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The Way You Speak Is Important. . .

You want to be heard, in at least two senses, anytime you talk to and converse with people, but how you speak might be getting in the way of that.

As some of you might have guessed from previous posts here at The Average Guy's Guide to Classic Style, I am a big fan of languages, dialects, and accents, both in my own native American English plus other languages I've been exposed to over the years.  Differences and deviations between the written word on the one hand and the spoken on the other are fascinating.

But how we talk is a huge factor in the way we come across to others during our interactions with them.  There is just no getting away from it.  Whatever your country or culture of origin and native language(s) might be, I'm willing to bet there are jokes floating around about the humorous misunderstandings that can and do arise due to differences in speech habits, patterns, and vocabulary.

A number of years ago, there was a very funny public service announcement on TV in Northern Germany helping to promote the use and preservation of the Platt dialect.  A bank robber arrives in a small, rural bank somewhere in the north of the country and attempts a stick-up.  The bankteller, who speaks Platt, fails to understand the robber, who speaks the more standard High German.  The robber, in turn fails to understand the teller.  The police, who also speak Platt it turns out, arrive a few moments later and shout repeated instructions at the robber to drop his gun and put up his hands.  In the end, after increasingly perplexed facial expressions on the part of the robber, the officers shoot him dead.  The message that flashes across the screen at the very end is something akin to, "This is why it is important for you to learn to speak and understand Platt."

Wonderfully dark German humor and my own consuming socio-linguistic interests aside, that public service ad raises issues about how our everyday speech fits into the notion of personal style, the presentation of ourselves, and what others might think or assume about us based on how we speak.  Sloppy and careless speech habits are things that might lead others to draw certain misguided conclusions about us.  Naturally, we want to avoid coming across as uneducated and inarticulate, so consider the following points and how they might function in this regard:

1) Upspeak
This is a biggie in American English currently and has it origins in the affluent San Fernando valley girl speak of the late 1970s-early 80s.  Valspeak achieved brief notoriety thanks to Frank Zappa's hilarious song Valley Girl in 1982 and a film that came out at about the same time called Valley Girl, featuring a young Nicholas Cage.  While terms like "Bitchin'!" "Gag me with a spoon!", and "Barf me out!" are no longer in current use, the phenomenon known as Upspeak remains and has since spread across the U.S.  What, pray tell, is Upspeak?  Very simply, the phrasing of everything that comes out of one's mouth as though it were a question, except it's not a question, with the characteristic rising intonation at the end of a sentence.  Believe it or not, you'll even run into extremely bright female academics with Ph.D.s and female graduate students who let it creep into their speech, in conference presentations no less!  But let's not single out women since there are also plenty of men who suffer from Upspeak too.  How can we take people with this particular speech habit seriously though?   Besides making someone seem, well, just stupid, Upspeak also makes it seem as though a guy is completely unsure of himself and whatever it is that he might be trying to say.


2) Poor Grammar
I could easily go on and on about this, but here's the shortened version of the message, and there is academic research out there to back it up.  Use correct grammar in your speech.  Always.  Otherwise you risk coming across as uneducated, uncultivated, and, well, ignorant.  Presumably, those are three impressions we do not want to leave with other people, and they will help relegate you to the socio-economic periphery.  So, a guy should think before he speaks and make some effort here.  And I don't wanna hear no stinkin' complainin' about it. 


3) Garbled Speech
You know what it's like when you can't quite tune in a station on an older radio?  Or when two or three stations are all interfering with one another on the same frequency?  You get frustrated, stop listening very quickly, and retune to something else, don't you?  Garbled speech has the same effect on people.  No one can understand much of what a mushmouth says, so they stop listening very quickly and avoid doing so again if at all possible.  So, be sure to stop mumbling if this speech habit has ever been pointed out to you as a malady you suffer from.  A guy might have the most profound, eloquent thoughts and ideas in the world.  But when people cannot understand what he is saying, how can he expect to bowl them over with his brilliance?  So, take pains to enunciate your speech clearly for the love of Pete, and stop having a private conversation with that little guy in your shirt pocket.  And the contraction of "did not" is pronounced "didn't". . .  not "din't".


4) No Eye Contact
Establish and maintain eye contact with people to whom you are speaking or listening.  It indicates interest, engagement, and that you are actually following and processing what is said even when it is not directly to you.  This is true whether it involves a team meeting with your project leader at work one Friday afternoon, to nail down some numbers and projections before the weekend, or those various informal gatherings most of us enjoy with friends and family during our downtime.  Looking at people when they speak to you, or you speak to them, is a very basic tenet of being polite.  And it's extremely rude when a guy fails to do so.


5) Mispronunciation
Presumably, this particular problem arises because 1) either people really don't know any better, or 2) they are making some attempt to sound more educated without double-checking a dictionary, old-fashioned doorstop or online version, for correct pronunciation first.  This particular issue is also made more difficult since there are numerous regional variations on and accepted ways of pronunciation.  At least as far as English is concerned in the second decade of the 21st century.  Consider, for a moment, the differences between and within the American, British, Canadian, Australian, and Indian varieties of the language.   These differences aside, what I am really talking about, though, are the habitual mispronunciations you'll hear, if you open your ears, of a word like "supposedly" for example.  "Supposebly" anyone?   Surely, you've heard it, and it sounds as sweetly harmonious as nails on a blackboard to someone who knows better.  It's just one of several similar errors that make a speaker sound inarticulate.  "Eunuch" is another one.  Make sure to say it correctly.

