By Melissa Lindley
We’ve all heard the timeless question: “what’s in a name?” But have we ever stopped to think about what other aspects of various cultures might mean to us?
The students of the Introduction to Women’s Studies course held a panel discussion on the perceptions and stereotypes of accents and gender in Wright Residence Hall on Tuesday.
Students hosted a question-and-answer forum with professors about personal experiences and how they deal with the stigmas and stereotypes that revolve around accents.
The panel consisted of Dean of College of Liberal Arts, Education and Sciences Patricia Mosto, Dr. Daria Cohen, Dr. María Fernanda Villalobos-Buehner, Dr. Minmin Wang and Dr. Cathy Haught.
Cohen began the panel by discussing the concept of complimentary schismogenesis, which is the conflicting communicative strategies based upon things such as gender, cultural differences and race. Her introduction followed a series of personal stories during which the professors discussed how their accents have affected them both negatively and positively on a regular basis.
Villalobos-Buehner, who is from Colombia, was unaware when she first came to the United States of how people’s perceptions of accents are such a dominating factor in how others are viewed.
“It tells you what kind of class you’re in, what kind of job you can get,” she said. “It’s really something. It doesn’t matter if you’re from another country. They really expect you to be able to speak properly.”
Haught, a psychologist who has done research at Princeton University, shared her experience about how her accent has changed over time since leaving her home country of Romania.
She felt pressure to lose the thickness of her accent and make it less noticeable when she spoke, a sentiment that was shared by the other professors who had not yet mastered the English language when they first arrived in the States.
She recalled her first experience as an exchange student when she lived with a host family.
“I was placed with a family in, of all places, West Virginia,” Haught said. “It’s not a very culturally diverse state, and I was a 15 year old with a British/Romanian accent. I tried to change that and work on my accent, so when people asked me where I was from, I would just tell them, ‘I’m from New York,’ and I could get away with it. “
Some of the questions asked pertained to the members of the panel’s individual sensitivity toward others with accents, how their accents have affected their communication style with others and how they feel about the media imitating and portraying certain accents. Cohen alluded to the ABC Family sitcom Modern Family, where Sofía Vergara plays a character that is rife with Colombian stereotypes, complete with an accent and cliché mannerisms.
The show’s intention is to poke fun at the ignorance and stereotypes that the average person makes about other cultures and lifestyles.
Villalobos-Buehner explained that while it can be humorous, the underlying message of the show can be lost in the actual parody of the character’s stereotypical accent and mannerisms.
“It’s funny, yet when you face that kind of thing on a regular basis, then it becomes a parody,” she said.
Despite the many challenges that these women faced while dealing with the stigma of having an accent, it no longer is something they look down upon as a negative quality. Rather, it is viewed as something that has shaped their identities and is a reminder of their history and journey of culture and language.
“An accent is part of who you are,” Mosto said.