Being that my first language is Spanish and that I’ve developed my career in the English-speaking world, at work meetings and functions, more often than not, I get asked about my foreign accent. Quite frankly, the ‘..and where are you from?’ line (or similar version) got old about 10 years ago. To stop myself from getting annoyed, I’ve found a way to amuse myself. Before answering I ask people to take a guess. I’ve heard all kinds of things. Among my favorite responses are: Philadelphia (go figure, I only stopped in Bethlehem during the storm of ‘93), Quebec, and some have even placed me in Chekoslovakia (close guess, three of my grandparents are Eastern European). I know that I sound like all of South Florida, just like JLo and on a bad day like Ricky Ricardo.
Although I now take this lightly, earlier in my career I was convinced that my foreign accent made me sound unprofessional and in general played against me in the world of work. With that on my mind, whenever I spoke, I made an effort to sound ‘American’. Forget that I must of sounded robotic and rehearsed. All the mental energy that I was dedicating to juggling between my accent, the content and the structure, would’ve been much better spent on what I was saying. Needles to say, I usually felt exhausted after meetings, phone calls and presentations.
Determined to get rid of this nagging feeling, I decided to look for proof to dispute the little voice inside my head. If only someone would’ve pulled me aside earlier to tell me all the reasons why having an accent is great for business.
Native-speakers and ESLs, let me enlighten you:
1. Think Kofi Annan, Carlos Ghosn, Golda Meir and Roberto Goizueta. It’s clear that their accents did not get in the way of their success. If anything they all sound(ed) memorable and distinguished. So it follows that
2. Being unique is a strength especially when we’re all wearing blue suits.
3. By growing up in a different part of the world than most people in the room, by default you bring a new and different point of view. Buzz words aside, diversity does add value in the world of work.
4. If like me, you had to complete the entire series of Warriner’s Grammar and Composition to graduate from high school, it’s likely that your grammar is above average.
5. Breaking the ice by speaking about your nationality and foreign countries in general is far more interesting than talking about the weather.
Do me a favor and give yourself a break. Keep your accent. Instead focus on backing your recommendations with solid data and try to use correct grammar.