Accent and Grammar Bigotry

I heard a comedian the other day, on the radio, making fun of how the rest of the country looks down on a Southern accent. It was a funny routine. I wish I could quote from it, but I was driving, it was on the radio, so I can’t.

I dealt with a man once, PhD in Chemistry from Princeton, who called me out on that. He got me on the phone one day and challenged me to pay attention to his words instead of his accents. He said something like “everybody I talk to in California acts like I’m stupid, and nobody listens.” I’m impressed by degrees, though, so I listened. Only because he challenged me. And I was glad I did. He was a very smart guy, with a real talent for software. He spoke with a thick Louisiana accent. Our business never went anywhere, but for other reasons. And he taught me that I too could be a bigot. I didn’t like that lesson, but I learned.

I was reminded of that the other day with Seth Godin’s am I the only one distracted by apostrophes and weird “quoting”? He explains how grammar mistakes with apostrophes and quotes distract him. Me too. It clouds his judgment. Mine too. He says:

When I get a manuscript or see a sign that misuses its and it’s and quotes, I immediately assume that the person who created it is stupid.

And then he apologizes:

I understand that this is a mistake on my part. They’re not necessarily totally stupid, they’re just stupid about apostrophes. It’s a moral failing on my part to conflate the two, but I bet I’m not the only one.

I’m sorry. I go with Seth’s first instinct. Call me elitist. But I get distracted by mistakes on basic grammar such as confusing its and it’s. Use apostrophes for plural nouns having nothing to do with possessives distracts me too. Like spinach showing in the smiling teeth.

The difference, I think, is that accents are much harder to unlearn and aren’t fundamentally correct or incorrect. Grammar is relatively easy to learn, and there is such a thing as correct and incorrect. I think making assumptions for Southern accents is dumb, but making assumptions for bad grammar, is less dumb.

Despite the apology, Seth ends up pretty much in the same place he started on grammar:

What else are your customers judging you on?

It’s not just about being a grammar stickler. The fact is, we’re constantly looking for clues and telling ourselves stories based on limited information. It shouldn’t matter, but it does.

I completely agree. I don’t want to be bigoted against certain accents, which is dumb. But I’m not going to give up on grammar.


  • Ginger says:

    I would have to agree about prejudice as it is related to accents. I grew up in Louisiana and still have a lot of the “twang” in my voice. I’m educated (MBA) and very proficient at my job with 20 years in the industry but I still feel like I’m not taken seriously or as an expert because of my accent. When I am aware of it and try to suppress the drawl, I focus more on my accent than what I’m saying and I can’t put my thoughts together as well.

    It’s a shame, but it is what it is.

  • Charles Robinson says:

    I’m right there with you. I usually stop reading after a couple of grammar or spelling mistakes because I see it as evidence of the other person’s lack of interest. Here’s how I break it down. If you spell poorly chances are you know it. There are tools to fix misspellings and many grammar mistakes for you. Not using them is a sign of laziness. So if you don’t care that your writing is sloppy, I can’t be bothered to read it.

    Accents are something else entirely, because the nature of the interaction is different when you’re listening versus reading. If I’m listening to someone and they’re speaking coherently, intelligently and in an engaging manner, I can overlook the accent very easily as long as I can understand what they are saying. In a one on one interaction I give even more leeway since I can ask for clarification.

    My willingness to forgive accents is likely because I’m from the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee. It is not uncommon for people to prejudge me simply based on hearing that, even before they hear me speak or read what I have written. Being subjected to that kind of treatment makes me tolerant of accents. The funniest part of that is I don’t have a Southern accent. Most people who hear me speak assume I’m from the Midwest.

  • Larry Sheldon says:

    “What else are your customers judging you on?”

    Caused me to pause and think about old admonitions.

  • John Wren says:

    Hi Tim,

    Just watched your 3 1/2 minute video “Do I even need a business plan.” It’s trendy to say no business plan is needed? That’s news to me. What I hear over and over is how important formal market research and a formal, written plan are to being successful. The only two people in America I know who are saying that this isn’t the case is myself and Dr. Amar Bhide of Columbia University. Are there others?

    Life’s short, start now!

    • Tim Berry says:

      Yes John — and thanks for the comment — there are others. I know that I’ve been saying and writing repeatedly that it is critical to separate the planning, which is vital, with the plan, which is only really useful if it is part of a planning process, kept alive, managed, and not necessarily a formal document at all. That’s the whole theme of the book that has the honor spot on the sidebar to this blog: the Plan-As-You-Go Business Plan.

      What gets lost in the shuffle, unfortunately, is that when people hear “you don’t need a formal written business plan” they tend to hear “you don’t want to plan your business. Those are radically different thoughts, I’m sure you agree. And that’s a distinction that has to be made.

      “The plan is useless but planning is essential” — Dwight D. Eisenhower (and Napoleon Bonaparte)

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