Common-room people

Regional-accented scholars must talk ‘posh’ to avoid prejudice, study shows. Jack Grove reports

April 4, 2013

Many academics are hiding their regional accents for fear of being mocked, patronised or sidelined by their departments, a study claims.

While discrimination on grounds of gender, race or sexuality were no longer acceptable in the workplace, researchers at Newcastle University claim a “tacit prejudice” against those with broad regional accents was still going unchallenged.

As a result, many staff played down their local accents and “spoke posh” to avoid being classed as an “outsider” by their peers, the study says. With job losses, budget cuts and departmental restructuring, many staff felt having a regional accent could count against them in the event of redundancies, the paper adds.

“It can be very painful for some people to have to talk in a different way than they are used to,” said Michelle Addison, a PhD student at Newcastle, who interviewed more than 30 people at a Russell Group university for the Economic and Social Research Council-funded project.

“People were saying they were very conscious of the social difference carried by their accent and how it marked them out as ‘other’ to their colleagues,” she added.

“One person explained how some staff started speaking in a different voice when a senior member of staff entered the room. They were trying to sound posh by affecting a different image which they felt had more value,” she said.

“Talking the talk” by using a certain accent has become an unwritten rule in the academy, with those with strong accents facing extra difficulties in terms of career advancement and winning plaudits from students, fellow academics and management, Ms Addison argued.

The desire by universities to be “elite” in terms of academic prestige further pressured those with regional accents to speak differently, she added. “In the current environment, universities are in competition with each other and their unique selling point is often to be ‘elite’. In turn, academics wanted to portray an image that is also elite,” she said.

“In times of redundancy and cuts, it is very risky to be classed as outside this ‘elite’ image,” she added. “There is a tacit prejudice that seems to be activated in the workplace.”

The study, titled Talking the Talk and Fitting In: Troubling the Practices of Speaking ‘what you are worth’ in Higher Education in the UK, was expected to be presented at the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in London on 5 April.

It is co-authored by Ms Addison’s Newcastle colleague Victoria Mountford, who studied students’ experiences of regional accents in universities.

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