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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Monday, March 05, 2007

All things to all people

So here's a question for you: Do you alter your behavior (speech, 'tude, mannerisms) depending on who you're around?

When I first thought about that question about an hour ago my immediate answer was I'll bet we all do it. But the more I thought about it, I wasn't so sure. I can only speak for myself, and I know I do it.

What made me think of it in the first place were the speeches made in Selma, Ala., over the weekend by Barack Obama and H-Rod.

I'm a student of language. I love the written and spoken word, and I'm just geek enough to study delivery. And I what I noticed with the two of them is that while in Selma they both developed Southern drawls. They both spoke with the sing-songy cadence of a Southern preacher, and they both used southern (or ethnic, depending on who you ask) colloquialisms.

Now, don't get me wrong. Without getting into their politics, I'm not mad at either of them. I'm sure a GOP candidate in a similar position would have made a few adjustments in how he delivered his speech vs. how he might do it to a crowd in Salt Lake City or something.

But I was amused. I was even more amused this afternoon when I was driving to my office, bouncing between radio talk shows, and I came across one where the host scoffed at Obama and Clinton for altering their speech so that they could try to sound southern and black, and thus curry more favor with black voters. The host didn't use those words, but that's what he implied.

Again, I sort of disagree with him. I do think both candidates tailored their deliveries to their audiences. But I don't think it was a race thing. I believe, regardless of party affiliation, any savvy candidate is going to adjust in the same way. It's one of those things that gives politicians labels like "phony." But it is a reality: they all do it, at least the ones who win or come close to winning.

Either way the talk host's argument struck home 'cause I realize I've done the same plenty of times.

I've said before I was raised in a Cosby-esque household - not wealthy, just extremely straight laced and "by the book." And as I grew up I found myself surrounded by more people who were nothing like me than by people with whom I could compare notes. It was no one's fault. It was just where I lived. So I learned to get along. When I got old enough - like in high school - I found myself gravitating to areas of my city where I knew I'd find more kids who looked like me. And I found another culture and another take on life. I'll stop here. I could ramble on about this for pages on end.

At any rate, I have caught myself when visiting the old barbershop in the 'hood during visits back home adjusting my speech to fit the room. I've let my grammar slip. I've used colloquialisms. I even shake hands differently to reflect my hipper side. When interviewing some executive in their 30th floor office suite, sipping tea from fine China and admiring their expensive art on the wall, I slip into another vibe in which I talk on his terms as eloquently as anyone he knows from the country club. When I'm back home and I drive out to the deep, deep countryside to do some swamp canoeing, I've added a little twang to my voice, when making small talk with the guy who manages the boat dock. Not on purpose. It's subconscious. But I realize later that I've done it. And I can only explain by saying I guess I want folks to feel comfortable.

That may sound condescending. But I know I'm not the only non-politician who has done this.

Or am I?

Labels:

46 Comments:

  • human nature, i agree... we all slip into the vernacular of our surroundings...

    re: talk show hosts, don't get me started on why how someone sounds is more important than what they're saying

    By Blogger savannah, at 4:03 PM  

  • I absolutely do it. Usually consciously, sometimes not. I've lived enough places that I've picked up a bit here and there from everyone. Fatigue enhances the Wisconsin nasal stuff, but I love it if someone either thinks I'm suthren or, weirdly, someone thought I was from New York City once. That was a hoot. Probably because I talk too fast at times. A neighbor who lived next to us in Memphis, who was from Georgia, talked faster than anyone I've ever met, which blows the "slow southern drawl" thing to bits.

    By Anonymous Kim, at 4:34 PM  

  • I don't know why people do it, but I know you're not alone.

    I live in Seattle now and have lost my southern twang. When I go home to Houston to visit the family, my husband says my accent creeps back a little more clearly with each day I am there. And let's not even get started on the "y'all" subject.

    By Blogger fiwa, at 5:15 PM  

  • My comment disappeared, if it shows up please delete this one

    I said

    "When in Rome"

    But now I will wonder what people put on or take off at my front door when they come to my house
    signed Paranoid Pamela

    By Blogger Pamela, at 5:16 PM  

  • I think it's pretty common. I do it myself. Unless I've been drinking. I've been told many times that when I've been drinking my north arkansas redneck accent comes back.

