Authenticity vs. Inclusion: Mutually Exclusive?

Why I modified my ‘authentic’ accent to become inclusive

A few years ago, one of my participants questioned my authenticity while I was facilitating a DEI session. “You talk about authenticity, but you aren’t authentic yourself!!!” I was curious about what might have led the person to reach this grand conclusion, and I asked: “Would you mind giving me a little context as to why you presumed I’m inauthentic?”

Smiling mildly and trying to be nice, the person expanded: “Just listen to your accent! You’re trying to be American!” Some audience members joined by nodding in agreement, while a few laughed loudly…

Is modifying an accent a loss of identity?

I felt relieved! The complaint wasn’t new. Over the years, I had already heard of this accusation a few times.

Here is a recent example. When I visited my home country, Ethiopia, in 2021, I met a classmate from our college years. He was joyful and mourned at the same time. Speaking in one of our local languages, he said, “I’m experiencing a mixed feeling. I’m glad to see you after so many years. But I’m also sad to see that you lost your Ethiopian identity.”

When I pushed for more specificity, I learned that he was sad because I had lost my native accent. For him, a loss of a native accent is a loss of cultural identity.

Rather than apologizing, I explained the genesis of my modified accent. Respectfully, I told him that I don’t see a correlation between improving one’s communication and losing one’s identity.

For me, language is for communication. It doesn’t serve its purpose if people don’t understand my language. I must do something about it. When my native accent prevented me from communicating with people outside of my culture, I modified it to communicate better, get along, and work with others who were not Ethiopians.

A quick disclaimer: If maintaining your native accent while communicating and working with others from diverse cultures is an important cultural identity, don’t follow my example!

In our DEI workshops, we ask participants to identify and scale their cultural identities in order of importance. We then ask: “How much are safe do you feel to express your most important cultural identities?” If they don’t feel safe, then, the corporate culture isn’t yet INCLUSIVE.

Authenticity and Inclusion are not mutually exclusive

That said, yes, we all should do our fair part to become and stay authentic! However, in the 21st-century globalized world, where we interact with diverse people around the world more frequently, in person and virtually, we all should be inclusive. I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive, though! This is especially important for leaders and entrepreneurs. We’re responsible for creating an inclusive culture at work and in marketplaces.

Let me be very clear. I still have many Ethiopian cultural identities even though I’ve been in the US since 2005 and traveled to Ethiopia only three times in the past more than 18 years. If you ask me, I’m not losing my core identity at all. Instead, I’ve acquired additional cultural identities as I live and work with people outside the Ethiopian native culture. Rather than loss, I’m experiencing gain!

Nobody forced me to acquire the American accent. I chose to do so because 100 % of Success Pathways clients were non-Ethiopians. My story would have been a little different if all my clients were my fellow Ethiopians…

The genesis of modifying my native accent

When I first came to the US, I didn’t need to worry about modifying my accent. The issue surfaced when I decided to pursue my passion as a leadership trainer, coach, and consultant.

If you don’t plan to serve outside your community, you don’t need to work on your native accent. However, if you want to be inclusive and work with others outside of your community, you should do something about your accent.

Of course, you don’t need to speak like the native speakers in the hosting country. At least, people should understand you without much effort.

I’m not, and I’ll never speak like native American English speakers. That is not the goal. As the saying goes, the goal is: ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do!’ As far as I’m living and working in the US, I must do what I can to be understood by the people around me.

I still remember it as if it was yesterday. Some event planners I approached liked me personally. They knew I had great content and stories. Regardless, because of my thick Ethiopian accent, they were unwilling to take risks and present me in front of their audience.

To be honest, I didn’t blame them. Why take such a huge risk that could cost their jobs if the audience couldn’t understand and benefit from me after spending thousands of company money and other opportunity costs?

Mind you, when I was a software engineer from 2005 to 2006, I didn’t need to worry about my native accent. I rarely communicated with customers, and whenever I did, it lasted for no more than a few minutes, a maximum of 30 minutes.

If I stayed as a technical professional, I would not have bothered to modify my accent too much.

However, for a speaker and trainer like me who stands for hours and sometimes for days in front of people to talk, it was a no-brainer. I made a voluntary decision to work on my accent so that I could pursue my passion and serve a larger number of people outside of my own community.

The transition was very painful

Was the transition easy? You may wonder. I tell you, it wasn’t! I struggled! It was painful for a while…

Initially, my progress was also slowed. I didn’t make progress because I wasn’t fully persuaded. At least subliminally, I felt like I was losing part of myself.

The other source of the doubt was close friends. Some questioned why I was modifying my accent. And that bothered me for a while…

For instance, a friend who came to the US years ago used to chat with me frequently in the early days of my stay in the US. At one point, we disconnected. Back then, he liked me a lot…

After a long time of no talk, he called me out of the blue to say hi and reconnect. I was so happy to hear from an old friend. I picked up the phone quickly.

