Read time: 7 minutes
To speak a language is to speak a version of that language or a dialect. For example, the English language alone has about 160 dialects spoken worldwide, with over fifty-five territories and countries that consider English their official language. But not all dialects of English are treated the same.
Did you know that the style, or dialect of English that you speak can influence your chances of getting hired, or even getting considered for an apartment? (Purnell, T., Idsardi, W., & Baugh, J., 1999)
Study Results: Renowned linguistics expert Dr. John Baugh and colleagues set out to perform a study on how one’s language-use can affect the ways others treat them; and in this study, they made various calls inquiring about a property for rent, using either African-American, Chicano or Standard English dialects. They referred to these different dialects as linguistic guises. However, when using a non-standard English guise, such as African-American or Chicano, they were told that the property listed was no longer available, which conflicted with what they were told when they called using the standard English guise.
What’s more, a 2019 study found that your dialect of English can also determine how likely it is that a jury will give you a guilty verdict in a court case.
We’re talking about a phenomenon called linguistic profiling, and we all do it.
The truth is there are stereotypes, or predetermined social qualities attached to dialects of English — which are perpetuated by sources such as media representations — and these predetermined qualities we attach to a person’s way of speaking can and do affect how we treat a person. Here are some more examples of linguistic profiling that are happening around us all the time.
Example 1: Teachers have been found to lower their expectations for educational achievement with students who speak a dialect outside the standard English dialect, for example, students who speak with the African American Vernacular dialect.
Harmful Outcome: Even a teacher with the best of intentions may be harming a student by holding them to lower standards.
According to Entwisle and Alexander,
“When teachers have low expectations or a deficit view of children from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, teacher-student interaction is reduced to the management of behavior, which contributes little to the improvement of academic performance. The negative attitudes and beliefs of teachers also can impact the type of literacy instruction that students receive.”
Example 2: As another example, employers and hiring managers have openly admitted to not hiring individuals based on their dialects of English, for example a native English speaker from India or Nigeria.
According to a 2021 BBC article by Christine Ro:
“Cognitively, it takes more work to understand a less familiar accent. The extra brainpower involved, as well as warmer feelings toward members of one’s own group, can lead to negative attitudes toward a person speaking a different type of English.”
Ro also argues that we tend to see people as “less truthful, less intelligent and less competent” when they speak a different style of English than we do, and we lend them less credibility as a result.
Harmful Outcome: Highly skilled individuals who speak English as a first language are discriminated against due to their English dialect being outside what is considered the standard dialect.
So what is considered standard or correct English?
Merriam-Webster defines Standard English as:
“the English that with respect to spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary is substantially uniform though not devoid of regional differences, that is well established by usage in the formal and informal speech and writing of the educated, and that is widely recognized as acceptable wherever English is spoken and understood.”
The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of Standard English is a bit more simple:
“the form of the English language widely accepted as the usual correct form.”
We argue that a person’s dialect does not indicate their education level or their ability to do a job well. In fact, organizations are not only discriminating and breaking legal boundaries by excluding people, but they are also missing out on potentially highly valuable individuals by limiting themselves based on a person’s dialect.
The bottom line
We need to re-think what we consider to be “good” English because we’re missing out on valuable people due to arbitrary negative associations.
Linguistics professor and author Dr. Valerie Fridland wrote the following in a 2020 article for Psychology Today:
“The problem is not really with the speech itself, but with the attitudes we hold about the speakers of these dialects.”— Dr. Valerie Fridland
Understanding and overcoming your unconscious biases around language-use can be an empowering and advantageous experience. You may just begin to see what you’ve been missing out on.
Consider these 3 tips for building awareness around your own unconscious biases:
1. Think critically about your beliefs and expectations concerning people who speak a dialect outside the standard English dialect.
2. Personal bias that can cause us to exclude others does not go away because someone says it is wrong. Therefore, you need to work actively on NEUTRALIZING PERSONAL BIAS.
3. Be aware of hidden bias that FILTERS what you observe. Neutralize by asking: What would I expect to see if my belief and expectation about the dialect were false?
For more tips and exercises, schedule a webinar or online course on Unconscious Bias for yourself or your team, or contact us to get your questions answered.
