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Why Are so Many Young Americans Adopting Fake British Accents?

Whether deflecting an awkward moment or lightening the mood in an argument, affecting an accent has become a Gen Z verbal tic.

The Guardian

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Love Island Season 4 cast

Love Island Season 4 cast. (Getty Images)

Kyra Green lives with anxiety, and when she misplaced her boarding pass at the airport gate just before her flight was due to leave, the 26-year-old’s nerves started acting up. As she looked around for it, the native New Yorker began speaking in a British accent.

“I was throwing shit all over the place, and I was like, ‘No, I cannot do this. This is terrible,’” Green said, with the posh inflection of someone who went to a British boarding school. “I was literally scrounging through the trash looking for my boarding pass, but that voice added a little bit of confidence and pizazz when I didn’t feel it internally.”

Americans have long been called out for their phony British accents – think Madonna in her Guy Ritchie era, or the friend who just came home from studying abroad in London. But Gen Z has embraced bad imitations of Cockney slang or a Yorkshire dialect, using obviously fake, theatrical voices to make light of low-grade daily dramas.

What’s behind the trend? Green, who is 26 and appeared on the US version of Love Island, blames it on her love for the original UK dating show.

“The accent really took over when I started watching the show,” she said. “It blew the accent the fuck up, and everyone was obsessed with their cute little sayings, like ‘doing bits’.” (For the uninitiated, that means getting intimate but not having sex.)

It’s not just Love Island: “fake British accent” videos have over 188,000 views on TikTok, where young people say they use the voice whenever they feel uncomfortable.

Asher Lieberman, a 21-year-old college student and content creator from Miami, said he picked his voice up from watching old X Factor auditions on YouTube.

Then there’s H20: Just Add Water, an Australian teen drama about girls who turn into mermaids whenever they swim or bathe. Old clips of the show – a relic full of mid-aughts cringe – often go viral on TikTok. The actors have Australian accents, but Lieberman said those were “harder to do” than a British voice. So he launches into a cheesy Essex dialect whenever he feels knackered, as his character might say.

“I was on a date recently ordering something, and the name of what I wanted came out wrong when I asked for it,” Lieberman said. “So I just talked in a British accent for the rest of the order. It’s a defense mechanism, a kind of buffer from my actual personality.”

He also uses the voice as a conflict-management tactic. “I asked my roommate, ‘Can you please take out the rubbish,’” Lieberman explained, sounding like an EastEnders guest star. “It’s me being playful. It’s the British part of me asking for something that needs to be done, not the real me.”

Brinton Parker, a 30-year-old who lives in the Bay Area, works in tech marketing. The deluge of bad news out of Silicon Valley has her feeling like she’s approaching burnout, and she recently asked her manager for support at work.

“I said, ‘It’s affecting me mental health, innit?’” she explained. “And my boss was like, ‘Why did you say it like that?’ I think it adds levity to a vulnerable situation. The tougher the conversation, the more Cockney I become.”

For Critter Fink, a 26-year-old New Yorker who works in high-end retail, speaking in a British accent can soften the blow of a dark joke. “When you slightly change how you say things with a little accent, it gives you space from a stressful thing,” they said. “It’s similar to when you add “lol” to the end of a dramatic text – it gives you distance.”

Jessie Brown, a hairstylist in Brooklyn, will pop into a British accent when they feel they’ve overshared with a client during an appointment. “I use it when I try to segue from something weird I said, or if I trauma-dump by accident,” Brown, who is 29, said. “I’ve always done accents when I’m uncomfortable. Maybe my brain thinks it makes whatever weird shit I just said more palatable.”

Call it the Gen Z version of keeping calm and carrying on: Amy Walker, an actor and dialect coach, said Brits had long been associated with keeping a stiff upper lip. “We think of them as cerebral and not super emotional,” she said. “The voice can elevate something that feels a little too real in the moment.”

Thanks to streaming hits like The Crown and Bridgerton, the voice is everywhere. But Americans are not necessarily rushing to imitate the upper crust anymore. After decades of exported British pop culture revolved around heritage films and period dramas, stateside viewers have come to appreciate reality shows like Love Island, The Only Way Is Essex and Too Hot to Handle. Those shows are filled with petty disagreements and missed encounters, so young Americans feel a connection with the accent when their own lives feel awkward.

“Back when I was growing up, British people were just the villains in Disney movies and Mary Poppins,” Walker said. “Now, you get a broader range of different voices and perspectives.”

In 2019, American parents on Twitter reported that their children were developing British accents because of all the Peppa Pig they watched. The “Peppa effect” had them speaking like the show’s cartoon pig, saying “Mummy” instead of “Mommy” and “to-mah-to” instead of “to-may-to”. Peppa Pig started airing in the US in 2005 and was a significant part of some younger Gen Zers’ toddler years (the generation was born between 1996 and 2013, according to the Pew Research Center).

But back to adults: Matt Lundquist, a psychotherapist and founder of Manhattan’s Tribeca Therapy, wonders if some of us use the accent when we know we’re being a little too demanding.

“If you like to think of yourself as somebody who’s easygoing, you might adopt a certain voice to express frustration, because you don’t feel totally comfortable with that part of yourself that complains,” he said.

Gabrielle Pedriani, a 32-year-old New Yorker who lives in Paris, said that she sometimes uses a fake British accent in a way that feels “slightly passive aggressive”.

“I’ll say ‘no problem’ in that cheery voice, when something is actually a problem but I’m trying to sound chill,” she said. “I might put it on if someone’s asking me a question I don’t want to answer. It’s like playing the character of an obnoxious, but chill, girl.”

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This post originally appeared on The Guardian and was published May 15, 2023. This article is republished here with permission.

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