Employees operate the telephones at the Touch Solutions Ltd call centre. (ILO/Benoit Marquet/Creative Commons)

Of the many offensive “-isms” we see and hear about every day, “accentism” rarely gets a mention. After all, for many of us, different accents are part and parcel of daily interaction. Yet research has shown that unconscious bias is prompted by accents in much the same way that it is by sex or skin colour. People who sound different are assigned certain cultural traits or grouped into particular social classes, which together provide fuel for prejudices. When it comes to our perceptions of the speaker, this impacts on our most fickle of human feelings: trust and confidence.

But what might happen if technology was developed that enabled people in all corners of the globe to sound more or less similar? Sanas, a Silicon Valley-based start-up that bills itself as “the world’s first solution for real-time accent matching”, has taken steps towards this. With its technology, a person in the Philippines speaking over the phone to someone in the US will sound American; or to someone in Spain, Spanish – whatever accent it is that the company’s AI-powered programme “hears” at the other end of the line.

Started by people of Russian, Chinese and Spanish-speaking backgrounds, Sanas explains on its website that the concept came about via the difficulties its founders experienced in understanding one another. It is now being tested in call centres, and perhaps for good reason: a frustrated caller seeking expert help with a faulty product is likely to be frustrated even further if they can’t understand the instructions being given over the phone. Sanas wants to help everyone to “understand and be understood”.

But while the technology will no doubt make communication between a call centre worker and an angry customer less fraught, does it risk fuelling a homogenisation of accents, if not worse – the feeding of a sense that “western” accents are to be trusted more? A number of the largest UK and US companies have outsourced their call centres to India, the Philippines and other countries where labour is abundant and cheap. Those call centres are serving millions of customers in Europe and North America for whom ease and convenience, rather than cultural exchange and learning, are the highest priorities. But the distinctiveness of the accents of staff – the intonations and the musicality; the histories that lie behind their dialects – will be gone if such technology is widely adopted.

Cross-cultural communication brings many benefits. But it would be no bad thing to remember that in the process of making communication between different peoples of the world easier, much can be lost.

This piece is a preview from the Witness section of New Humanist winter 2021. Subscribe today.