Friday, 20 January 2012

Call centres and attitudes to accents

What accent do you like best? What accent would you most like your doctor to speak with?

The UK is lucky enough to have a fantastically wide range of accents and dialects (the two are different - accent refers specifically to the way you pronounce words, whereas dialect includes vocabulary, grammar  and all aspects of language). We're also very sensitive to other accents, for many reasons. The great diversity itself is one reason: people speak so differently in places really not that far away, you can't help but notice it. Perhaps another is that our society is (and was even more so until recently) class-based, and 'having an accent' (i.e. speaking an accent other than Received Pronunciation) used to mean you were working-class. This was a Bad Thing if you were looking to get on in life, but equally 'speaking posh' could get you ridiculed among your peers.

Thankfully times have changed and now a regional accent shouldn't hold you back from getting that well-paid job or place at Cambridge. But we do still unconsciously make judgements about people based on the way they speak. This is a topic that's been extensively researched, and the results consistently come out the same. If you ask people to make judgments about a speaker based solely on their voice (under controlled conditions known as a 'matched guise' test), you find that people with accents like Yorkshire, Geordie and Glaswegian are considered to be friendly, honest, but not the sharpest tool in the box. Conversely, people who speak with an RP accent are thought to be haughty and unfriendly, but authoritative and intelligent.

For this reason, call centres are commonly based in places where the people speak with an accent that other people like and consider to be friendly. That's why half of Newcastle works in a call centre. Likewise, Irish always comes out well in popularity surveys. However, you'll not find many call centres deliberately using Birmingham, London or Liverpool speakers (personally, I've nothing against these accents, but they always get judged as 'thick' or 'untrustworthy' or just plain 'horrible'). Incidentally, 'Asian' was one accent cited by the BBC Your Voice site as one that people find 'unpleasant to listen to', which might actually be a result of the number of call centres outsourced to India. I can't imagine that people actually dislike the accent that much; it's a reaction to the associations it has. And actually, this is more generally the case:
"American listeners, who do not recognise a Birmingham accent when they hear one, who know nothing about Birmingham and who probably don't even know where it is, do not find the Birmingham accent unpleasant at all. And everything they know about London leads them to find London accents highly attractive." (Bad Language, page 136: Andersson and Trudgill, 1990)
Anyway, I've recently had reason to think about this because I've been spending an inordinate amount of time talking to people in call centres. I had quite a lot of problems with my broadband (it was rubbish) and before I could get out of my contract, Virgin needed me to do the same things (changing the name of the network, plugging it into a different socket, etc.) over and over again with about six different 'technical advisors'. None of this worked, of course, but because I talked to so many different people, I noticed that they all spoke with a strong Welsh accent (I'd guess South Wales, I think).

Alex Jones (the one on the right) has a strong Welsh accent
I don't know if it was a deliberate decision on the part of Virgin to locate their call centre in Cardiff/Swansea/wherever - a few years ago the Welsh accent was not a popular one, but I think that's changed now, when more celebrities have a Welsh accent (Alex Jones, who presents the One Show on the BBC, springs to mind). I recall noticing similarly that BT's technical support (though not all their call centres) was in Ireland. Now, all right, these accents are liked and the speakers thought to be friendly and down-to-earth. But you'll recall, they are not thought to be intelligent. When I talk to a technical person, I want to think that they are authoritative and know what the hell they're doing when they're getting me to scrat about on the floor plugging different cables into things. This would indicate that technical bods should be recruited from among speakers of RP (or as close as it gets these days).

Now I've moved to Plusnet (going well so far, so fingers crossed it stays that way) which makes a big thing about being a Yorkshire company. In fact, they're a subsidiary of BT, and when I rang I spoke to a non-Yorkshire person, but anyhow. It's their big selling-point, and they say things like 'Good honest broadband from Yorkshire' and 'By 'eck that's good'. They're selling their brand as being good value, honest, salt-of-the-earth, not-like-those-cheating-buggers-from-the-South. They advertise that they have UK-based call centres (not Yorkshire-based). I hope never to have to speak to someone in their technical department but I'd be interested to know where it is.


  1. The funny thing about call centre locations is that a company can choose where to put their call centres, but when hiring they (surely?) can't discriminate based on what accent someone has. So I guess they just have to hope the location can deliver a majority of the kind of speakers they want. A friend of mine who is a non-native speaker of English worked for a while in a Newcastle call centre; based on his (decidedly non-asian) accent people used to ask him if they'd been put through to India!

  2. Yeah, it's a good point, they have to take whoever applies and just hope that the majority have the right accent, which usually works, but once in a while someone like your friend is going to get the job. I love that people can't even recognise this accent they claim to dislike though, if he's not even Indian!

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