    By Blogger Jay, at 5:20 PM  

  • Whew! I'm glad I'm not the only one who does it.

    By Blogger Queen of Dysfunction, at 5:49 PM  

  • No way, I think we all do it. I think you want to make the people in whatever comfortable, and I don't see anything wrong with that.

    By Blogger Winter, at 5:53 PM  

  • "whatever situation"

    Dear James,

    Please fix your picture, it's the only reason I read your blog.

    By Blogger Winter, at 6:00 PM  

  • I think it's pretty common. I just think that black people can be super judgemental of each other when it happens. I used to get the whole "you sound white" thing, which always rankled.

    As for Obama and Clinton - I think a politician is a politician, and they'll do whatever they need to do to get support.

    I think that anyone with a non-newscaster accent changes the way they speak, particularly in a work setting.

    By Blogger bc, at 6:20 PM  

  • Oh - and as for changing the way you talk when you go back to your old neighborhood - are you sure you're doing it to make sure others aren't uncomfortable? I guess that's where it sounds a little condescending - are you sure it's not you that's uncomfortable?

    By Blogger bc, at 6:23 PM  

  • I *know* I do it. I can hear myself do it, and yet can't seem to stop doing it.

    For me, it comes out when I'm around northerners. My natural southern accent extends into something Miss Melanie herself would be proud of.

    I don't have any idea why I do it, either.

    By Blogger SWF41, at 6:46 PM  

  • I do it all the time. I learned pretty quickly when I relocated to the South that I had to sound like a Southerner in some situations. My Yankee accent just wasn't working for me.

    By Blogger mist1, at 6:54 PM  

  • That is an engrossing question. I know I do. All the time. Actually, on purpose.

    I speak English, Spanish, Portuguese, some French, some German and some Italian.

    Even if I'm speaking English with my German friends, for example, I'll fall right into their pronounciation, rhythm and cadence.

    When I travel abroad, 30 minutes after landing, I am already speaking like a native. Same words, accent, cadence, body language.

    I guess it is part of being able to engage with your counterparts.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:36 PM  

  • Hmmm. Let's see. I never thought about it before, but here goes:

    When I'm around my mom, I talk like an angel who can do no wrong. Around dad, like a lunatic who can do no right.

    Around the boss, I sound like I'm worth what he pays me, and around the in-laws, much much less.

    Around church, or around the poker table, I sound like I belong, but with a MUCH different dialect.

    You're RIGHT, James! I guess we all do it.

    By Anonymous The Sarcasticynic, at 8:51 PM  

  • I'd be more surprised to find someone that doesn't do it than someone that does. Like you said, it helps someone blend and be accepted more easily in that situation.

    By Blogger Claudia, at 8:59 PM  

  • Like everyone has said, we all change the way we talk to suit the situation. Sometimes you have to do it to keep from being stereotyped, discriminated against or judged unfairly.

    By Blogger GrizzBabe, at 9:19 PM  

  • I don't have to try and please--people just naturally love me, James Burnett. I guess it's because I'm so modest.

    By Blogger 123Valerie, at 9:37 PM  

  • I know I do, I think sometimes it is to make others around feel comfortable.

    By Blogger Bardouble29, at 10:15 PM  

  • It must just be our desire to fit in. When I am around people I deem really hip and cool, I try and speak cooler and when I am around older proper people, I find myself speaking a little more proper. When I am around my twins, I find myself whining a lot. ;-)

    Seriously, it's a very interesting topic. I know I have found myself and other 'adapting' frequently.

    By Blogger Michael C, at 11:08 PM  

  • This is especially palpable to me being bilingual and using both languages in my daily interaction. I think it's human nature to be influenced by the thing you are talking to and to want to connect. Jeannie Moost did a cute commentary on this on CNN tonight. She talked about speech coaches and also a woman who had a stroke and "came back" with a British accent even though she had never been to England (there's a name for the condition). I think that from a rhetorical standpoint here it would be the style of the speech as icing on the cake to influence audiences. Someone who's listening carefully though will see through the inflections and accents.

