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It’s Time to Let Go of the General American Accent

As a white child living in suburban Ohio, when I watched the nightly news, I heard someone who sounded a lot like me. We were an NBC household, and the newscasters I most remember were Tom Brokaw and Roger Mudd, both of whom, as far as I remember, shared the same strong Midwestern accent, complete with the thick “r” sounds to soundly complete hard-consonant words.

Therefore, it did not surprise me much when I read a book in which a linguist argued that the so-called neutral American accent could be found just up the road from me in Michigan. And armed with this perspective, when I ventured out into the world on my own and encountered people who didn’t speak, I had the unshakable belief that I was right, and they were wrong.

It turns out that so much of this is, to borrow an old-fashioned Midwestern phrase, hogwash. The concept of the so-called neutral or General American accent has been driving linguists crazy for years. First off, it was established by the scholarly work of a…linguist who grew up in the Midwest. Secondly, further research has shown that even in that linguist’s home stomping grounds there were multiple dialects. Third, and most importantly, this belief has been used by some as a means to hold back people who have grown up in other parts of the country, people in urban communities, and/or some people of color, all of whom happened to speak with different accents than Mr. Brokaw and the other white, Middle America newscasters.

Luckily, this is finally starting to change, and contact center industry leaders should take note (if they haven’t already). One easy, if unscientific, way to tell is to regularly listen to NPR. From the beginning of its inception, the public radio network has attempted to create a newsroom that was at least a little more demographically diverse than what was seen on the networks. And while there definitely has been a vigorous and justifiable debate about whether NPR has fallen short of that mission, it certainly has made a better effort than some news organizations. In recent years, the news organization has made strides in giving hosts space to sound like wider America, as well. We all know the prototypical, hushed NPR voice that has been expertly parodied by SNL and others. Now, we also are hearing hosts like Ayesha Rascoe and A Martinez, among others, who are reflecting the voices of a broader swath of America.

NPR is not alone. Whereas for too long Americans would only hear diverse accents and people speaking other languages on scripted TV when characters were supposed to be funny or nefarious, today Americans are just as likely to hear Spanish-language advertisements on standard broadcasts and follow televisio protagonists who don’t have the Midwestern twang. There is so much more that needs to be done to ensure that all Americans can hear their voices in the public square of entertainment, business, and the news, but progress has been made.

Contact center thought leaders should ensure that their organization’s standards and training reflect and encourage this increased acceptance of the diversity of the American voice. Evaluators should be careful to measure vocal performance based on clarity and good communication, and not on the geographic origin of the accent of the customer service representative. Also, those in charge of hiring and promotions should be given training that helps them recognize and combat their own biases on this subject. It not only is the right thing to do, but it helps ensure that your organization utilizes the largest pool of skilled customer service representatives.