A while back, the CEO of a large company asked me to talk to her senior managers about the difference between marketing and marketing comms.
I did a presentation for an hour, then a Q&A for half-an-hour.
It seemed to go well, but afterwards, one of the senior managers took me aside.
She said, “We love you Dave, but do you have to do the whole cockney barrow-boy bit?”
At first I couldn’t work out what she meant, then it clicked, she was talking about my accent.
She wasn’t listening to what I said, she was listening to how I said it.
And she assumed I must be putting it on for effect.
I was thinking about this a few months later when I did a presentation to a lot of advertising people in Croatia.
I was aware my accent isn’t BBC English, so I asked if they could understand me.
One of them shouted out, “Yes, we are waiting for you to say, “This time next year Rodney we’ll be millionaires.””
And again, I realised they’d been listening to my accent more than what I said.
I always suspected this would be a problem, growing up.
When I was a teenager, I tried to change my accent.
For a year I tried not to pronounce ‘thing’ as ‘fing’, I tried not to pronounce ‘wheel’ as ‘weyuw’, I tried not to pronounce ‘dave’ as ‘dive’, I tried not to pronounce ‘out’ as ‘aht’.
But it took so much effort to remember, it took so much concentration and used up so much of my brain, it slowed my thinking down.
Then, when I was 19, I went to New York, and nobody listened to my accent, they just listened to what I was actually saying.
And I found I had to think fast to keep up, so I had to forget about my accent and use all my brain just for thinking.
And ever since, I’ve just let my mouth look after itself and sound however it sounds.
And I figured I’d only talk to people who were listening to what I said, not how I said it.
Mainly it seems to work, but it’s not always practical.
In Starbucks for instance, the barista often writes my name on my cup as ‘DIYUF’.
Or in Uber cabs, my wife has to translate between me and the driver.
I’ll say “My area code is NW3 7XA” he’ll say “7XI?”, I’ll say “No: 7XA” he’ll say “7XI that’s what I said”, I’ll say “No 7XA” he’ll say “There is no 7XI”.
Then my wife says “He means 7XA” and the driver says “Why didn’t he say that?” (My wife is Singapore-Chinese but speaks English with a posher accent than I do).
The thing is, my accent may not be popular in advertising amongst university educated account men, planners, and clients, but in the real world, east of Holborn, there are several million people who speak like me.
And they don’t know they’re doing it wrong.
Like water to a fish, if it’s all around you, you don’t even know it’s there.
My Uncle Mick was a welder at Fords, he once asked me how GGT was getting on.
I said, “It’s great Uncle Mick, they’re a good bunch of lads from all over the country: Scousers, Mancs, Yorkshiremen, Geordies, we all make fun of each other’s accents.”
Uncle Mick said, “But you ain’t got no accent, you talk normal like what the rest of us do.”
For Uncle Mick, cockney was normal and anything else was posh.
Worrying about accents seems to be a particularly English thing, people judge you by what you sound like before they even hear what you’re saying.
But when I went to New York my big sister had already been there five years.
She said. “The bad news about New York is that nobody cares anything about you, except can you make them money.
The good news about New York is that nobody cares anything about you, except can you make them money”.
And so I stopped worrying about what other people thought of me and concentrated on being better at my job.