New York taxi

Do you think a New York accent is a liability or not?

First, some background.

When I moved from New York City to Toronto in the 1980s I quickly realized that my New York accent was interfering with my daily life. You see, I was working as a senior systems analyst at an insurance company (I know, exciting, right?) and had to make lots of phone calls within the organization. “Hi this is Donna Papacosta from the office automation team in the IT department…” Before I could finish my introduction I would be interrupted. Of course, interrupted in a very kind and gentle manner. These were Canadians after all.

They would ask: “Where are you from and what kind of name is that?” Seriously. Papacosta was an exotic name within this company, where most of the people had nice Anglo-Saxon monikers like Smith, Johnson and Martin.

Without announcing it to anyone in particular, on my own I started to scrub evidence of my New York roots from my manner of speaking. My then-husband probably wasn’t even aware of what I was doing. And he was a Scot with a thick burr, so I could not have asked him to help me with this project anyway. As far as he was concerned, the rest of the English-speaking world had an accent, but he didn’t. But that’s a story for another day.

Over the months and years I didn’t even realize how Canadian I started to sound. Then, a few years ago a friend of mine told me that he and his wife were going to New York for the weekend to see some shows, check out the sites – touristy stuff. I said: “That’s great. I hope you have a wonderful time. I’m envious.” Then he asked: “Have you ever been to New York?” I laughed out loud because I thought he was joking. Have I ever been to New York? Really? I spent the first half of my life there! He was dumbfounded. Either he is tone deaf or I had done a really effective job of removing my New York sound.

On the other hand, I’ve met some astute Canadians who immediately ask me, as soon as I open my mouth: “Where are you from in the States?” I always smile at this question because I say, “I’m from only one of those states, New York.”

Sometimes not having a NY accent can get you in trouble.

In January 2002, not long after the 9/11 attacks, one of my daughters and I went to New York for the weekend. It was her birthday and instead of a party and presents she asked for this trip. Why not? It would be fun for us, plus a way to support the city when tourists were few and far between.

When we stepped into a cab at LaGuardia airport I made the mistake of admitting that we were from Toronto. The cabbie proceeded to take us on a joyride over the Triborough Bridge even though I had asked for the 59th St. Bridge. “He thinks I’m a tourist!” I realized. Then in my best NY voice I yelled: “Hey buddy, I’m writin’ down ya name and ya numbah to report ya to the Taxi and Limousine Commission.” All of a sudden he was full of apologies. Now when I’m in New York I revert to my New York sound whenever I want to be treated like a local and not a visitor. (Actually, on my most recent visit I pulled it out like a party trick, much to the delight of my Canadian traveling companion.)

What makes me want to talk about this right now? Well recently I saw an article by Michael Newman in the Opinion section of the New York Times about this very topic. He talks about how Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have one thing in common: a NY accent that makes them appealing.

Here’s a quote from the article:

But how could a New York accent actually play a positive role in politics? Well, we can start with the observation — made by the Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen — that New Yorkers tend to have a different conversational style than other Americans. New Yorkers usually favor being more direct. We speak over one another, particularly to show our engagement with what our interlocutor is saying. We like to tell long stories. And we don’t mind arguing as long as it is not too personal.

 When other Americans talk to one another, they tend to wait for clear signs that their turns are over before beginning to speak. They make room for others by not, as they see it, “hogging the floor.” They tend to interpret open disagreement as conflict, and so avoid it.

Oh, this is true. To this day, three decades after moving to Canada, I still struggle with not jumping on top of someone else’s words. One close friend, in particular, measures his words, and pauses for SECONDS between sentences. Conversing with him is great practice for me. The phone is difficult, though, because I can’t always tell when he has finished a story.

I’m still not sure what to make of this article, which ends with:

 However, Democrat or Republican, in an age where trust in politicians is at a minimum, it is not hard to see the attraction of that blunt aspect of the New York image. It’s a quality that can be profoundly appealing. Voters might not want to hear from politicians at all, but for many, a stump speech is, it seems, more palatable in a New York accent.

On the one hand, eliminating my accent – for the most part – has helped me to assimilate into life in Canada. I can even say about [aboot] if I have to. In most cases my New York roots are visible only to those with a discerning ear. On the other hand, perhaps part of me is lost. The only solution? Frequent trips back to New York to be with my tribe and to speak my native language.

What do you think? Do you have an accent? Do you think of your accent as a positive or a negative? Have you ever tried to alter it?

By the way, I discussed the topic of accents on my podcast way back in 2007.


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