Language as a Mirror
Reflecting cultural norms through everyday communication
“It’s not look strict, it’s look serious,” I correct Jack as he talks about how to interact during a business meeting. “And instead of telling your coworker he’s wrong, try saying…
Have you considered looking at it this way? or Can we review those numbers again? or I have to disagree with you there.”
Jack’s direct questions into the subtlety of English vernacular often catch me off-guard, but I also appreciate them. You see, I’ve been working with Jack for 6 months on improving his English conversational skills. And even though he’s been living and working in the US for over 20 years, the finer details of tone and connotation can still elude him.
So during our classes, he asks me about how to best explain his software development ideas to his boss or how to negotiate a price down on a plumbing repair. His detailed questions force me to reconsider what I think of as normal communication. And I often find myself encountering the English language from a completely different perspective.
This minute exploration into the WHY we explain things in a roundabout manner instead of in a direct address has made me examine how much language has the ability to shape our perceptions.
“Think about it this way,” I try again. “In the U.S., when we are talking among coworkers, no one likes to feel like they are lower or worse than someone else. So to avoid placing your idea as better, we bring up the topic in a softer, less direct way. Even though everyone understands that you’re contradicting your coworker’s ideas, you start the idea with an indirect change of topic. Does that make sense?”
He considers this new idea.
“Or think about your boss, well, maybe even higher up. Think of the CEO of your company, if he ever comes to the office, is he wearing a suit and tie? Or does he dress like everyone else? Maybe he dresses less formal than everyone, let’s say in jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt. Why do you think he does that? What’s the message he’s trying to send? Even though he definitely has more power and money than everyone else, he wants you all to feel on his level or as an equal. Even though you know that’s not true. It’s like a subtle message to try to remind everyone that you’re on the same team.”
As a software engineer in Silicon Valley, this connection makes sense to him.
Jack’s questions make me think deeply about American culture, and the only way I know how to explain it is that we have told ourselves for so long that we are a classless society.
Elites work hard to bring themselves down to the same level as the lower classes. This goes further than billionaire CEOs wearing $500 t-shirts and women wearing Lularoe yoga pants as a status symbol. It is intentionally woven into many areas of our language.
Think about when you’re out to eat. Instead of commanding the server, “Bring me a clean fork,” we ask, “Would you mind bringing me a new fork, please?”
Or when we want a Walmart worker’s help, we don’t say “Show me where you moved the peanut butter,” we instead ask, “I’m looking for the peanut butter. Can you help me find it?”
What might seem pure politeness to the American seems obfuscation to many foreigners. Why not say what you mean? Why not tell the worker to serve you? Why not tell your employee he’s completely wrong?
And if, for a moment, you balk at this idea of intentional diminishment of class difference, there are countless other phrases we use in American English:
“Could you be so kind as to….”
“I’d prefer not to….”
“Do you know where to find…”
“Would you reconsider…..”
“I really appreciate your offer, but….”
“I think that’s a great idea, however…”
All of these subtle tricks of our language are learned in order to reduce the sense of authority.
English is excellent at reducing divisions.
Think about the common response, “Call me, Mark” instead of “Mr. Johnson.” There is a desire for the lack of title to represent a sense of equality. Where other languages and cultures insist on a title when addressing someone in a position of authority, Americans like to erase them.
Growing up, I remember my mother always getting upset when people referred to her as “Ma’am”. Did she really look that old?! The nerve. On the other hand, when I was a young teacher, I used to get upset when called “Miss” since the title referenced my marital status. Which is why I always said, “Call me Ms.” Another English language invention.
This is another detail I point out to Jack. Avoid giving titles to people. Use their first name if on friendly terms, or use the first and last name in more formal situations or upon introduction.
As an American, I don’t consciously think about any of these “hidden rules” to our language. But teaching English to professional adults like Jack has forced me to consider the ways we attempt to erase differences.
In some ways, the erasure of differences can be beneficial as we work to avoid gender and age discrimination. But, when we pretend that the differences of race or class don’t exist, we can easily miss the separation or discrimination that is also present right under our noses.
Language functions as a mirror for society.
And how we use language can either heighten or minimize differences.
So the next time you’re out to eat or working on a team project, consider how your own choice of words can influence the outcome.
Or when you hear that the plural “their” is now an acceptable replacement for the singular, gendered versions of “his/her,” understand that English is a fluid language, intent on inclusion.
We create new terms and erase old ones in order to build bridges and create equality as we communicate.
In these situations and many more, the old adage “think before you speak” can work wonders. Words are what we make of them.