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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Vous’

First Impressions: How You Say What You Say

Thinking about that charter school for inner city boys where the study of Latin is mandatory…

In my day job I work with folks of various backgrounds, both in terms of education and upbringing. In all walks of my public life I come in contact with an even broader swath of humanity in all regards. I routinely travel up and down the social, economic and educational ladders at work and at play. For the most part, with everyone I meet the language we all speak is English. I live in Cleveland, Ohio, USA after all. Our English, however, is hardly the same.

While we cannot truly escape our origins, as we cannot truly escape our genome, we can choose how we interact in the daily mechanics of society regardless of origin. For better or for worse this begins with how we speak. That old saw, you only get one chance to make a first impression, is especially true when you speak, and especially important because for the most part you can choose not only what you say but also how you say it.

There’s nothing new or striking about this concept, either. You can think of it as verbal situational awareness. You would (hopefully) speak differently to a priest than you would the surfer dude sitting next to you beyond the break. On the phone with the cable company should sound very different I think than on the phone with your BFF. All speech is by definition qualitatively different than a text or an email because speaking implies hearing; speaking and hearing involve the inclusion of inflection, tone, and tempo. Really basic stuff.

Why, then, is it so brutally common to hear such poor English? Poor grammar, improper word usage, a situational tone-deafness? This doesn’t even begin to touch on the concept of working vocabulary (BTW, the person with the largest working vocabulary I’ve ever met is responsible for my ¬†little CrossFit thing). Once upon a time one heard much about “Proper English” or “The Queen’s English.” What happened?

In English we do not have the French equivalent of “Tu” vs. “Vous”. No lazy man’s way to “polite-up” our speech. A certain unearned familiarity is too often presumed. We take way too many liberties with grammar, and frankly we too infrequently make the effort at “polished” English when it’s time to do so. That first impression thing is incredibly affected when you open your mouth to speak, on the up and the down sides. It is equally jarring to hear the word “ineluctable” from a guy in faded jeans and a baseball cap turned backwards (up) as it is to hear “me and Joey are gonna go…” from a guy in a suit and starched collar (down).

The stark reality is that there are no barriers to the “up” version of English. There is no genetic, social, or economic barrier blocking the acquisition of the ability to speak well, and by extension to acquire the situational awareness to know when it is vital to do so. All that is required is the effort to learn that version of English that we know as “proper”, and the effort to learn when. Those young men learning Latin at that charter school are off to a great start. It’s not necessary to speak like this all the time. You can choose to “let your hair down” so to speak–my love for the versatility of the “F-bomb” is well known in certain circles–but a lack of virtuosity in the English domain is a choice.

There are many aspects of a “first impression” over which we may have little control. Don’t choose to let your English be one of them.