Accents You Don’t Hear

Accents You Don't Hear

It happened to me fairly often when I lived in New York. I would spot two or more people from a distance, walking on a street or sitting at the other end of a subway car, and I would instantly sense they were French. Most of the time I would be able to confirm my hunch when getting closer and hearing them speak to each other.

Sometimes I thought it was because their facial features were typically French. Sometimes though it felt a little like magic, an inexplicable connection I had with my fellow nationals, my French sixth sense maybe?

Last fall I came across a BBC article that offered a much more rationale insight. It turns out scientists have been working on so-called non-verbal accents for several decades and their research has yielded a lot of specific evidence corroborating something most of us are only vaguely aware of: people from the same country (or the same region) tend to share not only a language but also distinctive facial expressions and body movements.

This was for example illustrated by a 1980s study where volunteers were asked to identify emotions in the pictures of faces of Japanese and Caucasian people. The group of Japanese people was a mix of Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans who were dressed and lit in the same way. One of the findings was that American volunteers were able to “read” the feelings expressed by Japanese-Americans with much more accuracy than those expressed by Japanese nationals. In other words, they understood their fellow citizens better, even in the absence of verbal cues.

I am so focused on languages (or should I say enamored with languages?) that I sometimes lose track of the other, more elusive, ways we communicate with people close and not so close. I see this study as an apt reminder of the non-verbal dimensions of communication and how they can give away where we come from.

I realize now this is something I wrote about in my post about the Indian head shake. This is also something I see fleetingly in Minette‘s facial expressions: it seems to me they are not exactly the same whether she speaks English, French, or Tamil, as if she had internalized some of the nuances expressed by the native speakers she interacts with.

A non-verbal accent, like a verbal one, can be an obstacle to understanding, or being understood by, another person. The problem however is that we are much less aware of the non-verbal divide, even though it seems to have the same effect of feeding the (ironically) universal “us vs them” worldview.

A 2018 study from the University of Wisconsin, Madison suggests that the United States, along with other countries with high ancestral diversity, has developed a collective solution: its people display emotions more expressively and they notably smile more often than people from countries lacking ancestral diversity.

American cheerfulness is sometimes the object of Europeans snarks, but my recent reading does confirm an insight I had soon after I moved to this country: the friendliness expressed by most American strangers as their default attitude is a powerful social lubricant. Now might be the right time to say I am grateful for the many American smiles that have come my way all these years without my having to earn them!

One Reply to “Accents You Don’t Hear”

  1. So interesting what Madison suggests! A collective solution… there have been many times I knew right away someone across the room was Polish or at least eastern European.

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