Copycat communication

I grew up in Wisconsin, where accents are thick and colloquialisms abound.  Where else do you drink from a bubbler?  For years, I went “down by” places, not “to” places.  Grilling was “frying out,” and I didn’t even hear it when people ended their sentences with, ” and so?”  It’s not quite as severe as Fargo, but it’s not far off, either.  I called a boat something more like “bow-ut” and shoes “shoo-uhs.”  Native Wisconsinites speak these words a bit faster than you probably just read them, but there is a slight hint of an extra syllable thrown in there, and it happens all the time.  I’m not sure exactly how I shed my accent, but I did, some years ago.  Most people can’t detect it, unless I’m really, really tired, or have had a lot too much to drink, and even then I only slip now and then.

I am, however, easily influenced by the speech of others.  I went to visit a friend in Oklahoma when I was around 12 or 13.  I stayed for a week and came home with a drawl.  I pick up terms other people use, most of the time oblivious to it until it’s too late and I sound like I’m copying them all the time.  What has surprised me lately, though, is how I’m being influenced by the people I work with.  And not in the way I might have suspected, adopting such words my boss uses, like “cycles” and “prosecute” which I’ve written about already.

First, let me say very clearly, I am not being critical or judgmental of the way anyone I work with speaks or doesn’t speak.  It simply is what it is, and it rubs off on me.  I work with more foreign people than native English speakers, especially if you count the hundred employees we have in China.  What’s crazy is that broken English is rubbing off on me.  It’s really hard to comprehend that I would just toss out all the grammar and vocabulary I’ve built in years of speaking and reading and writing, but I’m finding myself slipping into broken English in both speech and email.  It’s kind of nuts!

I catch myself writing things like, “Can you have team work on this today night?” or “Please have a look on this.”  So far, I’m catching and correcting these crazy sentences that are only crazy because English is my first language.  One guy whose English is fine still uses odd phrases now and then.  Instead of saying something happened a long time ago, he says “Remember long back when we talked about that?”  I have used the words “long back” in a conversation with him.  It could be worse.  An email I was copied on tonight had this sentence in it:  “Sorry about my misunderstand cause this idea so delay.”

In all seriousness, though, it is a real challenge to communicate effectively in my organization.  It’s not a challenge I am upset about – it’s a challenge I sincerely think is a good one for me.  I’ve studied diversity and the issues faced in global business – the communication challenges that not only have to do with language barriers, but significant cultural difference, and I am absolutely getting the biggest dose of both of those issues that I’ve ever gotten.  I’m determined to succeed in communicating with everyone, though, and I’m sincerely interested in understanding the cultural differences we all face.  Maybe that’s why I’m so easily influenced by the speech and writing – maybe I’m subconsciously trying to meet them on the terms I hear from them.  Whatever the cause, I will keep you posted on how my language continues to evolve, or devolve, as the case may be.

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