Accent shaming in the sphere of stakeholder engagement training

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Wednesday, 17 January 2018
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This article was originally posted on LinkedIn on 23 June 2017:

 This Facebook post from June 20th, 2017 made its way into my inbox this morning:

“When I do Stakeholder Engagement training, one of the sections is on the use of technical language when communicating with stakeholders. The easiest example we use is when technical people talk of the underground "aquifer" to non-technical audiences. We suggest they call it an underground body of water or lake instead. The hon mayor of Cape Town just told the nation on television that there is an "equifire" below Table Mountain and another "equifire" underneath the Theewaterskloof dam. My work here on earth is not yet done.”

The person who forwarded it to me wanted to know what I thought of it considering that the post's author is someone who describes themselves as a ‘public participation specialist’ and who works primarily as a stakeholder engagement trainer in South Africa and other African countries.

The contents of the post raises several different issues that one could ruminate on, for example the reason for the terrible drought that has Cape Town and the western regions of South Africa in its grip, the reckless wastage of water that has brought the area to its knees, climate change, and so forth; but it is the shaming of an accent that jumps out the most at me, and which I find the most offensive, specifically in the light that the author is training companies on how to engage with their stakeholders on a population diverse continent. Whilst the post starts off quite reasonably it degenerates into making fun of Ms Patricia de Lille, the mayor of Cape Town’s, accent. From the post is clear that Ms de Lille understands what an aquifer is, and she uses the term correctly, thus the first three sentences of the post does not link in any meaningful way to the last two sentences, except to display the author’s prejudice. What stands out very clearly is that the author assumes, despite evidence to the contrary, that Ms de Lille does not know what an aquifer is just because she does not pronounce it in the same way the author does, or what the author expects to be a ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ pronunciation.  

This type of accent shaming is rife in South Africa, especially if the person whose accent is deemed to be unacceptable is not white, but I have also heard Eastern Europeans degraded because they speak ‘funny’ and thus assumed to be ignorant. This despite the fact that the speaker is fluent in English. It is of course not without irony that one must point out that these persons engaging in shaming do not speak any indigenous languages, except perhaps Afrikaans. Perhaps if they did, they might understand that one’s accent does not correlate with one’s intelligence, level of education nor level of knowledge.

Those of us who claim to be stakeholder engagement practitioners, and those of us who also train others to engage with stakeholders, should be hyper-aware of our own prejudices. This is especially important when we work in countries with a diverse population, such as South Africa, where there is not one common ‘accent’; and in countries where our clients will most likely not be a local company but rather a foreign entity trying to deal with local customs, cultures, norms and accents. We should reflect on how our own prejudices and beliefs can be transferred through our training and how it can really befuddle our clients and students’ efforts after we leave.  

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