiss them at the slightest inconvenience. Any kind of conversation, including a negotiation, should always be a two-way street.
Frustration can build up on both sides of the negotiation table if such conversations are not free from bias. Sometimes, all it takes is one party that needs to repeat themselves once more after the other party asks them to rephrase again because they have not trained their ears or do not have enough patience. This frustration can lead to annoyance and loss of motivation to negotiate collaboratively. One or both parties might even decide to end the negotiation as quickly as possible, without regard for optimizing the value of a deal.
To dismiss someone because their accent was not ‘convenient’ is one part of negative accent bias, but another goes beyond perceived comprehensibility. It involves accent as a societal construct that is still very much prevalent in today’s world. Accents are often associated with class, social status, intelligence, and success. Even though an accent is nothing more than one way of pronouncing words, historically, some accents have been given more weight than others. The British royal or white aristocratic English accent has been seen as the one to aspire to and against which every other accent has been measured. Any accent that deviates from this ‘standard norm’ is oftentimes not taken seriously, for example, the Southern US American, Northern English accents, multicultural varieties, as well as foreign accents. The further away from this ‘standard’ an accent is, the more it is being judged. Therefore, a negotiator with a regional, multicultural or foreign accent can quickly seem like a less professional counterparty and be seen as not qualified enough to do business with.
Not taking into consideration any implications of negative accent bias is likely to lead to a one-sided, competitive negotiation. Society has taught us that a person with an accent other than the white elitists’ is deemed less knowledgeable, less intelligent, less professional, and less trustworthy. However, these are all qualities that build rapport during the negotiation process. If negotiators allow these subconscious stigmas around accents to influence their behavior during a negotiation, expectations are tainted, and potential deals are sabotaged before any options have even been outlined. This means that if negotiators are not aware of how a negative accent bias can affect their communication subconsciously, they are steadily moving further away from a collaborative environment. A negative experience, even if solely based on how an accent is perceived, can limit opportunities, and potentially damage the prospect of a long-term relationship.
We are all regularly faced with negative accent bias. News channels mostly expose us to accents that have been deemed by white elitist society as ‘standard’ ones. Because of this prevailing accent bias, regional, multicultural, and foreign accents are vastly underrepresented in the media. This bias is fed into our subconscious minds on a daily basis.
Accent bias is not just a UK phenomenon; it’s global. Consider how rarely we hear national figures with distinct regional accents, like Geordie or Scouse, in prominent positions. This bias extends beyond public figures to everyday interactions, influencing perceptions in conversations and negotiations. It’s essential to be aware of how accents can subconsciously sway our judgments. Training providers like The Gap Partnership offer negotiation courses that focus on understanding and overcoming accent bias, which can be crucial in helping individuals focus on the substance of discussions rather than the accent of the speaker, leading to more fair and effective communication.
One way to combat such negative accent bias is by recognizing it and not letting it cloud our judgment. Being aware of its existence makes conversations easier to navigate. Here are my three top tips to avoid any potential influence of negative accent bias when negotiating a deal:
Prior to a negotiation
When you prepare, include research about the accent of your counterparty. Check your own bias against their accent and know how it might affect your negotiating. If you know you may have difficulties understanding their accent, expose yourself to it beforehand to familiarize yourself with the pronunciation patterns.
During a negotiation
Take a step back if you notice you are getting increasingly impatient or frustrated and observe where this impatience or frustration is really coming from. If it stems from a degree of irritability and bias towards their accent, acknowledge its existence internally and, moving forward, try to consciously separate what they are communicating from how they are saying it.
Get inside the head of the other party and distance yourself from your own bias
Your accent has been judged just as much as you judge other people’s accents. Awareness is the first step. By being aware of your accent bias, you can shift your focus onto your negotiation skills, without letting this bias subconsciously influence your behavior or hinder a successful outcome.