It's not what you say, it's the way that you say it

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Your accent speaks volumes about your background and education, and in the job market those are two very important commodities. So what sounds "best" - Belfast, Birmingham or BBC? Emma Haughton reports

Never trust a Brum, a rather un-PC acquaintance used to say, and it seems that few people do. Recent research found that defendants with a Birmingham accent are twice as likely to be convicted than those speaking "standard English". But negative attitudes to Midlanders don't stop there; those with Brummie accents are also regarded as unintelligent, working class and socially inept.

Not that this would come as a surprise to Jean Briscoe, who three years ago claimed she was sacked from her telephone receptionist job because her boss didn't like her heavy Birmingham accent. Nor to secretary Louise Yates, the wife of QPR footballer Steve Yates, who says she was forced to quit three jobs in two years because of constant teasing about her West Country accent. One boss even ordered her to stop answering the phone, while colleagues dubbed her a "yokel". She was so upset that Yates asked his club for a transfer.

We have come a long way since the days when Received Pronunciation (RP), or BBC English as it was known, was as an essential qualification for many professions, but discrimination at work on the basis of accent is still rife.

According to a recent survey of 30 recruitment consultants by the Institute of Personnel and Development, RP still opens most doors, while a strong regional or working-class dialect is more likely to get them slammed in your face.

"Let's face it," said one Surrey recruiter in the IPD's Managing Diversity report, "people with Scouse accents sound whiny, and people with Brummie accents sound stupid." Another London consultant recommended anyone with a redbrick or industrial accent to upgrade: "Accent is important. It communicates background, education, and birthplace, and, frankly, some backgrounds are more desirable and marketable than others."

Jackie is in no doubt that her Dorset accent thwarted her attempts to get a job in telesales, but had no idea how strong the attitude to her accent was until she got to London. "As soon as I opened my mouth, people would be queuing up to do Wurzel Gummidge imitations, or to tell jokes about sheep dogs and cider drinking. A lot of people seemed to believe that if you spoke with a Dorset accent, you were thick and uneducated. Some would even slow down or speak louder when they were talking to me."

When Jackie heard someone say, "We don't need a Wurzel on the end of the line," she realised how much of a barrier her voice was, and decided to change it. "My family started to comment that I was sounding more and more like Angela Rippon, but to me it was a basic survival thing. I needed work more than I needed the accent."

For employers it's a matter of presentation. Having spent a fortune on striking corporate logos and posh letterheads, many worry that "undesirable" accents will be detrimental to the company image. Rose, who worked for a design company in Cheshire, came up against just this obstacle when she asked to deal more with clients.

"I'm good at pinpointing what people need, I'm good at solving problems, and I look the part - charcoal suit, cream shirt, pearl earrings today, for God's sake - so there's no reason why I couldn't do the job." Her requests, however, were refused, and she eventually discovered the problem was her accent. "I have a bit of Scouse in my voice, but it's not a heavy accent. I considered elocution lessons, but I've lost my faith in the people here; if they're so blinkered about accent, they are not worth the job."

Many others, however, do opt for elocution. Evelyn Brunner, a Manchester elocution teacher, has seen the bulk of her work shift from children to adults, particularly northerners whose jobs or careers take them south. "They are afraid of losing out or being ridiculed. They want to speak well with pure vowels so people can't immediately say where they've come from," she says, but warns that losing your accent is not always easy. Depending on your motivation and how quickly you can hear the difference between sounds and imitate them, it can take a year's worth of weekly half-hour sessions to sound completely natural.

But as Brunner points out, regional accents can work in your favour. Local accents are more likely to appeal if you work in the locality, and as one Edinburgh recruitment consultant remarked, upper class RP spoken in Scotland "positively incites hostility".

Certainly Wayne Hemingway, the chairman of clothing design company Red or Dead who was "born in Morecambe and dragged up in Blackburn", found his northern accent helped in his southern-based career.

"It's set me apart from the rest of the fashion industry, where a lot of people affect so-called `nicely spoken' accents. It gives me a point of difference, being a northerner from a working class background." He also finds it gives him credibility in his TV work: "There was a spell for a couple of years where everyone on TV and radio was really into accents; they couldn't get enough of them."

According to Paul Coggle, senior lecturer in modern languages at the University of Kent, attitudes to regional accents are gradually relaxing. In professions such as doctors, lawyers, and bank managers, RP is no longer seen as the only "respectable" option. "The first high court judge who speaks Estuary English has recently been appointed," he says, "In the past that would have been unheard of. And the City, where you also used to expect RP, has opened up - some are almost Cockney." But in other areas old attitudes die hard. In PR, publishing and the media, for instance, RP is still de rigueur. "If you want to carry authority, especially in something like the media, use RP," advises Coggle. "Unless, of course, you work for the tabloids."

What we're witnessing, believes Coggle, is the gradual dumbing down of RP. Just as the clipped upper-class accents of the Forties (think Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter or Harry Enfield in the Mercury ad spoofs) are virtually extinct, Coggle predicts that Estuary English (think Jonathan Ross) will eventually take over from RP. Estuary already predominates in the South East and has apparently spread as far north as Hull. "Language always reflects society," says Coggle. "We've become less class-conscious, so the differences in accents are reducing."

And whereas many baby boomers will have made a conscious effort to dump regional accents for RP when they went to university, younger generations tend to be accent chameleons, speaking fluent RP at work or when they want to make a good impression, while subconsciously downgrading to Estuary when briefing builders or relaxing with friends. Many people can switch from one accent to another very easily, says Coggle, who believes it's definitely better to blend in if you can.

"In a lot of situations RP can be off-putting. Even those from upper- middle-class backgrounds don't speak RP amongst themselves - many adopt Estuary or even Cockney accents when they don't want to be seen as privileged."

The bottom line is that those who cannot, or will not, adapt may find their job opportunities are more limited - you do need to be able to switch to RP in an interview or when the job demands it. "You may find it difficult or refuse because you don't want to `sell out'," says Coggle. "But the real position is that you're likely to be discriminated against if you are not willing to modify." What's out:

Brummie - regarded as shifty and stupid Belfast - not seen as a lovable Irish lilt Glaswegian - a la Rab C Nesbitt West Country when the "r" is pronounced after a vowel as in "farmer" or "harbour".

What's in

RP, but go easy on the OK, yah Refined Scots, Welsh, Irish - they're Celtic, not English. Yorkshire - seen as honest and frugal. Estuary English - the great leveller. If you wanna fit in, start droppin' those aitches.