Read time: 6 minutes
Trust is like a charging battery
Like a battery, our trust in a person can either gain or lose charge based on our experiences with that person. If I’ve had zero previous experience with a person, then that person’s trust battery should be at least 50% full. The phrase, “give people the benefit of the doubt” comes to mind. When a person does something to earn my trust, for example following through on our agreed-upon deadline, then their trust battery gains charge. Alternatively, if they do things to lower my trust in them, for example being dishonest or not following through on our agreed-upon deadline, then their trust battery may lose charge.
Why do we jump to conclusions about trust?
If I meet someone new (no previous experience with them) and their trust battery seems to be automatically lower or higher than 50%, it is worth asking yourself why that is. We often bring assumptions into our interactions with people, assuming them to be more or less trustworthy, but what causes this increase or decrease in trust when we have zero experience with a person?
Research tells us that we are less likely to trust things and people we do not understand. Sometimes this gap in understanding — and therefore trust — even turns into fear and rejection. This is a classic human pattern — let’s call it the Trust Gap pattern.
Trust Gap example: A case of miscommunication turning into violence
You may have heard about the events in Los Angeles in 1992 commonly referred to as the L.A. Riots. The L.A. Riots refer to a significant outbreak of violence, looting, and arson in the Los Angeles area that ignited in response to acts of violence toward the African American community in the area, namely the savage beating of Rodney King and the murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins. Often untold, however, is the story of mistrust that slowly kindled this fiery outbreak of violence.
Gaps in trust formed in large part due to a conflict of communication styles between these two groups.
The formation of the Trust Gap
In the lead-up to the L.A. Riots, there had been a growing level of mistrust between two cultural groups around the city of Los Angeles: the Korean immigrants who owned and managed stores in the area, and the predominantly African American customers who frequented these businesses. According to researchers — specifically linguists — who studied the cross-cultural context here, the gap in trust formed in large part due to a conflict of communication styles between these two groups.
The Korean store owners and employees practiced an in-store communication style that placed a high value on personal boundaries and privacy, and therefore tended to keep any personal information out of in-store interactions. To these shop owners, this was considered respectful communication behaviour with their customers.
On the other hand, researchers noted that the customers who frequented these stores — predominately African American customers — valued familiarity in their in-store communication, and therefore tended to ask questions and share information about their personal lives with the employees and shop owners. To the customers, this was considered respectful communication behaviour with the shop owners.
Unfortunately, due to this misunderstanding of what was actually considered respectful communication, a trust gap began to form between the two groups.
When the Korean shop owners kept interpersonal communication limited, taking the strictly-business approach to their interactions with customers, the African American customers often perceived this behavior as cold and disrespectful. When the African American customers would ask questions and share information about their lives with the employees at the stores, the Korean shop owners often perceived this behaviour as intrusive and disrespectful.
When the Korean shop owners kept interpersonal communication limited, taking the strictly-business approach to their interactions with customers, the African American customers often perceived this behavior as cold and disrespectful.
A gap formed, in other words, between the two groups’ understandings of each other’s intentions, which led to a gap in trust between the groups. This trust gap intensified over time and created a dangerous context that exacerbated the already violent L.A. Riots.
Bridging the Trust Gap
Communicative differences are only one way that trust gaps form. A trust gap can form as a result of any misunderstanding, which is why Breakview Training offers models and practices for bridging the trust gap.
How could a trust gap interfere with your team’s productivity and well-being?
What kinds of misunderstandings could lead to a gap in trust between your people?
What can you do to prevent a trust gap from forming?
Your Next Steps
Awareness: Uncovering your trust gap
Start a conversation with the people on your team. You can start by practicing with a friend or family member.
What steps can I take to ensure that my communication style helps me be seen as trustworthy?
When it comes to handling issues, what adjustments can I make to help us disagree without being disagreeable?
Prevention: Digging deeper
Learn about the warning signs and skills for recognizing and extinguishing misunderstandings within your own context.
Whether subtle or serious, prejudice gone awry can have harmful consequences.
I recently learned about a simple strategy for disrupting prejudice, which involves appealing to the power of your reasoning skills. I learned about this strategy from a TED Talk I watched, titled Can Prejudice ever be a good thing?
