“Where are you from? I can’t place your accent.” I frequently get asked this question, especially when I am traveling abroad. When I respond that I am American or that I am originally from New Jersey, I am often met with disbelief. “You don’t sound American (or from New Jersey),” they often reply. “I thought you were German (or Swedish or some other European country).” I often smile and make some statement about how I’ve lived in several different places, both in the U.S. and abroad and must have picked up accents from a number of places. They usually smile and accept my answer.
However, after creating a video online (where I did not reveal my hearing loss), someone from the Deaf community pinpointed the source of my accent. “She’s not hearing. She can’t hear well,” he responded to a comment posted on the video by another member of the Deaf community. When the person asked how he knew, he responded, “Her voice.”
At that moment, I realized that my voice gives away my hearing loss and that perhaps, I don’t speak as well as I imagined. Despite years of speech classes growing up, my speech reveals what I don’t hear. When I am listening to a conversation, words do not sound enunciated to me. I don’t hear softer speech sounds, such as ‘s’ or ‘sh’, so I tend not to say them. Saying the letter ‘r’ is difficult for me so I have a habit of pronouncing certain words as a ‘New Yawker’ might albeit without the heavy New York accent. When I am conscious of the way I speak, I enunciate more and slow down my words. But it makes me feel stilted, measuring each word before I say it, which does not lead to easy conversation.
I had previously made videos online, sharing my thoughts on health and hearing loss. I would cringe whenever I listened to those videos. My voice is soft and uncertain…I pause often and stop to breathe in the middle of a sentence. My voice may start off loud and inevitably will drop off and become very quiet. I have to force myself to be loud when speaking for a recording because my voice in my head sounds loud compared to the sounds I hear around me. As I get into the flow of speaking, I inevitably forget to be loud and my voice becomes softer and more high pitched. This gives me a sad, almost weeping tone. I have difficulty modulating my voice, of knowing how loud I need to be. I have been told both to speak up and to quiet down. My family has often told me that I am speaking too loud for the environment I am in, that everyone around us can hear me or it seems like I am shouting. Then, in a different environment, they say that I am too quiet and need to speak up. I struggle to find a middle ground.
The result is that when I am speaking in videos (and perhaps in real life, though I do not have the luxury then of listening to a recording of the way I speak), I sound timid and unsure of what I am saying. Even if I am confident in my material, my voice and speech patterns don’t reflect that. I once had to cancel a radio advertisement for my Chiropractic practice in Ghana because no one could understand what I was saying. I was slightly relieved when the ad spot was canceled because I don’t like the way my voice sounds when I listen to it. My husband said it sounded like I was crying because of the way my voice faded in and out.
I have found refuge in writing. The sound of my voice does not matter with the written word. I have time to compose my thoughts before putting them on paper. I can feel stilted while writing but I have the luxury of going back and editing before I hit publish. I don’t have to worry about my tendency to mispronounce certain words (since I have either heard them incorrectly or have only read them).
There seems to be enormous pressure for those of us who want to do business online to create videos or podcasts. Almost every business guru that I follow makes videos or podcasts (or both) and urges their followers to do the same. It seems to be the best way to attract an audience. Many of these same gurus claim that the written word is dead and writing a blog or posting text will not get you anywhere. And it is true that many of the algorithms on social media are set up to favor video. But where does that leave those of us who are uncomfortable on camera or who cringe when they hear the sound of our own voice?
This does not only apply to those of us with hearing loss. Yes, there are many stereotypes around the ‘Deaf accent’ and many people react with shock when someone with hearing loss speaks well. And in a world where many people have equated our accent with our intelligence, speaking overly loud or not enunciating correctly may make people unfairly assume certain untrue stereotypes. Struggles with speaking due to hearing loss is not a reflection of how intelligent someone is. It is a reflection of how well they can hear voices, their own and others. But there are many other so-called ‘undesirable accents’, whether that be an accent that stems from a different country or just a different region of the country you live in. A thick country accent or a heavy southern accent is often not seen as desirable in the U.S. Your accent reveals where you are from and often causes people to stereotype you. When seeking to attract a broad audience, the stereotypes that your accent brings may be detrimental to your business or to your message. Struggles with English can also make being on camera difficult.
It is important to open different avenues for getting our message across, whether that is within our business or just sharing what we are passionate about. Not everyone should be pushed towards creating videos or podcasts. Encourage others to discover what comes naturally to them, whether that is writing or speaking or something else altogether. We also need to take stock of our stereotypes surrounding accents. Don’t let our preconceived notion of someone drown out their message. Truly hearing someone requires that we put our stereotypes aside and work to discover the heart of a person. It means that we have patience and compassion with those who struggle with speaking. The greatest gift we can give others is allowing them to discover their voice and share their message. To be heard can be the greatest gift of all.