Sad, but true…according to researchers at the University of Chicago, when you speak with a foreign accent, people are less likely to believe what you say. The researchers designed a study in which people were asked to rate the truthfulness of various statements spoken by people both with and without noticeable foreign accents.
In an attempt to control for prejudice against people from other cultures, the scientists conducting the study told the volunteers that all of the participants were reading these statements from scripts prepared in advance and were not making them up themselves. Even so, people were more likely to rate a specific statement as “true” if it was spoken by someone without a foreign accent. In fact, the thicker the speaker’s accent, the less truthful listeners rated the statement.
When volunteers were made aware of the purpose of the study, their ratings changed slightly, and they no longer penalized speakers with mild accents. However, speakers with heavy accents were still rated as significantly less truthful.
Boaz Keysar, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago who co-authored the study, told Science Daily that the problem is that people have to work harder to understand speakers with foreign accents:
“The accent makes it harder for people to understand what the non-native speaker is saying,” Keysar said. “They misattribute the difficulty of understanding the speech to the truthfulness of the statements.”
Shiri Lev-Ari, the lead author of the study, notes that this “credibility gap” can have a significant impact on people both personally and professionally:
“Accent might reduce the credibility of non-native job seekers, eyewitnesses, reporters or people taking calls in foreign call centers.”
Of course, having an accent does not make a person any more or less honest. So, the next time you’re talking to someone with an accent, make a conscious effort to keep an open mind. Unconscious biases like the ones revealed by this study are difficult to fight, but awareness is the first step. And if you’re learning a foreign language, it’s a good idea to work on improving your accent as much as possible.