One of my favorite podcasts is “The Wolfpacker” – where the host, Matt Carter, recounts the recent highs and lows of my beloved NC State Wolfpack. Sports energizes the competitive side of me. It also fills our family calendar with games – both in-person and on television. It Carter happens to have a speaking impediment. When I first started listening to the show – it was quite noticeable. I wonder how he can host the show through that?
This is very relevant to me because I am from the American south. This means, that yes – I have a noticeable accent. Listening to me, you’ll hear a diphthong, a drawn out vowel here and there, perhaps something that sounds like slurring – that you won’t hear from American newscasters. This does not create an issue with comprehension – but it does create an issue with the southern stereotype: uneducated, rural and simple. I wasn’t really aware of how strong this perception could be until joining the corporate world in earnest at John Deere. Though it was not a huge issue there because at Deere, as you might imagine, has a lot of employees who were once farm kids and it was common to hear rural accents up and down the organizational chart.
However, when stepping out in the the world of innovation and business consulting – it became apparent that my southern accent was a “thing.” Endearing and useful at Deere – I realized this could become a liability. I also realized that it would not be productive to blame others for their ignorance. The stereotypes are out there, and they are just responding to their hard wiring. Not their fault. Not anyone’s fault.
Still, this created a situation. Do I work on this accent to change it? Or do I say “this is me, deal with it!” On one hand, I did know folks from my home town who eliminated their accents and could slip through the most urban of social circles undetected. It could be done…not easy, but possible.
On the other hand, you know who else speaks as I do? My parents and grandparents. Were they uneducated and simple? Both my paternal grandparents were college educated in an era when that was uncommon. They both became teachers and school principals – saving enough money along the way to purchase a cattle farm. They never owed any money in their lives – never even had a credit card. On the other side, both my maternal grandparents were also college educated – and together – they began a company that still exists today as one of the largest private businesses in North Carolina. My maternal grandfather, Horace Carter – even won a Pulitzer prize for his editorials in the Tabor City Tribune as he illuminated the vigilante activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s. A PBS special, narrated by Morgan Freeman, tells the story of his battles versus the Klan. Within that documentary, there is some footage of him from a national news report by Edward R. Murrow – and you can bet that his accent was thick in that piece. My father is a successful surgeon, and was one of the first urologists in the US to be able to perform lithotripsy for kidney stones. After successfully raising three boys, my mother became a real estate agent in our small town – and in short order – became the most successful agent there by a large margin. Ride through the neighborhoods, her signs are everywhere.
Why is this family history relevant? Because these people also spoke like me and were not uneducated, simple, or unsuccessful – and if anything – their accents would be more noticeable than mine. I’m proud of their accomplishments – and they all set great professional examples for me.
So now I return to Matt Carter, host of “The Wolfpacker” podcast. I wonder how he thought about his speech impediment as a host? Did he work on it? Did it worry him? As for my reaction as a listener, I soon forgot about it. Why? Because he knows what he’s speaking about. He has the enthusiasm for the task – and his confidence and skill comes through. The thing that was initially distracting soon became part of the uniqueness that I look forward to with “The Wolfpacker.” He does the best that he can – and his best is fantastic. It works, and it works well.
It reminds me of something that I noticed at John Deere. The dealers were also quick to stereotype women in marketing roles – and assume that these ladies couldn’t possible know much about farm equipment – or the marketing realities of a dealership. However, you can bet that that those stereotypes were quite false….the women were competent and knowledgeable. They stood on their own two feet, presented their case and knew their stuff. They also didn’t shed their high heels for boots – they kept their femininity – but kicked ass in this so-called “man’s world.” And here’s the funny thing that happened next. Not only did the dealers learn to quickly respect the skills of these ladies – they became even more respected in some ways. It was like they had a superpower because they were proficient in different languages.
So what do I do with my little situation? Yes, I do sometimes work on some of the major accent offenders that people seem to notice. Not in a major way, but…a little bit. Also, when giving a talk to a large audience, I tell a particular joke that addresses the accent right away so that we can then move past it. But beyond that, I’ll be proud of who I am and how I speak. My parents and grandparents spoke this way – they did just fine – so I’ll be proud of that part of me and my heritage, thank you.
Still, comments will come my way that could be interpreted as insults. These give me opportunities to remember the words of Marcus Aurelius, “Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.” Also – as Tyrion Lannister told Jon Snow in the novel Game of Thrones, “Let me give you some advice, Bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”
We all have challenges. Overcoming them will add to your power – will add to your identity – will add to your uniqueness. Create a strategy to address it, do your best and then rest in that. Your best will always be good enough.