Is speaking-like-others-expect-you-to-speak the best way to get them to take you seriously?
In response to my last post (Freedom of Speech: What you Say and How you Say it) one thoughtful reader, I’ll call him Mr. MiddleOfTheRoad, took issue my rhetorical question: Why should we let others define the way we speak?
I had asserted that we shouldn’t let others define the way we speak, because when we do, we can’t express ourselves fully, and our unique perspectives may not be heard. The more we police how we say things, the more we circumscribe what gets said.
Mr. MiddleOfTheRoad asserted to the contrary, that
“…it’s in our own interest to learn how to speak as others do. We may WANT them to teach us.”
Two questions came up for me:
- Which “others” are you talking about? Teachers? Police? Parents? Bosses?
- Why wouldn’t they also want US to teach THEM? (Don’t Teachers, Police, Parents, Bosses learn new ways of speaking from Pupils, Citizens, Children, Employees?)
Mr. MiddleOfTheRoad continued…
“If you wish to be taken seriously as, say, a lawyer then you had best learn how to speak as lawyers do, etc., etc.”
Yes, perhaps you must speak “as lawyers do” to be taken seriously as a lawyer. As another wise reader (I’ll call him City Kid) put it, a defense lawyer shouldn’t go before the judge and jury saying things like “Bobo here ain’t got no problems with the law.”
But aside from basic protocols for speaking in court or other professional settings, two problems immediately come to this mind:
- How do generic “lawyers” speak?(I suspect there are multiple nuanced versions Lawyer-Speak, just as there are multiple nuanced ways of speaking as a politician, a poet, or a preacher.)
- Is just speaking as some approximation of a generic lawyer really enough? (If you have something to say, something unique, that your addressees have not understood before, if you wish that unique perspective–your own–to be taken seriously, don’t you need to add something more than what “they” taught you? Might you not need to pull out some new expressive chops?)
There are more alternatives than speaking “like a lawyer” or “not like a lawyer.”
Yet, Mr. MiddleOfTheRoad went on to make a restaurant analogy:
“What would be the sociolinguistic equivalent of going into a restaurant and eating your meal with your fingers? That’s terrific if you want to offend people but if you don’t then you’ve got to learn and practice certain things.”
Again, the same two problems rankle:
- What is generic restaurant behavior? (Just as there are different ways of being a lawyer, politician, poet or preacher, there are many different ways of restaurant eating. Do you eat with your fingers at McDonalds? Lorenzo’s Pizza? Dunkin’ Donuts? Ben & Jerry’s? Might you grab an endive with your fingers at a Fancy French Restaurant if you had already asked the waiter for cutlery and wanted to make a point?)
- Is just knowing some generic approximation of restaurant behavior enough? Don’t we acquire new ways of eating when we go to new places? For example, I use spongy bread to eat my food when I’m in one of Philadelphia’s countless delicious Ethiopian restaurants. I use chopsticks when I’m in Chinatown, but, I may ask, diplomatically, for forks for my children.
How does this apply to using language to speak our minds, to command respect, to get people to take us seriously? Speaking on the bus, or as a lawyer, a mother, a politician, teacher or poet—speaking as an individual—takes awareness and finesse. As does eating with your fingers at a Fancy French Restaurant, asking for a fork in Chinatown, or learning to use spongy bread at an Ethiopian place.
Using language flexibly and to make points, but in ways that might be unfamiliar, that may require some extra reflection, or even require our addressees to ask questions, is not the same as being ignorant or uncivilized.
Not speaking exactly like others is not “the sociolinguistic equivalent of going into a restaurant and eating your meal with your fingers.” Not speaking exactly like others can be infinitely many other things, including being
Speaking differently can also be, even when a little off-putting, a way of getting people to take you and what you have to say, seriously.
Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we are celebrating today, spoke in such a way that millions of people took him seriously, though he was also off-putting for many. He did not let others define either what he said or how he spoke. Yet, he was serious. And, he was taken seriously (in one sense, very sadly so).
How do you use language to get people to take you seriously? Are the only alternatives Offending or Not Offending? Proper or Not Proper? Correct or Incorrect? English or Not English? What other resources do you draw on? Post your responses here!