About a year ago, I went on a first date that had me smitten. He was charming, smart and worldly; he just seemed different from the guys I usually met on dating apps. As we finished our fancy cocktails and went in search of tacos, I felt certain there’d be a second date.
But when I woke up the next morning, sober, and tried to remember what I liked so much about this guy I barely knew, I had trouble pinpointing it. He was British, so naturally I wondered: Did I fancy him just because of his accent?
I never did determine whether our connection was more than aural. A few dates after our date, he texted to say he’d become exclusive with someone else. I’m not the only one who loves a good accent.
As American actress Meghan Markle prepares to marry Prince Harry on Saturday, there’s plenty to dissect — their relationship, her dress, the guests’ fancy hats and all the royal traditions. But first let’s take a moment to talk about a cross-cultural obsession that goes beyond the prince and duchess-to-be. What’s behind the American fascination with how our friends across the pond speak? Why do so many of us find the accent sexy?
No matter how a person speaks, their voice plays a role in their relationships. Studies have found that when a person’s voice sounds good, we think they look good, too; the voice leaves clues as to whether someone is honest or has been cheating. “The human voice is like a second signature that reveals not only your intentions but also your background, education, and intangible idiosyncrasies of character that can attract or repel a potential mate in moments,” biological anthropologist Helen Fisher writes in her book “Anatomy of Love: A Natural history of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray.”
People tend to think a foreign accent is more interesting and more sexy, says Guy Winch, a psychotherapist from Britain who’s long been based in the United States, “because in general we tend to value what’s less common.” Americans associate a British accent with someone being “more intelligent, more sophisticated and more competent — and those are all qualities that a lot of people find attractive,” adds Winch, author of “Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts.”
The attraction is not universal. A 2014 YouGov poll found that 35 percent of American respondents find the British accent to be attractive — with more women than men saying they’re smitten — but 49 percent found it “neither attractive nor obnoxious.”
And not all accents are treated equally. “People think accents are sexy if they admire the country,” says Lynne Murphy, author of “The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English.” “It’s about British people being familiar — not that different from us — but they’re a bit exotic because they’re not from here,” she adds.
That blend of familiarity and foreignness is part of what attracted Jacklyn Collier, a Solo-ish contributor and actor in New York, to her boyfriend, Alex, who is British. Ever since Collier was a kid, she was “obsessed” with the royal family, she says. She had a Prince William poster in her childhood bedroom, grew up watching a lot of Shakespeare and would often try to put on a British accent, which she associates with wealth and delight. “It’s still the same language,” Collier says, “but there is this sense that they have an elevation of class and style that I don’t feel like I quite have, but that I want to have.”
Being attracted to a certain accent can be a bit of subconscious, aspiring social-climbing, says Glenn Geher, a psychology professor and director of evolutionary studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Murphy, who’s American and teaches linguistics at the University of Sussex, thinks some Americans are besotted with the British accent because it sounds wealthy and intelligent, bringing to mind boarding schools, country manners and spies. To the American mind, England is a “sort of fantasy place” with royals and castles, Murphy says.
Of course, not all Brits are rich and well-educated. But Geher thinks Americans’ perception of Britain as higher status goes back to our country’s beginning as British colonies. “We tend to think [Britain] is this universal monolith of high status, and that’s probably vestigial of post-colonial heritage that we have,” Geher says, adding that once an American visits Britain, they can see that’s not true. “There’s plenty of class differentiation there.”
The American obsession with the way our former overlords speak is ubiquitous. In early Hollywood movies, Geher notes, actors were trained to have a slight British accent so as to seem more posh. More recently, the 2003 romantic comedy “Love Actually” portrays the British accent as powerful enough to get four hot women into bed with an average-looking man simply because he pronounces “straw” and “beer” slightly different than they do. The accent figures in marketing, too, to make products seem fancier and places more desirable. In 2016, for example, Murphy snapped a picture of an advertisement that caught her eye on the London Tube. “Visit a place where your accent is an aphrodisiac,” the ad read, above an image of the Las Vegas Strip.
Can an accent really get you laid, a la “Love Actually?” I called a few Brits to find out, starting with one of my old college crushes. I met Martin Dyan, now a 34-year-old freelance public relations consultant in London, when we were students at the University of California in Los Angeles in the early 2000s. As an exchange student on a campus where the majority of students are from California, he admitted that his accent brought a lot of attention. He remembers having large lecture halls of hundreds of students who would turn their heads whenever he spoke in class. “The impact was ridiculous,” he says, noting that he once got invited to a rooftop pool party simply because he’d spoken up in class and his fellow students were taken with his accent. “When you’re trying to chat up a girl,” he says, “it instantly helps break the ice.”
Stuart Baird, who’s from Scotland and has worked at the British Embassy for 20 years, says that around the time he arrived in Washington, he asked a woman for directions at a gas station, and she responded by inviting him to come home with her. He didn’t go, but the memory remains.
Baird thinks part of the appeal is that a lot of Americans have some British heritage, so they immediately feel some affinity. “I think some people just haven’t had the opportunity of being confronted with the accent,” he notes.
Even though our country’s forefathers left England hundreds of years ago, many Americans still look back at the country as “home,” Winch says. “We left in a rebellion, but maybe [Britain is] what we consider mature or well-developed.”