hollings sessions

Former U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions of Alabama have unique drawls, but new College of Charleston research indicates voters may not like Southern dialects. File/AP

Turns out corruption might not just be in the blood of some Southern politicians: It's in their voices, as well.

Political scientists at the College of Charleston have discovered that when Americans hear a politician with a Southern accent, their response emotions rate the speaker as less trustworthy, less honest, less intelligent and less competent.

These politicians are automatically viewed as conservative in their politics, as well, even if none of the descriptions are accurate.

The study was done by C of C professor Gibbs Knotts and three other political scientists who have long been enamored with how politicians communicate.

In this case, it's all about the drawl and twang.

For years, Knotts has followed the unique regional accents of leading Southern politicos, such as former Sens. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, chairman of the Watergate hearing; Fritz Hollings of South Carolina; and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Knotts said these three rank high among his stand-out memorable dialects.

From his study, he's determined that these men, considered among the political foxes on Capitol Hill and each with a law degree, are among those considered cursed by their drawls.

In a nutshell: All things being equal, a speaker with a Southern accent fared psychologically worse among the people queried in the experiment. That includes from Southerners who were part of the survey, something the researchers found to be counter-intuitive. 

"I think it definitely hurts," Gibbs said of anyone who talks with a Southern flair.

The research featured two experienced actors — one a woman and one a man both in their early 50s — reading an audio-only script to a control audience that listened to their delivery online.

The audience included 757 people from two states: about half from Alabama and half from Connecticut, to ensure a mix of distance, audio cue receptors and political views.

In one line of dialogue, each actor was told to deliver their lines in a neutral voice. In the other, they were told to adopt a Southern twang.

"Ah love this community and it would be an honah to represent you in Washington," part of the speech says.

The audience almost automatically agreed that the Southern speaker was conservative, pro-gun and anti-abortion even though those topics weren't part of the script.

That's a problem for someone who doesn't share those views politically, the study found, meaning "he or she may need to work harder to communicate his or her agenda to voters to overcome the perceptions associated with this cue."

The female Southerners were considered as suspect as the males, Gibbs said. 

"In almost every case, the gender of the speaker didn’t seem to matter," he added. "In other words, the Southern sanction applies similarly to males and females." 

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College of Charleston political psychologist Karyn Amira said many factors go into the public's sizing up of a politician, and Southern accents play only a small part of the overall package. She said it's probably more of an influencer at the local level than in a national or other top tier election.

Also taking part were C of C's Claire Wofford and Christopher Cooper of Western Carolina University.

Their work, formally titled "The Southern Accent as a Heuristic in American Campaigns and Elections," is available online.

There were some admitted weaknesses in the study. The actors reading the scripts were both white; no voices that would have projected other unique Southern vernaculars into the experiment were included.

And it may also be that the research confirmed what is a fact already: conservatives dominate Southern politics, from the Statehouse level to Congress, and for many in the older age groups, their speech has not been diluted.

The study also noted that some politicians have thrived by overplaying their Southern drawls depending on the arena.

For example, during her presidential campaign appearances in Southern states, Hillary Clinton was accused of playing up her "Arkansas speak" that she acquired when she was first lady there.

That practice is something Amira said candidates should avoid.

"People can pick up on the fact you're faking it," she said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.