Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Accent Doesn't Equal IQ

So, I had my routine eye exam today. The optometrist’s assistant was a woman in her late twenties to early thirties, gorgeous Latina complexion, and an accent that I noticed immediately, maybe south Florida. She had me peer into three different machines that measured, graded and photographed my eyes, then took me to an exam room to wait for the doctor. While keying information into the computer, she turned to me and, with a sheepish smile, asked, “So, where are you from?”

“Raleigh,” I said. (For those who don’t know, it’s the capital of North Carolina and an hour and a half from where I now live.)

 She tilted her head slightly, then said, “I mean originally.”

“Raleigh,” I said with a grin.

“Oh.” She frowned, and I could tell she was perplexed by my answer.

“Why’s that? I don’t sound like I’m from around here?”

She shook her head. “No. Not really. Not at all.”

“Where do I sound like I’m from?”

“Uh, I thought you might be like, British, or Russian, maybe. Somewhere European.”

What? Really very much not what I was expecting to hear. Not only have I never heard that I sound international, but how do you confuse British and Russian? Or perhaps my accent is just that muddied. Ha!

Actually, I’ve gotten accent comments across the gamut. I’ve heard that I sound Midwestern or Californian. I have heard that I have a “cute Southern drawl,” (usually by folks who live at a much higher latitude than my current location). Even people from my home state sometimes think I hail from elsewhere when they hear me talk, usually saying that I have no accent at all—not theirs, and not anyone else’s. My friend Julie once said it’s because I annunciate my words more clearly than most people “around here” do.

My theory is that my accent can be traced to my Raleighite roots. I am a native Raleighite, actually, and a multi-generational one, at that—which is an increasingly rare thing in the heart of North Carolina, considering the mass influx of relocating techies we’ve experienced over the past thirty years or so. Perhaps there are so few of us left that folks don’t remember what Raleighites sound like. Or perhaps my voice has become its own thing. I don’t know.

I told the optometrist’s assistant that I sometimes get that "not from around here" comment. She said, “Well, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Hmm. I pondered that, then responded. “Yes, unfortunately, folks tend to hear a Southern drawl and assign a downgraded IQ accordingly.”

She laughed. “Yeah, I’m from Miami,” she said, “and when I was back there, every time we heard a person from the South, we’d say, ‘Oh, that poor dumb—” she caught herself and amended the quote, “Southerner.’” She keyed something else into the computer, then turned back to me and said, “But after moving here, I’ve come to realize that’s not true at all.”

I once met a guy from Michigan who thought I was pretty but could hear the South in my voice, and he did exactly what her friends in Miami did—assigned me a lower IQ. I was a geology major at the time, so he bought me two of those silly cardstock souvenir boards like you’d find in any tourist trap, one with little tumbled1 rock specimens glued to it, and another with little fossils. He presented them to me with glee, saying, “These are minerals. Do you know what minerals are?”

 Kids learn what a mineral is in middle school Earth Science class. I’d been a geology major in college for two years. That’s like asking a math major if they know what a plus sign is.

Not only did I know what the poor polished minerals on the cardboard were, but I knew the hardness, luster, streak, color, and cleavage. Plus, I was currently studying the closest packing of their crystal structures. Did I say any of this to Mr. Condescension? Of course not. I gave him a good helping of Southern hospitality instead, thanked him graciously for the generous gift and allowed him to continue in his ignorance, while carefully explaining that I wasn't interested in a romantic relationship with someone so different from myself.

I used to cringe when people asked me where I’m from. Did I sound Southern? And if so, did they think Southern equals stupid?

I’ve since grown comfortable with my roots. If I sound Southern, I’m okay with that. If I sound like I’m from Europe, I’ll get a good laugh out of it and ponder for about five minutes whether I've been watching too much BBC America. If a person mistakes my IQ for a speed limit on the highway because of the cadence and inflection of my voice, that's okay too. Why? Because I've also learned that the only person who defines my worth is Jesus Christ.
1Note for those who have no geology background: tumbled rocks are annoying. Many of their natural characteristics have been demolished in the tumbling process. Half of the joy of a rock, mineral or fossil specimen is preserving those unique characteristics that make it what it is. Hence, rock hounds rarely appreciate or value a tumbled stone (exception: stones tumbled smooth by forces of nature…those are cool). We want to see it in its natural state. And we really prefer to be the ones who actually found it…in its natural state. We will appreciate and envy that stunning Crocoite specimen you discovered while sneaking around a lead mine in Tasmania, and we will gladly take it off your hands, but we tend to turn our noses up to the smooth-tumbled and iridescent-purple-dyed quartz you found at the Cowasmoochie Gift Shop and Rest Stop.

1 comment:

  1. Like! Hi Renee, I'm now a full time student at Forsyth Tech; taking Sociology, Western Civilization (1600 - present), Geography, Spanish and English. I like your story here, especially the part about 'southerners being dumb'. That's actually a point we covered today in Cultural Geography. 'The South can be defined as a region where people are less educated than in other parts of the country'. I really take exception to this statement. Perhaps historically, southerners tended to be high school or college drop outs but most of my friends are quite well educated. (hoping I used the correct word there, I get quite, quit & quiet mixed up). Anyway, I'll have to do a couple research papers, so perhaps I'll ping you some time to critique them. I will certainly appreciate any pointers. By the way, when I lived in St.Croix, USVI and would talk with a co-worker in New Jersey over the phone, she thought I had a British accent! Rick Foxx