    By Blogger Manola Blablablanik, at 12:57 AM  

  • Yep, I'm sure I do it too. I've been told that I can unconsciously effect a drawl at times. When I was a kid, living in England, I'm told that I became a pretty good mimic. I think if you are nervous, you may take on the mannerisms of the group, but if you are secure in yourself and the surroundings you're probably more likely to be yourself. Otherwise, with politicians, it's basically about pandering much of the time. I noticed Obama's hint of a southern accent, but didn't see Hillary. It's all over the airwaves now though. Wouldn't be surprised at all if it weren't just a natural thing, rather than an affectation. But you never know with these folks.

    By Blogger Fathairybastard, at 2:56 AM  

  • Goodness no. Imagine if we all talked to our parents the way we talk to our friends. And I don't just mean our manner of speech, so much as the content.

    By Blogger thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy, at 5:44 AM  

  • I do it. I'm a southerner from the Louisville, KY area, and when I go back, I slip into the accent.

    I also speak with accentuated diction when converse with some of the foreign families I work with, regardless of their place of origin.

    My language gets "rougher" when I'm on the basketball court too.

    I guess its just like the difference between "work-speak" and "at-home speak".

    By Blogger Evil Spock, at 9:35 AM  

  • Savannah, I hear ya. The right amount of bluster (on the radio) can mean ratings points.

    Kim, I usually get the "I can't tell your accent" comment, which I take as a compliment. Every so often I'm told I sound like I'm from the Northeast, which is a good guess. I was raised in Southeast VA. But my dad's from Philly. But I'm never told I sound Southern, or country. And my mom's from North Carolina.

    Fiwa, I've heard that about going home - that if you're from an area that has a distinctive accent, when you return to visit if you're there long enough the accent starts to resurface. In reverse of that, I lived in London for a while after college, and when I returned to the US my friends and fam teased me for a few weeks 'cause they said I had the slightest hint of cockney in my voice. I didn't hear it. And I still say they were just being cruel and feeding my paranoia, but they insist they heard it. I guess you do subconsciously pick up a little of your surroundings.

    Interesting point, Pamela. That is enough to cause paranoia, wondering if your visitors put on a "mask" when coming to you. Now you've got me thinking about how I'm perceived w/friends or whether I'm getting the "original" version of them when they visit. Thanks. Now I'm paranoid too ;-)

    Jay, booze does that us all. I had a buddy back in Wisconsin, who was the picture and sound of Ivy-league yuppiedom. But when he had a pitcher of MGD in him he'd turn into a cowboy, complete with the John Wayne accent - yee hawing and howdying and reminscing about the day he roped a bull in Kansas or chased a goat down in Arkansas. It was always funny to hear. Then next morning he'd revert back to Ivy-league yuppie guy.

    No worries Queen. I suspect this is a pretty big "family."

    Winter, thanks for the affirmation. And I'm working on getting that photo fixed. Not sure what's up with it. Actually I'm gonna take a new pic some time in the next few days. And I'm hoping to pimp my blog too. So if anyone with blog-pimping skills has any suggestions, the look of mine needs a makeover. I'll take whatever tips I can get.

    BC, don't get me started with the whole "you sound white" thing. That is the biggest load of crap perpetuated, I think, by loser entertainers who want to foster yet another generation of underachievers. What better way for prominent people to deliver that message than to behave in a way that suggests they don't care about speech or carriage. But that's another blog post.

    Also an interesting point, BC, about the newscaster thing. I used to do radio. Still do from time to time as a correspondent to an arts program. But my mom, when listening to me on the air, used to tease me about "putting on (my) radio voice." Of course, she stopped teasing when I reminded her that when I was a kid I used to hear her putting on her "phone voice" when it rang.

    And Bc, you might be onto something. Maybe it is my own discomfort I'm trying to mask when I alter my delivery in the old neighborhood. I gotta think about that one.

    SWF41, that's fascinating that your southern accent grows stronger when you're around northerners. Maybe it's your subconscious way of letting them know you are you, and you're not gonna mask your twang for their benefit.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 9:36 AM  

  • Mist1, I'm curious, what Yankee accent did you have? Was it NY (Queens, BK, Bronx?), or New England, or northern as in upper Midwest, Minnesota and what not?

