In today's society, communication with other people is essential. Now more than ever, Americans spend most of their spare time calling friends and family members on the telephone. If we listen to other people's voices on the phone over and over again, chances are we will be able to tell who the person is solely based on the sound of their voice. I know that it's true for me because I can always tell when my sister calls me versus when my best friend calls me just by hearing that first "hello." In the business world, where telephone-operators speak to many different people all day long, it is no surprise that they can easily guess the ethnicity of a person by the way that they talk. As seen in an article by Patricia Rice, this phenomenon has been taken to the next level. John Baugh, Ph. D. is a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and he decided that he would test the idea of linguistic profiling experimentally. Having coined the term 'linguistic profiling' himself, he was extremely interested to see how employers reacted differently to certain people because of the sound of their voice.
In Baugh's study, he tested linguistic profiling by having three people using different dialects call in response to an advertisement. The three callers used an African-American dialect, a Spanish-English dialect in a Mexican style, and a Standard English dialect respectively. The results showed that when a person sounded either African-American or Mexican, the company either did not return their call or they were told that the advertisement was no longer available. The person that called using Standard English, however, still had the advertisement available to them. Some of Baugh's other research shows that people regard those speaking with a British upper-class accent or a German-American accent to be more intelligent than even Standard English speakers. Also, Baugh did some research personally, while attempting to find a house for his family. He called those with advertisements for houses and spoke in a professional English voice to the agents. The agents all sounded very enthusiastic to show Baugh the houses and most were friendly towards him even when he showed up and they found out he was an African-American. However, four of the agents were shocked by his race and, in turn, told him that the houses were no longer available. Baugh also did a survey having others try to guess his ethnicity based solely on his voice. The results showed that 93% thought him to be white when he used his professional English voice, 86% identified him to be African-American when he used his African-American voice, and 89% thought he was Mexican when he used his Latino voice. Baugh found in his research that certain companies specifically tell their telephone clerks to not make any face-to-face appointments with an ethnic person. Also, he found that some employees always write their guesses of callers' ethnicity down on paper (Rice).
Baugh's study of linguistic profiling has shown that racism is possible over the telephone and does, in fact, happen. Companies that do this are breaking the laws of equal opportunity employment and fair housing rights, although they like to pretend that it is not racism because they do not really know if the person is ethnic, as they say when taken to court. This is not shocking to me because racism is still happening all of the time and companies will go through any means in order to work the way they want and avoid legal issues. I am very glad that Baugh has put so much effort into studying this phenomenon and that Patricia Rice has brought it to the attention of many people. American citizens of all ethnicities need to be aware of this issue so that they can more easily avoid being harmed by it and so that steps can be taken to eventually prevent it from happening all together. Linguistics can say a lot about a person, which many of us do use to our advantage. The way that someone talks can give away not only their ethnicity, but also ideas about their schooling, their intelligence, and their social skills. I do admit that I make assumptions about people simply by their voice, which many people do. However, it is wrong to use these assumptions brought about by a person's voice to deny them services, employment, housing, or any other means of welfare. Racism is wrong, whether it is based on seeing the person, hearing the person speak, or any other way. I am quite disappointed to hear that so many people, companies, and agencies use linguistic profiling in such a negative way, as to harm other people by denying them their rights as Americans. I believe that linguistic profiling itself is not necessarily a bad thing, however. It is the way that people use it that can make it bad and turn it into a thing like racism. Nobody deserves to be denied their rights of equal opportunity or to be denied any type of social services. If the way that companies continue to work is by using linguistic profiling to turn away unwanted costumers, then people need to get together against this and all types of racism to bring an end to it as soon as possible and prevent linguistic profiling from harming our society and all of the people in it.
Rice, Patricia. Linguistic Profiling: The Sound of your Voice may Determine if you Get that Apartment or Not. Washington University in St. Louis News. 2 February 2006.