Discrimination based on how we talk and how we sound

Does discrimination happen based on how people talk and sound? Based on accents, word choice, enunciation, emotion, etc.?

In the United States, people can be judged harshly because they do not sound “American” or do not speak what a person may consider is “standard English”, or because they (often women) show emotion through voice and actions in a way considered inappropriate (but not when a man–usually a white man–does the same thing).

The bias can be overt and have significant consequences as in hiring, promotion, and firing decisions in employment, testimony in court cases, etc., or it can be subtle. Think about the last time you called a technical support help line, made a hotel reservation, or ordered “take out”, what did you think when the person who answered spoke with an accent or spoke in a way that you do not? What was your immediate reaction? What judgement did you make?

What does the research say?

Featured article:

*Formanowicz, M., & Suitner, C. (2020). Sounding strange(r): Origins, consequences, and boundary conditions of sociophonetic discrimination. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 39(1), 4-21. [Cited by]

Talking is an immediate and rich form of communication. Through vocal signals we provide information about ourselves and our social background. In six empirical articles, one review article, and a commentary, this special issue gathers an integrated collection of research covering the effects of vocal cues associated with minority membership, in particular, in relation to sexual orientation and migration status. People infer speakers’ nativity to the country and their sexual orientation by integrating vocal and visual cues. This diagnostic use of vocal cues can fuel intergroup conflict in two ways: It triggers discriminatory behaviors against those sounding strange(r) and language stigma triggers social anxiety among strange(r) speakers, resulting in self-stereotyping and social exclusion. The socionormative context plays a major role in containing the consequences of this phenomenon.”

“Although sociophonetic variations are vast and omnipresent—particularly when it comes to accents as a manner of pronunciation, because everyone has some kind of an accent—not all accents are of equal status. Some accents are considered standard, or prototypical for a given country, usually associated with high-status communication of a majority group. Some accents are considered as sounding strange(r), that is different from what is being considered a standard, and their speakers are associated with lower societal standing. The acoustic deviation from the standard can, in some cases, signal one’s ethnic/national or other group identities, and thus trigger the us or them distinction.”

For more information about the psychology behind racism, discrimination, and bias, search Science Primary Literature (database), and see the psychological origins of prejudice, discrimination, and racism bibliography (Science Bibliographies Online).

Questions? Please let me know (engelk@grinnell.edu).

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