6) Incorrect Word Use
Often, this point is related to the one just above on mispronunciation.  Before you begin using new and unfamiliar words like the following in conversation (or in writing), make sure you understand what "epitome," "irony," "compel," "impel," "affect," "effect," "literally," "myriad" and a host of other commonly misused words actually mean and convey.  And sometimes certain words have particular prepositions that go with them,  When a wrong one is used, as in "based off" versus the correct "based on," it looks and sounds strange even when people can't quite put their finger on what the trouble is.  For the most part, it's painfully clear from the context of a statement or question that many people who attempt to use words like these don't have a full grasp of their precise meanings or uses.  So, average guys working on this particular facet of their everyday style need to exercise caution here and, again, consult a dictionary (Surprise!) to clear up any possible misunderstandings before embarrassing themselves by misusing a word publicly for the first (or 100th) time.


7) A Habitually Loud Voice 
Sadly, there seem to be many average guys out there who hold every conversation, regardless of setting or subject matter, at a high volume, just like they are with buddies at a crowded bar or in a football stadium with filled by a roaring capacity crowd.  In other words, the voice is raised all of the time, not quite to the level of a yell, but almost.  And lest you think this charming habit is the sole preserve of terminal man-children and their close cousins the slightly younger dude-bros, there are plenty of women out there who do this too.  My advice?  Be mindful of the environment in which you find yourself and lower your voice  accordingly.  Relax there Finnegan, Parker, Morgan, Connor, and Biff.  No one is suggesting that you go through life whispering like a cartoon spinster librarian.  Don't get your dude-bro hackles up and throw empty beer bottles at me.  But unless you are speaking to 500 people in an auditorium without the aid of a public address system, there is no reason to be that loud all of the time.  Keep your voice down.


8) Jargon and Slang
These too sometimes inhibit understanding and also possibly function as an invisible barrier between you and your listeners.  At best, overuse of jargon and slang might simply result in someone saying, "You aren't from around here, are you?" or "Boy, you've sure got that corporate HR-speak thing nailed!"  But certain stronger language risks making people shy away from you and avoid contact.  That's worth thinking about. Besides, fewer things sound sillier than an obviously middle-class white boy attempting to mimic stereotypical urban thug speech like we encounter so much in popular media now.  Specifically, I mean things like referring to women in any context as "hos" and "bitches".  Seriously?  There are many other similar turns of phrase out there, not all of which have to do with women, that are equally troubling.  Talk like that is offensive in the extreme on at least two counts, makes you sound incredibly and irredeemably ignorant, and risks alienating others.  There's no other way to put it.  Since we want to kick up our everyday style several notches, hopefully sounding more polished, articulate, and appealing in the process, this particular point is worthy of deep reflection.  It's time to set that king-sized attitude to one side for a while and think rationally about this.  How do you want others to perceive you, your background, education, and abilities? 


9) Distracting, Annoying, and Stupid Filler Words.
Little filler words that allow a speaker's mind to sych up with his mouth, and vice versa, like "um" and "uh"  immediately spring to mind.  Still other fillers include the ubiquitous "like" uttered at the start of, or within, every other sentence by some along with newer arrivals like "dude" and "bro."  These latter two seem to be largely the preserve of, though by no means exclusive to, the North American college fraternity brother subset, or those who aspire to behave and look like them.  But an overabundance of filler words in your speech risks making you sound like a you haven't got a clear, coherent thought in your head.  Have you ever overheard a loud group of high school or college-aged guys?  It really is "Dude this. . ." and "Bro, that. . ."  And if a guy is middle-aged, say, over 40 years old, beginning almost every statement with words like "dude" and "bro" succeeds only in making him seem pathetic in the extreme.  It's the verbal equivalent of a guy whose teens and undergraduate years are decades behind him still running  around most of the time in frayed cargo shorts, flip-flops, an old college or professional team sweatshirt, and a backwards baseball cap with the sunglasses on top also arranged oh-so-carefully to face backwards.  "Step off, George, just step off!"  Need I say more?


10) Routine Use of Obscenity
I've written about this particular point here before on The Average Guy's Guide to Classic Style, so I won't go on ad nauseam about it now.  But peppering his everyday speech with certain four-letter words, or their derivatives, makes a guy seem cheap, trashy, and common whatever his age, background, education, or occupation.  If you find yourself unable to express a thought without a choice word or four spilling out of your mouth, it's a problem.  At the very least, dial it down several notches within professional environments, around children, in mixed company at public places like restaurants or movie theaters, and in more solemn environments like church or temple, as well as various other religious and civic ceremonies.  Most people, sadly, seem reluctant to say anything these days to someone who spews forth vitriol like this with no apparent regard for others.  However, just because people might not tell you to shut your cussin' potty mouth does not mean it's inoffensive to many of them and thus somehow alright.  Let's not further mangle the enlightened idea of freedom of speech to save us the very real need for watching our mouths, eh?  Why not show a little respect for others, as well as a little self-restraint, and put a lid on it?  Thanks very much.

Now, I'm hardly suggesting that the average guys who take pains to kick up their everyday style several notches should attempt to sound like Cary Grant, 1940s-era BBC radio, or Pathe News announcers when they speak.  No point in coming across as strangely affected, since that kind of delivery would sound very odd in 2013.  But there is a happy medium to find somewhere between that extreme at one end and the careless speech habits outlined above on the other.  How others perceive you, right or wrong, often has to do with more than your external appearance.  So, the next time you think about your style, consider more than just the clothes on your back or the kind of "product" you smear through your hair.  In the broadest sense, style also has a great deal more to do with how we conduct ourselves as men in the company of others than the type of shoes, weave of a necktie, or kind of jacket lapel we prefer.  That is something rarely, if ever, mentioned in the online menswear community of websites, blogs, and discussion forums, but how we speak and behave are things that should get more attention than they do. 

-- Heinz-Ulrich


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