Would You Rather Be Considered Smart or Nice?

Surprising research into the power of accents to create an impression.

Posted Jul 22, 2014

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:

  1. Soften your tone of voice. A voice that is pleasing to the ear tends to resonate with the listener. If your voice tends to get shrill or hard-edged, make a conscious effort to soften it—particularly if you’re sharing bad news with someone.
  2. Put a “smile” in your speech. Even if someone can’t see you, when you smile, even slightly, you’ll naturally say things in a more civil manner. People who smile are definitely perceived as nicer, so the effect of a smile in your voice will buy you some likeability points.
  3. Don’t try to fake it. The worst thing a Northerner can do is start to talk like a Southerner. Unless you’re acting in a Tennessee Williams play (and even then only after working with a dialect coach), you will sound fake to most ears—and you’ll be regarded as insincere.
  4. Watch the sarcasm. You can be funny without being sarcastic, and since sarcasm is associated with the Northeast in many people's minds, this attitude combined with a Northern tone of voice may only add to your being perceived as not nice. The pride that "Seinfeld" characters took in being unlikeable worked for a sitcom but would not fly in real life.
  5. Actually act nicely.If you’re stuck with a brusque Northern tone, work to show by your your actions and the content of your speech that you’re a nice person. Through politeness, respect, and putting other people’s needs before your own, your actions can negate the impression made by an all-business Northern tone. Researchers have found benefits to acting altruistically. Fern Lin-Healy of Auburn University and Deborah Small of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School (2013) showed that there’s some truth to the saying “nice guys finish last.” Acting on behalf of others can win you their positive regard, but this status must be earned, and will not be given just because you sound like you deserve to be liked.

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