We often focus on appearance as the key to impression formation, but the way you sound may also play a crucial role in determining what other people think of you. Consider this: How many times have you formed a visual image of customer service agents on the phone? Depending on their vocal cues, you’ll either regard them as helpful and interested in you, or aloof and impersonal. You also know that the way you sound affects how others will regard you in the absence of visual cues about your personality, skills, or suitability for a particular job or relationship. Controlling your voice is just as important in those situations as managing the way you look when you want someone to hire or date you.
But when your voice, and not your eyes, is the window to your soul, you’re faced with a decision: Would you rather be regarded as friendly or knowledgeable?
When it comes to being perceived as nice or smart, we've learned, many people opt for nice. For example, we know that likability ratings of presidential candidates play an important role in determining who wins national elections. Teachers perceived as nice tend to get higher student evaluation ratings as well. Perhaps intelligence is a quality you can reliably, and separately, infer from a person's achievements, ability to solve problems, and the fact that they just know a lot. It’s much harder to determine whether someone is nice until you get a better sense of his or her personality.
If you're from the United States, though, your accent may be the key factor in the image you project to others. Researchers who study dialects provide fascinating insights into the many variations in speech intonation and mannerisms within the country. Such investigations of paralinguistics (literally, “around” the language) are fascinating for what they reveal about the way our speech adapts to the region in which we live. Such studies can become highly technical; true experts are able to use your dialect to pinpoint where you come from within a few hundred miles, or even within a single city, such as New York. You may also enjoy engaging in dialect identification in your own interactions with others as you travel or encounter people from other regions.
But there’s more to dialect than just indicating where you're from. In a study published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, University of Chicago psychologists Katherine Kinzler and Jasmine DeJesus (2013) found that children as young as 9 years old were already forming stereotypes about speakers' characteristics from hearing their accents. If we’re forming impressions that early in life, it suggests that there may be something deep-seated and enduring about dialect that until now has only been the subject of jokes and teasing.
What might account for the association many of us have between niceness and a Southern accent? It can’t just be the use of the inclusive "y’all" as other dialects use similar phrases; and it's that the people are necessarily nicer as a group—you might know some people with strong Southern accents who say things are aren’t nice at all. It’s possible, Kinzler and DeJesus propose, that Southern accents are just more aesthetically pleasing than, say, Northern ones. When people are forming impressions based on stereotypes, the process isn't particularly rational. (Of course, if the content of what you're saying, in any dialect, is offensive or hurtful, it doesn't matter how you sound.)
Because likability matters so much in the way you’re perceived by others, what can you do if you're not blessed with a sonically pleasing accent? Knowing that the Southern accent does appear to give one an edge in judgments of niceness, here are 5 tips from the study:
The effect of dialect cuts both ways: If you’re a Southerner who wants to be regarded as smart, you may have your own speech patterns you’ll need to monitor, perhaps by editing out some of the excess drawl or phrases associated with your accent and showing by your content just how quick-witted you are. And of course, your deeds can also show your true merits regardless of how you sound when you discuss them.
I’ve only focused on the contrast between Northern and Southern dialects. But as the research on niceness and impression formation shows, the way you talk plays an important role in the way others regard you. Focusing on how you sound will enhance the image you create and allow your true virtues to shine through.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Kinzler, K. D., & DeJesus, J. M. (2013). Northern = smart and Southern = nice: The development of accent attitudes in the United States. The Quarterly Journal Of Experimental Psychology, 66(6), 1146-1158. doi:10.1080/17470218.2012.731695
Lin-Healy, F., & Small, D. A. (2013). Nice guys finish last and guys in last are nice: The clash between doing well and doing good. Social Psychological And Personality Science, 4(6), 692-698. doi:10.1177/1948550613476308