LEADING ARTICLE : Voices with an accent on trust

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The Independent Online
Why should West Country people sound thick? It is deeply unfair, of course. Doubtless Bristol, Plymouth, Taunton and Truro could fill Cape Canaveral with rocket scientists. And yet. There is something about those vowels which sounds, well, claggy.

It would not do if the person answering your phone inquiry about car insurance, banking or phone number used a dialect word such as that. (It means "muddy".) Not that nowadays they are likely to. The United Kingdom is becoming homogenised. Local differences, in public services, in retailing, in culture, become harder to spot. Regional dialect is dying. Yet bucking the trend, regional accents are enjoying a vogue, which is being fostered by the business community.

The Legal and General insurance company has said it has chosen Wales for a new office because it likes the accent. Other companies have discovered the same appeal, and the hunt is on for where to locate help lines and all those businesses-at-a-distance which rely on banks of clerks who give good phone. Accent matters a lot, but so does use of English. Together they underpin customers' judgements about competence and reliability, likeability, and trustworthiness. The reason why there seem to be so many Scottish voices on the BBC is also why Scotland is tops for "call-centre" businesses. Scots, generally, sound classless, educated and warm; they have an accent but they enunciate. They score highest for both trustworthiness and competence. The best Scots is something like an educated Falkirk accent - sort of midway between Edinburgh's Morningside and Glasgow's Drumchapel.

There is a saying that people from east of the Pennines are, how to put this in a politically correct fashion, rather tight, Boycottish even. Charity flag day in Wakefield - empty streets; house-to-house collection in Huddersfield - streets are packed. But if you run a telephone bank as large as First Direct's, that reputation may be turned to advantage. It has based its operation in Leeds because Yorkshire people sound as if they will look after your money.

Not all the North does well on the good phone guide. Merseyside's perennial whine is never going to make the city of Liverpool attractive, say, for help lines. Imagine the dialogue. Broken down motorist phones help office in Everton and has to listen to five minutes' moaning about everything from the new charges on the Wallasey tunnel to the latest failings of the Dark Blues.

Accent acceptability penalises Birmingham, but no more than London. For the purposes of ingratiation with the phoning public, neither Handsworth nor Hounslow quite has it. As for Wales and Ulster, high scores on warmth and trustworthiness but sometimes a little backward in the intelligibility stakes. Directory inquiries which fetch up at the back of Belfast can be daunting when you have to spell the names of French restaurants phonetically.

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