Stephen Hester and the art of appearing posh in banking

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If you work in the City of London - and arguably on Wall Street - there is a trick to gaining the immediate respect of your peers. And that is to speak in a certain kind of international accent which underlines your cosmopolitanism.

"It's a kind of louche continental accent with an American twang," said one private equity professional and ex-investment banker who declined to be named. "It usually means you've done your undergraduate degree at a university in Europe and then completed an MBA in the U.S. It's very prevalent in the City," he added. "It's a way of marking your territory - people don't wear pinstriped suits any more, they speak in a way which shows their elitism."

So-called 'accent neutralization' is big business. Mark Singleton, a director at Speak Easily, a vocal coaching company in the West End of London, said he had  1,000 customers last year, most of whom wanted their existing accents softened or eradicated. Few people actually set out to achieve the international twang. "Most people want to speak BBC English," Singleton told us. "We get a lot of clients from the City."

Not all 'twangers' are aware of their vocal advantages. We spoke to one South African banker who's worked in the City for more than a decade. Despite speaking in an elongated European drawl, he insisted that he spoke 'Estuary English' - an accent common in the South East of England. Exposure to hundreds of different nationalities during his banking career might have modified his voice, he conceded.

One of those to have modified his accent is Stephen Hester, chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland. When Hester appeared on Radio 4's Today Programme this morning to discuss RBS's results, he sounded like any other public school educated CEO. "I think these results show that as we go through next year, the clean up will be substantially complete and RBS will be looking much more like a normal bank," he told the presenter in a well-modulated Southern-English, slightly nasal, voice.

Hester's articulation is a source of curiosity in his native Yorkshire. When he visited Wolverhampton last week, the ex-comprehensive schoolboy from Easingwold in North Yorkshire, spoke "without a trace of his native accent," reported the Wolverhampton Express and Star. 

It's not just accent: Hester's choice of outfits has also raised eyebrows in the past. In Wolverhampton, he was out and about in a 'suit, white shirt and pink tie,' noted the Express and Star. However, Hester is best known for his partiality to hunting dress coats of a kind more commonly associated with the English aristocracy. Rich Ricci, the American ex-chief executive of Barclays' investment bank and former student at a Jesuit university in Omaha, was also known for hanging around race courses in tweed suits as if he were a member of the landed gentry.

Geraint Anderson, a former equity research-turned author, who went into banking after attending the Latymer School, a state funded grammar school in London, said banking is still more elitist than meritocratic. If you're Ricci or Hester, it helps to play the game: "You need to know what the public school boys like and what they expect. They still hold the positions of power," he said.

If the transatlantic twang is the most desirable accent in banking, and BBC English is good for someone like Hester who runs a British bank, the least acceptable accents are said to be regional or working class. "You still get Essex-boys on the trading floor, but if you have a working class accent a lot of people will think you're thick," said one comprehensively-educated hedge fund manager. "If you work in banking, you need to speak in a certain way if you want credibility," he told us.

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