A few days ago a friend of mine reported an interesting story that perhaps exposes prejudices and idées fixes about the “ranking” or “hierarchy” of races that some individuals, or even peoples, might harbor unconsciously. These prejudices naturally affect perceptions, reactions and behaviors. In some parts of the world, having a European in your PR team can greatly impress potential clients; a European is more likely to be listened to than an Asian. In some countries, being a European tourist is a guarantee to getting respect. Recently in Iran, I noticed that the much maligned Americans (surely agents of the Great Satan?) experienced infinitely more fawning than nationalities closer to home (like those damn Arabs. But at least we get a much better reception in Turkey.) in the 2005 film Hostel, where a secret society is shown capturing young people and torturing them for fun, American victims are more expensive than Europeans and Japanese. Everbody else is sold cheaper.
My friend was trying to complete a transaction in the government department, and overwhelmed by the excess of bureaucracy, had forgotten to bring personal photos. It’s funny how the government constantly asks you to present a picture of your likeness, and reaffirm your personal information, although they surely have all that and more on their databases, which is truer now than ever before in the past. Anyway, pressed for time, he drove around the area looking for the nearest photo studio. After a few minutes of searching, he found a supermarket with a sign outside promising “kodak instant photos.”
Going inside, he saw an Indian clerk/photographer, eating morning biscuits and sipping a glass of tea, from which protruded a thread with a yellow paper tag on its end. My friend proceded to ask the clerk about how much the photos cost, how long they would take, and so on. Busy with his breakfast, the clerk hardly paid my friend, the customer, any attention (notwithstanding the Japanese dictum: “the customer is God”.) “Instant photo will take 20 minute,” he muttered, unwittingly uttering a contradiction in terms. My friend however, went on talking, and suddenly the Indian clerk looked up, eyes fixed on my friend now, completely attentive, and said, “Have you ever lived abroad, sir?” My friend, slightly surprised by this sudden question, jokingly said, “Yes, I was born in the US,” although he had not been born in the US, but had lived there as a young boy. “Why do you ask,” he asked the clerk. The clerk answered, “Your accent, sir.” My friend’s accent is not perfect, but having spent the large part of his childhood in an English-speaking country, his accent had rich native-speaker overtones. At any rate, he does not have a heavy, gutteral Arabic accent.
The clerk was used to receiving Westerners in this shop, being situated as he was on street full of restaurants designed to appeal to Westerners, with a large concentration of American residents nearby. Apparently, his ear was attuned to non-local, native-speaker influenced accents. In any case, his demeanor changed at once, and from there on he was oozing respect. Where he had previously been distracted or indifferent, he now gave his undivided attention to the matter at hand, declaring that the photos would be ready immediately, not in 20 minutes as he had said before. He respectfully asked my friend to take a seat sir, would you like passport-style photos sir, and would you please sit upright so I can snap your photo, sir. After he had uploaded the photos on the computer, he allowed my friend to choose the photo he liked. At that moment, two heavy-set Nepalis walked in, bristling with caps, sun-glasses, headphones and cellphones. Upon impudently demanding hurried service, the clerk firmly requested that they wait their turn, for he was working on the gentleman’s photo. “I must give the gentlement his photos as soon as possible,” he explained in Hindi or a Hindi-like language. Finally, when the photos had been tucked in the usual small paper envelope, my friend, having imparted with the required fee, thanked the clerk and left (the photos were somewhat over-priced. Apparently the clerk’s good treatment did not extent to giving a discount).
Later on, my friend told the story, and we laughed at the part when the clerk changed his behavior upon hearing a good accent. Good, cultured, solid accents usually belie a prolonged sojourn abroad or large amounts of time and money spent on quality schooling. On the other hand, this might be all that an accent indicates, and the quality of a man’s character can never be judged from his pronunciation. Are people wrong in making assumption about one’s character from his or her accent? Especially when these assumptions affect actual behavior, and can mean the difference between attentive service and clerical neglect? And what about the racial hierarchies that exist in people’s minds, this separating of races into “better” and “worse”, according to which respect is given or withheld? In the case of this clerk, it would interesting to find out on what scale of respectability, on which rank of worth, he would place himself, and his own race. His behavior was in large measure unconscious, and he would probably resist such a question, and claim that everybody was equal.