Is Your Diction Grounds for Discrimination?

Is Your Diction Grounds for Discrimination?

You know how it goes when you're looking for a job: You email out a lot of resumes and wait to hear back. A few days later, you're still waiting. After about a week, you start calling the companies where you applied, asking each one if they got your resume, if the position is still open, and when they're going to call you in for an interview. You're polite, you're professional and you're persistent, but you might have just talked your way out of a job.

You may be a victim of linguistic profiling, a form of discrimination where the person on the other end of the phone presumes that you are African American, Latino or Indian because of the characteristics of your voice.

Listening for Different Dialects

We all know that one person can speak in several different dialects. In popular culture, Oprah is a good example of a woman who moves easily from dialect to dialect, sounding a lot like Barbara Walters one moment and like your best girlfriend a moment later. It's not uncommon for people to use a professional manner of speech on the job, a respectful manner of speech with their parents and elders, and a familiar manner of speech with their friends and peers.

With linguistic profiling, the listener doesn't think of your dialect as too familiar or disrespectful. Rather, a listener classifies you as a particular type of person because of false assumptions he or she makes about the way you speak. Because of your voice and your accent, the listener classifies you as an African-American female, a young white dude, an old Mexican man, and so forth; and the interviewer’s biases and prejudice take over from there.

Can race be discerned by the sound of a voice? In the justice system, courts have long recognized that listeners engage in linguistic profiling. In a 1912 murder case, a witness testified that he heard a "cultured" white voice in a crowd, and the Arkansas Supreme Court held that a person could "recognize and know the difference between the voices" of whites and non-whites.

Decades later, in a New York case, a judge noted that a witness could discern between Yiddish, Italian, Russian, English, Spanish and French accents, including "Brooklyn" and "Boston" accents. During the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, Simpson's legal team objected to testimony that a witness heard the voice of a white male, and Judge Ito overruled the objection.

Listeners engage in linguistic profiling all the time. A diverse individual who's been treated one way over email and another way over the phone knows that many listeners can discern the race of a caller. When it comes to housing discrimination, there is substantial anecdotal evidence of linguistic profiling among ethnically diverse apartment hunters. Individuals who used an unaccented dialect when calling for an appointment to view an apartment were abruptly turned away when they arrived on the premises and the landlord saw that they were not white.

Protecting Yourself From Linguistic Profiling

One linguistics expert believes that profiling will exist as long as human language exists. How, then, can you protect yourself from it when you're looking for a job?

One way may be to undergo accent modification therapy with a speech pathologist. If you have a heavy accent, getting professional assistance to learn a new dialect can help you present a polished, professional image and build your confidence.

Use your most professional dialect when you make calls to hiring managers. No matter how friendly the person on the phone seems to be, don't lapse into casual conversation, and don't let slang creep into your speech. Let the employer know that, regardless of race, you have a professional demeanor that will help you fit into a professional work environment.

Another way to address the situation is to be the first one to put race on the table. Some employers genuinely value diversity and want to select a new hire from a diverse pool of candidates. If you were president of the African-American Undergraduate Club in college, list that position on your resume. Disclosing your race may help you get an interview for some positions.

Even if you use your most "professional" dialect when you talk to prospective employers, the person on the other end of the line may still suspect that you are not white. Discrimination is discrimination, whether it occurs in person, online or over the phone. An employment lawyer who specializes in discrimination claims can help you determine whether you have a viable case and can help you get the settlement you're entitled to, even if you don't get the job you deserve.