In his June 20th article How Oil and Accents made Britain a Figure of Hate in US Halls of Power, Andrew Purcell makes some interesting observations:
New York Congressman Anthony Weiner summed it up for NBC television: “Whenever you hear someone with a British accent talking on behalf of British Petroleum they are not telling you the truth. That’s the bottom line.”
Other politicians have been as quick to grandstand, sensing an easy, populist target. Senator Kit Bond referred to “British Pollution, if you want to call it that.” Sarah Palin, whose husband worked for BP for many years, urged people who live in the Gulf states to “learn from Alaska’s lesson with foreign oil companies” – glossing over the fact that BP is 40% American owned, after merging with Amoco a decade ago.
…“There was a desire to point out this is not an American company,” said Joe Romm, senior fellow at think-tank the Centre for American Progress. “But the biggest problem has been Tony Hayward. If he hadn’t been so repeatedly tone deaf, we would have seen less anger. He’s British, he sounds British. Maybe there’s a perception there’s something especially British about his insensitivity…”
This is an interesting turn of events for those of us familiar with a term we refer to as “linguistic profiling.” Just months ago, when an American heard someone speaking with a British accent, the speaker was immediately granted twenty additional IQ points. Images of James Bond and Monty Python co-creator John Cleese came instantly to mind. There was an air of romance and intrigue associated with a British accent. Now, due to a national tragedy, those with a British accent are seen as untrustworthy, a group of “them” who Americans should avoid at all costs.
The stereotypes that we have about accents and the people who speak with them come from the media, our own past experiences, and/or historical events. Although they are not necessarily accurate, we need to recognize they do indeed exist. And, as we see with BP, they’re very fluid and can change quickly. However, the bottom line is what we say is always more important than how we say it.