I’ve always had a soft spot for those who left everything and everyone behind to start a new life in a new country. Sometimes, the decision to move is entirely voluntary, but often, people are forced to leave their familiar land, and flee to safety.
Think of the many who had to get out of Afghanistan, and the many that are waiting at the Mexican border. The refugees, the persecuted, the desperate.
Imagine what they are going through when they’re stepping into a new and strange land. There’s the predictable culture shock, and in many cases a language barrier.
I am one of the lucky ones. I chose to leave the Netherlands and start a new life. At the beginning of my American story in 1999, every day was an exciting and surprising adventure. But as I started to settle in, I quickly discovered that my dream of living in a new place did not resemble reality in any way, shape, or form.
To some people in my adopted country, I was an unwelcome foreigner trying to steal their jobs. To others, I was an exotic outsider with weird manners and a strange way of speaking.
As I was gradually settling in, I came to the following realization:
Living, loving, and working far away from home, I never felt more connected to where I came from.
The longer I was gone, the stronger this feeling got. Until I went back for a quick visit after a few years had passed, and I noticed how much had changed in my absence. And for the first time in my life, I felt like I was no longer fitting in at home either.
I remember coming back to the Netherlands, and finding out all the money had changed from guilders to euros. It’s only money, but it’s something valuable you use every day. It’s a symbol of a nation’s history, identity, and pride.
I also observed that people had started speaking differently. The familiar Dutch was increasingly interspersed with English words and expressions. And when I spoke, I saw some raised eyebrows because -as I learned later- I was using words that had gone out of fashion.
So, sooner or later I had to face the questions all of us are asking ourselves at one point in our life:
“Where and how do I fit in?”
“Do I even want to fit in?”
MAKING A CHOICE
Let me answer these questions by sharing an experience I had when I was just getting started as a voice over in the United States. I was as green as grass and wondered how I should position myself in the already crowded market of voice talent.
I vividly remember getting very contradictory advice from people who knew the business inside out. One of them told me that the first thing I should do to make myself more marketable, was to sign up for an accent-reduction training. “Paul, you need to sound more American if you want to sell your services in the US of A.”
The other person said: “The last thing you should do is change your accent so you sound more American. There are thousands of voice talents with an American accent. There is only one person who speaks like you, with this sort of northern-European accent. It’s clear you’re not from here, but it’s hard to tell where you’re actually from. Use that to your advantage.”
The real issue behind this issue was this: “Do I want to blend in, or not?”
Whichever you choose, remember this: life is a lot easier when you try to fit in.
Society rewards those who assimilate, and it discriminates against those who dare to be different. Why? Because people tend to like people who are like themselves. That doesn’t make them racist, or anti-LBGTIQA+. It just means the familiar and the predictable makes most people feel more comfortable. Communities are based on commonalities.
Now, back to my dilemma: should I become become americanized or not?
If you know me just a little bit, you already know what choice I made. I decided I wasn’t going to be a fake American, but to be my European self with an ambiguous accent. That decision turned out to be the difference between having a sustainable voice over career, or no VO career at all.
The thing is: You can’t stand out if you’re trying to fit in.
Clients and agents aren’t listening for more of the same (unless they need a sound alike). That’s why I always warn young talent about sending in demos where they’re impersonating famous people.
First of all, they’re usually not very good at imitating celebs. Secondly, if you’re going to impress someone who has seen everything and heard everything, you need to showcase YOU.
Tom Kenny didn’t land the part of SpongeBob SquarePants by imitating Bugs Bunny. John McEnroe didn’t become the narrator of “Never Have I Ever” by sounding like Anthony Mendez (“Jane the Virgin”).
As far as you are concerned:
Don’t be redundant. Don’t be predictable. Be the odd one in!
Marina Clark says
A good article Paul which made me think. I have an English accent when speaking French or Italian and have never managed to get rid of it. While my colleagues tell me I have a very clear speaking voice, my dilemma lies in trying to fit in to a French-speaking Switzerland, or sounding more ‘native’ when I go back to my Italian roots. Neither works well so I too have had to accept to be different. Not so sure that voice-overs want people like me!!
Jerry Kranitz says
Thank you Paul. I’ve been enjoying your blog but this post is especially timely. My coach has me in ‘demo mode’. It’s been quite a journey clueing in, getting the hang of, understanding the nuance of, however we characterize it… of the ‘delivery’. And it’s clear how ongoing this journey will be. Providing clients with what they need, and doing so while establishing my own identity, is something to keep in the forefront of my thinking.
You certainly Stand Out from anyone else!
It is very supportive to know someone who fits in
by being very much you …
Thank you for this blog …
Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt says
Some people have no real choice but to stand out: they don’t fit in, even if they try.
The trick is to somehow USE that to get the deciders (in my case, the readers) to give you enough of a chance so you can prove yourself. Still trying to figure out how to do that.
The odds are great – there are probably lots of other, different, outstanding people – so you have to be persistent. What else is new?