Friday, July 8, 2011

The "Where You At?" Disease

Casual behavior in formal situations has become an epidemic in our time. As an editor and educator, I run into this phenomenon everywhere, from the classroom to the boardroom and from term papers to letters of introduction. Listening to peoples' manner of speech in formal situations and reading their professional writing has become an exercise in not cringing. It has become apparent that for a large portion of the population, especially those under the age of thirty, differentiating between what is appropriate among friends and what is appropriate in a formal situation is an impossibility. That there might be reasons for different modes of behavior doesn't seem to even factor into the equation.
Which person would you rather hire, A or B?
Interviewer: Hello, I'm Mr. Z.
Person A: Hello, Mr. Z. It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Person A.
Interviewer: Could you tell me a little about why you applied with us?
Person A.: Certainly. I have extensive experience in your field. I participated in (related projects) in college, and interned with (well known company). I've heard a lot of great things about your company, and am excited to hear about an opening.
Interviewer: Hello, I'm Mr. Z.
Person B: Yo, Mr. Z., I'm Person B. What's up?
Interviewer: Ahem. Well. Could you tell me about why you applied with us?
Person B.: Yup, no problem. I'm awesome at (several skills), and I'm a totally nice person and stuff. I really need a job, and I heard you had one, so I thought, "why not?".
Recognizing the Symptoms
What do I mean by modes of behavior? Think of it as one person playing different roles on the stage of life. Take for example a fictional person called Jane. Jane is a recent college graduate in her early 20's. She is unmarried, still frequently goes out with her friends, and is currently looking for a job. She has a definite need to fulfill different roles in her daily life. 
For example, Jane would never think of drinking in the same way when meeting her boyfriend's parents for dinner as she does when she goes out to the clubs with her friends. In a similar way, she would not dress the same way when babysitting for her niece and nephew as she does when interviewing for a job. So why would she consider it appropriate to speak in the same way in a quick call to her best friend and a call to an HR office to enquire about openings? Why would she write a letter of introduction in the same way that she leaves love-notes for her boyfriend? Yet I see (and hear, and read) this crossing of roles more and more frequently. I can't say precisely why that is, but I do have some insight into three main causes.
A poorly written letter of inquiry:
Dear Human Resources Director,
Hi. How are you? I'm great. My name is Jim James. I am looking for a job, and I was wondering if you have one. Do you have any jobs open right now?  
I just graduated from college with a business degree, so I'm pretty good with computers and people and stuff, and I understand marketing and sales things. I can also learn stuff really fast if I need to. 
I think I'd be great working for you, so I hope you'll give me a call. 
Jim James
A properly written letter of inquiry:
Director of Human Resources, Company XYZ:
My name is John Johnson, and I am writing to inquire about an opening within your company. I came across a posting for a sales manager position on (job posting site), and I believe that I would be a good candidate to fill this opening. 
I have a degree from ABC University in marketing. In addition, I have experience as an intern working for 123 Company for the past two summers. I have excellent computer skills, including training in (commonly used software programs). I believe that these skills and experience would allow me to adapt easily to any position requirements.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I hope to hear from you soon.
John Johnson
Cause #1: Advertising and Media
Everyone in America is bombarded with advertisements all the time, even those who don't watch TV or listen to the radio. Many ad campaigns become so prolific that everyone eventually hears about them. And, sadly, these campaigns often use improper grammar as a gimic. This is problematic because the use of poor grammar for a professional advertisement reinforces that this is an acceptable practice. It encourages that particular misuse of words, phrases or entire parts of speech, to the point where people can no longer identify it as misuse. 
My favorite (or most detested) example of this is the ubiquitous "Where you at?" ads for cell phones from Boost Mobile a few years ago. This question, while it does indeed convey the intended meaning of "Where are you?" (or even more properly, "Where are you located?"), it is utterly disgraceful from a grammar standpoint. It lacks a verb, one of only two requirements for a valid English sentence. 
Why does it matter? Can't we say what we want to our friends? Yes, absolutely. However, when these ads are shown repeatedly to children or adolescents who can't distinguish between casual usage and formal usage, the poor grammar becomes embedded in their speech patterns and reappears in situations where it is unacceptable. The true issue arises with recognition of what is and is not "good" grammar. Many high school students, when asked to identify valid and invalid sentences, fail the task. The first time that I ranted about the Boost "Where you at?" ad to a classroom of high school seniors, many looked blank, and several asked why the grammar in the ad is wrong. The fact that they can't identify the problem is scary, because it is a symptom of the looming disease.
Cause #2: Adult Example
