Steph Yiu

My American Accent

A trip to Amsterdam with an international group of friends. From left to right: Mike (American accent), Roisin (Irish accent), Steph ("American" accent), Matt (Australian accent).

A trip to Amsterdam with an international group of friends. From left to right: Mike (American accent), Roisin (Irish accent), Steph (“American” accent), Matt (Australian accent).

Last night someone asked me, “What’s the most valuable thing you got out of going to an international school?”

It could be that I have friends scattered all around the globe. Or, that I grew up understanding international perspectives. Or, that in all honesty, it was an incredible education.

But, at the end of the day, if we’re talking valuable as in “economically valuable” – I have absolutely no doubts that acquiring an American accent is probably the most important trait I got from going to an international school.

I spent the first 18 years of my life in Southeast Asia. But, I went to an international school, which meant all my teachers and classmates were American and Canadian expats. By the time I was 10, I had a full-blown American accent without even setting foot in the U.S.A. When I moved to Chicago for college, I was amazed at how easily I blended into the population – my dormmates just figured I was from somewhere in the Midwest. Unless I specifically say something about my background, I rarely get treated like a foreigner or an immigrant.

An accent allows others to assume (however inaccurately) where you’re from, and how you grew up. This helps them piece together their perception of you, which not only alters the way they behave, but also the opportunities they give you. Also, their perceptions also alter the way you behave, too.

My roommate and I watched My Fair Lady this weekend and this amazing clip illustrates pretty much just that:

Singapore, which is an immigrant society, is extremely conscious of accents and perceptions. Singlish (a local, accented form of English) was becoming a dividing factor between the lower- and middle- classes, and the government worried that it prevented international companies from hiring the local workforce. In 2000, the government launched a “Speak Good English” campaign specifically to address the perceptions that came with Singlish.

Interestingly, that the company I work for hires based on skills demonstrated and text-only communication, so these sorts of accent-assumptions don’t come into play. As our founder told Harvard Business Review earlier this year:

I conduct interviews via text-only Skype chats or instant messaging. I don’t know the gender or ethnicity of anyone I interview; I see only the words on the screen. It’s as close to a double-blind process as you can get. I’m looking mainly for passion and cultural fit.

(My interview process was a mix of a project, video presentation, in-person interviews, and text chats, so it wasn’t completely blind for me.)

And though my American accent allows me to be an invisible immigrant here, in Singapore, it incorrectly spotlights me as a foreigner. Whenever I go home to visit my parents, people treat me like a tourist. Cab drivers will ask me “Where are you from?,” even though I grew up there, and I look like I’m from there.

(Here’s an article I wrote in 2008 on the lies I tell when someone asks me, “Where are you from?”)

At the end of the day, I probably just need to get really good at being an accent chameleon. This week’s TED Radio Hour features Sarah Jones, an actress who can mimic accents so insanely well, she uses it to play around with people’s perceptions and stereotypes. It’s pretty amazing how a shift in accent can completely change the way you are perceived, and how you are treated.

People often talk about the gifts you get from attending an international school: a global network of friends, an international perspective on life, the ability to grow up in an ephemeral community. I cherish all of these things, but I think that the American accent is probably one of the most valuable skills I’ve gained.

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