Observed Negative Effects of Accents

Learn how accents affect comprehension, trust, and efficiency in call centers, backed by compelling research

By Ofer Ronen in Call Centers 03/07/24

When Accents Pose a Problem

Accents are beautiful, they give a hint into a person’s background, and make interacting with others more interesting. Nonetheless, an area where accents can be a challenge is on support and sales calls. When a person calls support they often have a burning issue and want a quick resolution, anything that gets in the way of that, for example difficulties understanding due to an unfamiliar accent, is judged negatively.

Observed Negative Effects of Accents

Similarly, when picking up a sales call, people often have negative biases against certain accents, and might not respond as well to what is being offered, even if it is highly relevant to them. In such situations, unfortunately, listeners might have biases against certain accents, which negatively effect how these calls go.

Over the past few decades there has been a significant amount of research done into the negative effects of accents. Below we delve into the key findings observed in such studies.

Five Observed Issues with Accents

1. Reduced comprehensibility

Multiple studies have shown that mild accents are more easily understood compared to heavy accents. One study “Listening to accents: Comprehensibility, accentedness and intelligibility…” found that the strength of a speaker’s accent significantly affected comprehensibility ratings. The study had the same set of sentences read by people of varying levels of Chinese accents and then tested the listener’s comprehension. Another study, “I Don’t Like You Because You’re Hard to Understand…” had people listening to a story read by a person with an American accent and an Indian accent. The study found lower comprehension when an unfamiliar accent was used.

2. Perceived as less truthful

Listeners can perceive what they hear as less truthful due to accent. In the study “Why don’t we believe non-native speakers? The influence of accent on credibility” the same trivia statements were perceived as less credible when delivered by accented individuals.

3. Seen as less competent

Unfortunately certain non-native accents are seen as less competent. In one study, “Linguistic Stereotyping in Call Centers” found that among Americans, Indian accents had a negative bias while the British accents had a positive bias. Another study, “The fluency principle: Why foreign accent strength negatively biases language attitudes” found non-native speakers with Indian or Chinese accents were often associated with lower levels of intelligence, competence, and education; deemed less pleasant to the ear, and can lead to categorizing speakers into in vs out groups. These negative biases are summarized well on this Wikipedia page about accents.

4. Harder to recall

There is an issue of recall when listening to an unfamiliar accent. One article “The reason you discriminate against foreign accents starts with what they do to your brain” references research which found that recall is lower with foreign accents. It reasons that our brain makes predictions about the message based on the accent instead of actually listening to what is being said.

5. Longer conversations

There is an issue of conversations with accented individuals going longer. The same article referenced above “The reason you discriminate against foreign accents…” references research that found that conversations with individuals with foreign accents are 30% longer.

Take Away

The are a multitude of observed negative issues with foreign accents that have been studied by researchers. These issues include problems with comprehension, bias, overall length, and recall. In the context of call center support calls, these issues affect key metrics like average handle time (AHT), first call resolution (FCR), callbacks, and customer satisfaction measures, like CSAT and NPS. With regards to call center sales calls, these issues affect revenue, close rates, transfer rates, and qualified lead rates. To learn more about this topic, including actionable next steps call centers can take, read “5 Reasons BPOs Adopting Voice GenAI will Win”.

By Ofer Ronen in Call Centers 03/07/24