Many is the time I have spent in various teacher staff rooms, listening to teachers exclaim (in horrified voices), "I cannot believe what I heard a student say in my class!" The stories vary from just informal speech to outright swearing, but they inevitably involve a student saying something in a school environment that is utterly inappropriate for the situation. 
Why are students doing this? Is it just a matter of "kids these days?" Or has something changed which causes the kids to speak in school the same way that they would speak to friends on the street? At least one cause is the behavior that the students witness in their role models, namely the adults in their world. This includes parents and neighbors, but most importantly teachers. 
The school environment is the first formal, professional environment that children encounter in their lives. To some extent, it is the prototype on which they are expected to base their professional behavior later in life. Yet many schools now allow teachers to wear jeans, tee shirts, and hooded sweatshirts to school as "professional attire." While Casual Fridays are a great idea, to make a more fun and relaxed environment, when it becomes an everyday event it loses all meaning. This "dress code" may get big points from teachers at staff meetings, but what message does it portray to students? This casual mode of dress tells students that the school environment is no longer a formal place. This is also true for mode of speech. Many teachers pick up the slang of their students and use it freely in class to appear more friendly or approachable (as do many parents). When adults dress or speak in the same way as kids, it subconsciously gives permission for the kids to treat them the same way that they treat each other.
Cause #3: Lack of Explicit Behavioral Instruction
When I bring up the idea of explicit behavioral instruction, many people immediately think of the outmoded courses on manners taught at the turn of last century - which fork is used for the salad and which for the dessert, how to keep conversation running smoothly in the parlor after dinner, and other social situations that rarely (if ever) occur for most of us. However, while I agree that these old-fashioned etiquette courses are mainly irrelevant for modern American life, I feel that explicit instruction for formal situations is still a necessity. 
Many people, before graduating from high school or even college, have never had to attend a formal interview or meeting, or go out on a business lunch. They may never have been required to write a piece of formal writing, such as a travel report or letter of inquiry. So why is it that we expect kids to just "pick it up"? We don't expect them to just "pick up" math or science. Students need to be guided in this facet of socialization, just as they need guidance from adults in their academic subjects.
Preventing the Spread of the Disease
The best way to prevent the spread of the disease is the same as for any pathogen: stop it before it starts. How do we adequately address and prevent the issue before it starts? Very simply: we teach it directly in school and in freshman college courses. Where we once could assume that students would pick up professional speech and behavior from their parents and teachers, this is clearly no longer the case. Instead, much like study habits, students can be taught to consciously recognize the correct role to play in a given situation. In particular, students can work on professional behavior by role playing certain formal situations, such as an interview. They can then have the instructor or their peers evaluate and critique their behavior. The same idea also functions for formal writing. Students can work in groups where each student writes a draft of a letter of inquiry or letter of introduction, and then students pass their letters around the group for suggestions. After a second draft, the teacher can collect and read through the letters, and then address major issues with the class as a whole.
Another solution is to use real advertisements or clips from TV and movies to illustrate and break down the different modes of behavior for diverse levels of formality. For example, students could be shown a clip and then asked, "What would you do differently in this situation?" Alternately, students could be asked to correct poor grammar seen in formal writing. Trust me, there is no shortage of examples for poorly written professional writing pieces.
The last solution is all too simple: revise the behavior of the adult role models. For teachers, this is relatively easy. Have a staff meeting, introduce new standards for teacher dress and speech, and discuss why they are necessary to prevent overly-casual behavior and speech in class. While some teachers might initially buck at this more strict view on their dress and behavior, the results will be worth it. In addition to fewer incidents of swearing or impolite speech towards teachers, making the school environment more professional increases student focus and study time, helping students to separate their home life from their school duties.
So, Where We At?
We are in a culture that is more in flux than at any other time in history. English is evolving more rapidly than any other language. We live in an utterly amazing time in which we can send text messages to friends across the country in a matter of seconds. Our language is so flexible that one can shorten "Where are you located?" to "Whr U @?" and still be understood. And yet, there are still times in which we must know how to behave to meet older, more formal standards. That is unlikely to change. Our students and children should be prepared, lest they be passed over for jobs or other opportunities. It is our responsibility to them to provide this preparation.

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