I am going to try and offend as many people as possible.
Does anyone remember telling Polak jokes? What does the Polish Ambassador think we should do with Red China? Put it on purple table cloth. That was funny once. But now people wouldn’t understand because they don’t associate extremely colorful clothing with reds, purples, yellows, bright greens and pinks all together with someone of Polish descent. Does anyone tell Sven and Ole jokes other than Minnesotans? Sven: Look Ole! Deer Tracks! Ole: No, them be Moose tracks. Sven: You be crazy. Dem be deer tracks. Ole: Moose. Sven: Deer… and while they were arguing, they both got hit by the train. Who doesn’t laugh themselves silly listening to the Chinese waiters singing Deck the Hars with bahs of Horry, fa ra ra ra rahhhh ra ra ra rahhhh in “Christmas Story.” Don’t you giggle just a bit when in Horrible Bosses the navigator’s voice in the car calls himself Steve because no one could pronounce his name. Why do we think these are funny?
Northerners try to imitate Southerners because they think their accent is cute or funny. People in the movies try to do the Italian accent or the Detroit toughs to make them sound scary. Everyone makes fun of Country/Western accents, and then cannot resist using them when they broadcast on their CB radios. Ever hear a Minnesotan try to talk Texan? “Yeah, you gotcher Ice Monkey heah, wotch out fer them smokey bears on I29 about mal marker 113, Ya you betcha.” The language defines us.
Fairly intelligent people will assume that those with differing accents and idioms are less intelligent. One of the smartest guys I know, John, calls himself a dummy and uses a really heavy Georgian accent in order to get his message across to the average and ordinary in the audience. “Ah bleev with everthin’ in me that y’all can be GREAT and MAKE A DIFFERENCE in ar worl’! Now Ah ain’t the smartest man in the worl’ but Ah know this fer a fact!” The accent is so thick, sometimes those in his audience ask for closed captioning so they can understand what he’s saying. But strangely enough, he won’t use that accent in speaking one on one with people or addressing CEO’s and congressmen. People tend to underestimate someone with a slang, someone with a southern accent, someone with a simple vocabulary. Listen to the way people in politics talk. Every one of them will adopt a midwestern accent. Listen to George Takei and you won’t assume he’s Japanese until you see him. Listen to James Earl Jones. He oozes intelligence. Watch Kal Penn in Designated Survivor. Wasn’t he Kumar in Harold and Kumar? And John Cho was Harold and also Sulu on the new Star Trek movies. (How can two people play both fools and geniuses?) You don’t underestimate them. When was the last time you spoke to someone with a Polish background and wondered what was with his accent? Poles, Swedes, Norwegians, Africans, Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Pakistani sound the same on the telephone. They have adjusted their speaking styles and idioms to their region.
Two things then: First, tape yourself. Do you speak with an accent that is uncommon in the area where you live and do business? People will put you in the “loser” category and will expect you to fail. Second: listen to the people you converse with, and listen for the content rather than the accent or slang. One of my friends from college, a math major, was in both my calculus class and my music appreciation class. We would go to the library to listen to our appreciation homework and we’d talk. We’d have a fine old time. But when his friends came in, his language changed to downtown slum Chicago. I watched 30-40 IQ points leak out his ears. His friends underestimated him. They were football players and physical education/social work majors and couldn’t understand why he’d take calculus. He was very bright, but they didn’t see him as such. There are times when underestimating the person you converse with is dangerous. People underestimate Dexter the Blood Spatter Analyst and Serial Serial-Killer killer.
Stretch your vocabulary. Do not assimilate the language patterns of the poor and uneducated. People will judge you and put you in a box that makes them comfortable. If you don’t fit the box, that is not their concern. Do not judge someone by the accent or the slang and put them in a box either.