After exchanging greetings and pleasantries, he didn’t hide his disappointment: “Why are you speaking like this?” I could feel his disdain and attitude from the tone of his voice. He must have regretted reaching out…

I wondered what went wrong: “What do you mean?” He was further aggravated, “Cannot you know what is happening with you?! You’re trying to be American! You’re not!!! You should be proud of your own culture and maintain your roots!”

I completely understood him. His native accent is one of his most important cultural identities, and he was pissed off when he witnessed one of his countrymen treat it lightly.

Anyway, my justification didn’t convince him. As a result, he threatened: “If you speak like this, I won’t call you again.” Good news! We still keep in touch, and I’m glad he didn’t commit to his initial threat…

What would I do if I decided to relocate to Japan?

Let’s be on the same page. I love America. That is why I live, work, and do business in the US. For the sake of conversation, however, let’s say I decided to move to Japan.

If I move to Japan today, I’ll work on my current semi-American accent right away, even before I get there. I won’t struggle like I did when I first decided to modify my native Ethiopian accent. I may even learn Japanese with a sense of urgency and still won’t feel inauthentic.

I’m sure that if you’re an immigrant and would like to pursue a profession that requires you to communicate with people outside of your native culture intensively, like mine, you would make the same decision I did.

Otherwise, how does your audience sit for hours and listen to you if they don’t understand your accent?

Remember, you don’t need to speak like a native speaker in the hosting culture. However, the diverse people in the culture should at least understand the context of what you’re talking about, even if some of your audience members may miss one word here and another there.

By the way, if my American friends ask for advice before they move to another country, I’ll give them the same advice: modify their native American accent to get along, communicate well, and achieve their goals in the hosting culture.

What is my true motivation for accommodating others?

The real motivation behind my accommodation of others is not to be LIKE THEM (to be a copy) by abandoning myself. It is because of INCLUSION.

If I don’t play my part, what happens? I exclude myself! I’ll only communicate, get along, and work with my in-group. Is it beneficial to my profession, family, and community? I don’t think so…

I willingly modified my accent to cross cultures and become inclusive. It’s not just my accent, though. If I need to modify some of my behaviors and actions to accommodate others who aren’t like me, I’ll do it.

For me, authenticity and inclusion aren’t mutually exclusive. I can keep my core Ethiopian identity and feel authentic, equal to someone who didn’t modify his accent might feel, while cross-pollinating with people outside of my culture.

How can we keep the balance?

In the 21st C, we can’t afford to neglect the creation of inclusive cultures where each inhabitant of a culture expresses themselves authentically. However, creating a genuinely inclusive culture demands every member to play proactive and intentional roles to make some accommodations for the sake of the GREATER GOOD.

One of the roles to play is to ask: ‘How can I maintain my authenticity while also accommodating others who may not have the same cultural identities as mine?’

For your information, many organizations achieved diversity by inviting diverse people to the table. Very few, however, achieved true inclusion by mixing their diverse people at the table very well.

Turning a diverse corporate culture into an inclusive one requires balancing the need to allow everyone to express themselves authentically and the need to create a win-win collective and inclusive identity for the entire group.

Here is a serious challenge I don’t have a ready-made and easy answer: If each member of a diverse group isn’t willing to accommodate others willingly and out of love and care for others, how can we create an inclusive culture that accommodates all cultural identities?

The full authentic expression of one member may alienate all or some or at least another who has differing cultural identities.

In the name of authenticity, I shouldn’t disregard how I express myself and how that, in turn, affects others. I should have the CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE to understand the impacts of my words, behaviors, and actions against others who are from other racial, ethnic, cultural, political, and professional backgrounds…

Is creating an inclusive culture easy?

  • Creating a truly inclusive culture where every member feels recognized and appreciated isn’t a straight line.
  • It isn’t also a one-time endeavor.
  • All stakeholders should communicate and work together to create an inclusive culture that embraces and honors all members.


I advise teams and organizations to convene and agree on the inclusive culture they want to build together. I encourage them to develop guidelines and ground rules for maintaining inclusivity.

You can’t just autopilot it, though. You need constant revisions and reforms until a given culture becomes truly inclusive and all members mix well. That is when we harvest the full-scale benefits of inclusion.

Will it be easy? Not really! If so, we would have countless truly inclusive teams, organizations, and communities by now. However, investing in creating an inclusive culture is worth our individual and corporate investments. What do you think?

Before I close, if creating and sustaining an inclusive culture is important to your team/organization/community, and you’re responsible for accomplishing that, let’s talk. Here are two ways how we can help:

  • If you would like us to custom design and deliver a one-day webinar or workshop or speak at one of your upcoming events on this theme, don’t hesitate to contact our team at [email protected]. We can custom design a program that empowers all stakeholders to develop the right mindset and competencies to play their fair share in creating an inclusive culture. The program will be designed following the latest adult learning principles, and filled with the latest insights, intriguing stories, practical models, strategies, and approaches.
  • If you would like a consulting service to Create and Sustain a Diverse, Equitable, Inclusive, and Accessible corporate culture, let us know. We would love to work with your team.