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A Person's Accent Can Change Your Perception of What He Is Saying

And it could affect people’s judgments of what’s socially appropriate


It’s well established that people express different aspects of their personalities when speaking different languages. Now, researchers are suggesting that a much subtler linguistic shift can have a meaningful impact on the way we interpret the world: Just listening to a voice with a foreign accent can prime people to see a situation according to the values of the foreign culture, if they have ties to it—or it can reinforce the standards of their own culture, if they’re “monocultural.”

A team of researchers at the University of Southern California, led by psychologists Morteza Dehghani and Pete Khooshabeh, looked at whether “bi-culturals” and “mono-culturals” change their interpretive framework based on the kinds of accents they hear. Their paper will appear in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology. Using a Chinese-American student association at a college in California, Dehghani recruited 80 Chinese-Americans, all of whom had lived in the U.S. for at least five years, as well as 62 mono-cultural Americans to serve as a control group. Participants were shown a short video of an ethnically ambiguous, middle-aged cartoon man thanking them for taking part in the study and giving them instructions about the task. Half the time, the man spoke English with a Chinese accent; half the time, he sounded like a native American English speaker.

After watching the video, participants were shown a picture of a group of fish, with one fish swimming ahead of the others, and were asked why they thought the single fish was swimming out in front: Was it because the one fish was leading the others, or because it was being chased by the pack?

Journal of Language and Social Psychology

Chinese culture, which is less individualistic, is more likely to support the second explanation, say the researchers: The fish is ahead because it’s being chased, not because it’s trying to be a leader. “Collectivists tend to see the fish as a group of fish, and it’s the group that is determining/dictating the position of the leading fish,” Dehghani explained in an email.

As the researchers predicted, Chinese-Americans were more confident that the fish was being chased if they heard the instructional video delivered by a man with a Chinese accent. This “demonstrates that accent alone can induce a cultural frame-shift in biculturals,” write the authors. For Americans, though, hearing a Chinese voice had the opposite effect: It made them more likely to say the fish was being a leader. “For the monoculturals, the foreign accent made the monocultural American participants’ own social identity more salient,” they write. American culture primes us to think in terms of leadership and individualism, and when we hear our own language spoken in a foreign accent, it reinforces that identity.

In another experiment, the psychologists looked at whether accent could affect people’s judgments of what’s socially appropriate. They recruited 15 Iranian-Americans and 66 mono-cultural Americans, and read them a short story about a student named Anthony who is invited to the house of his classmate, Shawn. When Anthony arrives, Shawn’s parents ask him to stay for dinner, and offer him a framed picture as a gift. After reading the story, participants listened to instructions delivered in either Iranian-accented English or native American English, and then answered questions about whether it was appropriate for Anthony to leave before dinner (something that Iranians would consider very rude) and whether Shawn’s parents sincerely meant for him to take the gift (something that would be in line with Iranian norms of hospitality).

If they heard an Iranian-accented voice, Iranians were less forgiving of Anthony’s decision to leave before dinner and were more confident that the offer of a gift was genuine. Again, the foreign accent had the opposite effect on the Americans: “An out-group accent conflicted with monoculturals’ social identity and made their native Western cultural frame more salient.” In keeping with American customs, they thought it was fine for Anthony to reject the invitation to stay for dinner, and were slightly more skeptical of the host's offer of a present.

This isn’t the first time researchers have explored how foreign accents affect perception of people and events. In 2009, for instance, psychologist Katherine Kinzler and her colleagues at Harvard showed that five-year-old children put more stock in accents than race when choosing potential playmates. She had monolingual English-speaking kids look at photos and listen to voice recordings of children they’d never met. Some of these kids spoke French, some spoke English with a French accent, and others spoke English with an American accent. Some were black; some were white. The American kids were just as unlikely to choose the child who spoke accented English as the one who didn’t speak English at all; and they were far more likely to say they wanted to befriend a black child who spoke unaccented English than a white child who spoke with a foreign accent.