The speaker, Paul Bloom, starts his talk by introducing the concept of prejudice as a naturally occurring process. He presents a quote by the great philosopher William Hazlitt in his essay, On Prejudice:
“Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room; nor know how to conduct myself in any circumstances, nor what to feel in any relation of life.”William Hazlitt (1778–1830), On Prejudice
In other words, if I can’t prejudge my experience with something, how can I anticipate any consequences of my future actions? How can I learn from a mistake, or from something that harmed me? Our ability to prejudge things, then, is necessary for our survival. The problem comes when our tendency to prejudge something – or someone – goes awry.
To demonstrate the idea of prejudice gone awry, Dr. Bloom presents the results from a 2015 study on racial bias, in which the researchers found that products sold on Ebay, such as baseball cards, received higher bids when the images in their ads showed the baseball cards being held by White hands, compared to ads where the same products were held by Black hands.
To demonstrate a more serious, even life-threatening consequence of prejudice gone awry, Dr. Bloom presents the findings from a study done at Stanford University, again on racial bias. In this study, researchers found that individuals who identify as Black, who were found guilty of the murder of a White person, were more likely to be given the death penalty if they appeared more “prototypically Black”.
Whether subtle or serious, you can see that prejudice gone awry can have harmful consequences. Dr. Bloom presents two ways to disable the effects of prejudice.
So what does Dr. Bloom mean when he says you can break the habit of prejudging others by appealing to the power of reason?
The first strategy is to appeal to the power of your empathy. This strategy is described in detail in our article titled, The Power of Empathy.
The second strategy presented by Dr. Bloom involves appealing to the power of your reason.
Dr. Bloom argues that although you may have heard the phrases, “love thy neighbour” or “love thy enemy”, these goals are not realistic. Do we really love these people? Many people don’t even like their neighbour, let alone love them, but that doesn’t mean you want to cause them harm. You feel a certain obligation to treat them and their property with respect, because you understand that their life and their property are as important to them as yours is to you. You use reason to guide your behaviour toward others, not love.
You can bind yourself to certain rules that will disable you from prejudging an individual based on irrelevant characteristics.
You can bind yourself to certain rules that will disable you from prejudging an individual based on irrelevant characteristics. One example of this is when orchestras audition their new musicians behind a screen or curtain. They do this because the only information that is relevant to their decision-making is the individuals’ ability to play their instrument.
Another meaningful example presented by Dr. Bloom of how to bind yourself is when representatives of a country sign a constitution. A nation can decide that no matter how much one citizen, or a group of citizens may want to discriminate against individuals based on their protected characteristics (age, race, sex, religion, etc.), the nation has bound itself from those options.
What steps can your organization take to bind itself from even accidentally prejudging a person based on irrelevant information?
I recently watched a mind-blowing TED Talk on the topic of prejudice. What I found so moving was the way the speaker, Paul Bloom, explained prejudice in such simple terms, and what’s more, how he prescribes two simple life hacks for dismantling your own prejudiced thinking.
One of the life hacks Dr. Bloom talks about is appealing to the power of empathy. The truth is, when presented facts and statistics about an issue, we are less likely to do something to help, such as donate or volunteer. However, when we’re presented with a story about a real person’s experience with tragedy or hardship, something inside us drives us to act – our empathy. That’s why the stories in movies, TV shows, and books are so compelling; and that’s why you see commercials for UNICEF on television telling the story of a specific child suffering from starvation, rather than numbers and statistics. Advertisers understand the power of empathy.
Because you too understand the power of empathy, you can now harness this power and use it to strategically rewire your thinking about groups of people you are not familiar or comfortable with.
Dr. Bloom presents a famous example of this rewiring process when he talks about the influence of the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Although the book is now known in large part for its offensive use of stereotypes, another big impact it had was that it gave readers a view into the perspectives of individuals who were enslaved in the US during the 1800’s. By putting readers into the shoes of an individual suffering in slavery, the book gave many people a sense of empathy that they didn’t have before. In fact, this book is believed to have significantly fuelled the movement toward the abolition of slavery in 1862.
Appealing to the power of your empathy can be as simple (and enjoyable) as reading a book, going to an event, or watching a movie about a culture of people that you don’t understand. Think of a group of people outside your comfort zone, and ask yourself, how will I learn more about this culture?
What resources will I use to appeal to the power of my own empathy?