For the first decade of my working life (and a few years before that as a volunteer), I was a youth worker. I worked with the brightest of the bright kids, who would go on to British Youth Council work, UN representation and more, right the way through to those kids who were at the other end of the scale (one tried to stab another when he thought that person had stolen my mobile).
Amongst many things, one of the most important lessons I used to teach them was around communication, in particular the importance of using your voice. Whilst there are some caveats to this, only 7% of the information conveyed when communicating with someone face to face comes from the actual words you use. An incredible 55% is on body language, with the remaining 38% coming from your tone of voice.
I play with this fact with my kids all the time – telling them that I’m really proud of them and happy with what they’re doing whilst using a grumpy or angry tone; when they realise that I’m saying positive things they beam even wider.
I got thinking about this recently when I read the prologue to the excellent Tinderella Anna chronicles. I recommend blocking out some time and reading through it all, but right at the start the author mentions that she had been expecting a different accent for a date to have had. It turns out, I’ve been hit with exactly the same issue a number of times, on both sides of the coin. Yes, I know that tone of voice and accents are different, but it’s just how my mind went on a journey…
There is no way you can express an accent through the written word. Okay, perhaps there is if you use regional colloquialisms and slang, but if you follow the rules of writing as they are taught in school there is no way of knowing the accent of the person who wrote them. For all you know I could be from the east end of London, or the suburbs of Bristol, or deep in the Brummie heartland, or more scouse than Lily Savage, or, well, you get the idea. My accent is whatever you imagine it to be.
The trouble for me is that it’s often imagined to be somewhat posher than it actually is. I’m aware that my style of writing leads people towards poshness, and I’ve been told by more than one date that they are surprised to hear what I actually sound like. For the record, I am indeed from the East end of London (a Walthamstow boy, in fact), and have the unmistakable sound of an eastender when I talk. I’m no Danny Dyer (my younger brother takes that particular honour), but I could never claim to be from the home counties or pass for someone who grew up watching polo being played.
I was reminded of this when I shared a video on Facebook a few weeks ago. I’d installed a new washing machine, and discovered that after every wash it plays a 20-second song. Every. Single. Time. The first time this was amusing. When you’re washing several loads in a row it soon loses its lustre.
To share my pain I recorded one of these times and spoke a few words on the video to highlight my frustrations. Shortly after uploading this I got a message from a fellow blogger that I’d never met but who I had gotten to know via Facebook – apparently, I sounded nothing at all like they expected. I don’t know what they were expecting, but if they’re like others I’ve had that conversation with then it’s more likely that they were expecting a Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston twang, suited to higher society than I’ll ever grace myself.
I’ve long since come to terms with how I sound. I don’t speak nearly as well as I’d like to; I can’t help but drop some t’s and h’s, and I do slip into the odd Jamie Oliver-esque use of words and phrases such as “having a butchers…”, “pukka” and “I haven’t got a didgery…” (having a look, very good/authentic and I haven’t a clue for those of you not familiar with those phrases). It’s clear that I was brought up on a council estate in London and forever will be, though I’d like to think that other parts of me surprise those who may think less of me for the fact of where I grew up.
I know I’ve got a little bit of a chip on my shoulder around class as only the British possibly can have. I want to improve my life and have worked my way to firm middle-classness to the point where my children know what brioche is, like eating olives and have a preferred brand of salsa dip. When I went on a date with someone whose accent screamed Joanna Lumley I knew within minutes that we came from different worlds, a judgement backed up when she told me she worked in marketing at daddy’s shipping company (her words, not mine). Anyone whose parent owns a shipping company never had the joy of negotiating with a shopkeeper to allow you to have some bread on the promise that your mum would be able to pay for it the following week after a cheque had cleared.
Despite my efforts to improve it, my accent will never change. I’m getting to quite enjoy the look on people’s faces when we finally meet after messaging for so long and they discover that I’m not exactly as they expected. I am working on my own prejudices when it comes to not judging a person by their accents (at least, not judging them too much anyway…), I’ll be interested to see if someone else can do the same and judge me by my words and actions rather than how I say them.
It’s either that or go full-on cockerney, and there’s only room for one Dick van Dyke in the world.
Edit – In response to the ever wonderful Cinn’s comment below, here’s my actual accent in action as I read through this post. I wonder whether it matches what you thought it would be like?!