Composite image with a drawing of a phone on the left and a drawing of two people talking into headsets on the right

How you hear

Topic

Spoken language, both its production and comprehension, is key for many of us in forming and fostering relationships with others.

Auditory information is especially important when we can’t see who we are talking to; their voice, word choices, and accent give us clues about their gender, age, socio-economic class, and even where they grew up. Our brain uses this information to form a picture of the other person in our minds.

But this picture isn’t always accurate, since auditory information, like any information, can be susceptible to bias. The sounds we hear can sway our feelings and ultimately our behavior towards the person we are listening to. And these social interactions (all based on a potentially false initial assessment!) can create rebound effects leading to a cycle that continues to influence what we learn from others and our decisions.

At the end of the day, we don’t want a person’s voice to affect how we treat them. Find out more about how the way a person sounds can spark bias in this set of modules.
 

  1. Drawing of four telemarketers of different races.

    Hear Me Out: Accent Bias

    Podcast

    Voices are more than just sounds; they’re auditory "faces" that can give clues to who we are. But are these clues always accurate? How might accents skew our decision-making?

    Dive deeper

    11 million people in France say they’ve been the subject of discrimination due to their accent. A November 2020 legislation seeks to change that statistic – accent discrimination is now criminalized in France with up to three years’ jail time and a fine of up to 45,000 Euros. Learn more about the legislation at The Guardian.

    If you watch The Simpsons, you’ll know Apu Nahasapeemapetilon: the thick-accented Indian proprietor of the Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart voiced by non-Indian actor Hank Azaria. The recent outcry regarding the character shows that what used to be considered funny 30 years ago, isn’t anymore. Watch the trailer for Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu and read Matthew Haag’s New York Times article to learn more.

    “Different hosts with different voices tell different kinds of stories. And vocal styles communicate important dimensions of human experience. What are we missing out on by not hearing the full range of those voices?” Listen to Chenjerai Kumanyika on “Challenging The Whiteness of Public Radio” (NPR’s All Things Considered).

    “Now, algorithms are deciding whom to hire, based on voice.” The claim, in this episode of NPR’s All Things Considered, is that algorithms are neutral, and do not rely on things like age, race, gender or sexual orientation. But is this true? As organizations begin to rely on automated methods of evaluating candidates, it’s worth asking: what do we infer from the voice, and how might biases be baked into technology and possibly reduce the quality of our decisions?

    Do accents make us sound smarter? Further explore this question with the BBC’s Chi Luu.

    “Words leisurely unfold out of my mouth. They glide off my tongue with the smooth ebb and flow of the rolling blue Appalachian mountains I grew up on; the drawling vowels stretch long like valleys and consonants tumble down sloping ridgelines into reluctant contractions … I knew the North didn’t hear many voices like mine. What I did not know, or rather, expect, was how my distinct accent would become my identifier” From Emilee Hackney’s article in The Harvard Crimson: Y’all and Drawl.

  2. How you speak may affect your access to healthcare

    How you speak may affect your access to healthcare

    Article

    A person’s language patterns and accent can impact their access to mental and physical healthcare. How can we overcome this bias and ensure equitable treatment for everyone?