    Anonymous, I could see that happening when adjusting to another language altogether. Actually, I think that's pretty cool that within 30 mins. of landing you're already adjusting to the locals in the case of different languages/cultures.

    Sarc, sounds like you definitely qualify.

    Claudia, that's logical. That's why I was thinking I wasn't alone on this one.

    Grizz, there is something to your argument. I would've gotten chased out of the old barbershop as an invading Poindexter had I come in there talking the same way I did in different settings. I ain't saying it's right, but it's truth.

    123Valerie, I want to be you - the male version - when I grow up.

    Bardouble29, thanks for the affirmation. I knew this was at least partly about making others comfortable with you.

    Michael C., that's funny. You adapt to whining when around the young'ns?

    MB, I wish I had seen that Moost piece. I'm a fan of hers. And that condition where your voice changes after a traumatic event like stroke is crazy. I hope it never happens to me, but in a twisted way I think it would be funny as hell to wake up one day to see family around my hospital bed and greet them all in a thick Irish accent or something.

    FatHairy, I hadn't considered that it might just be a natural instinct. But your point is right that with politicians it's hard to know how much of it is pandering and vs. nature. I give the edge to pandering with them.

    ThirdWorst, content is a different story altogether. I am 100% certain we all adjust the content of our speech depending on surroundings. My folks would kill me if they heard the things I discuss w/my buddies sometimes. My wife would kill me. But the sound of our voices? We do it, but why?

    Evil Spock, you just made me think of that Family Guy episode where Stewie, who usually sounds like a baby Orson Wells, turns into a trash talker on the basketball court.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 9:48 AM  

  • Hi James-
    I love your blog. Excellent read.
    I think good listeners -- and especially good reporters -- tend to mirror the people they are talking to. It is a version of being polite; a good listener wants people to feel at ease during conversation. I don't think it's condescending.

    -Tamara (your Poynter pal and current New Times Staff Writer)

    By Anonymous Tamara Lush, at 10:27 AM  

  • Hey Tamara! Nice to hear from you and kudos on the New Times gig.

    I never thought about the civility of it, adjusting/mirroring speech to be polite. Good point.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 10:45 AM  

  • The different languages in the Miami area amazed me, much less the different style for different situations thing. I tend to 'talk country' when I visit my hometown. You're not the only one.

    Aventura mall was fabulous. Thanks for the heads up, James!

    By Blogger Christina_the_wench, at 12:43 PM  

  • The secret of sales is to know your audience. I am very good at sales and I automatically slip into the accent that is going to be most effective for the situation. I see no problem with this. If I am speaking to a three year old I do not exhaust Webster's trying to impress them. My British son in law notices thinks I use excellent English, but I did not use that same vocabulary or tone with the man who worked on my car when it broke down in Waycross GA. I think all intelligent people do the same and I think they should.

    By Blogger wordsonwater, at 2:19 PM  

  • It's a social adapting mechanism that we all have, unless you are social inept. Then people just think you are weird. Haha... I'm so deep, I can't stand it. :)

    By Blogger Erica AP, at 2:33 PM  

  • Of course we all do it. I act a certain way around the PTA members at school...and a completely different way at...oh, let's say a bachelor party.

    By Blogger Kevin, at 2:39 PM  

  • I do it all the time. But I have a documented multiple personality disorder.

    By Blogger Verticus S. Erectus, at 4:00 PM  

  • Guilty. But I don't think it's wrong - it's just about being comfortable with each other. I know I fall into different speech patterns and mannerisms when I'm with different people. I'm not misrepresenting myself, because it's still me underneath and I don't change the basic interactions. It's just the little things. Just like how I dress up to go to church or put on my trashy clothes to paint the house. It's still me, but different situations call for different adaptations.

    By Blogger hyacinths and biscuits, at 4:24 PM  

  • JB,

    I too change my speech patterns, tone, and mannerisms when I have a different audience. Like bc, I was accused of "talking white", being an "oreo" or changing up with the audience. I used to ask those same kids exactly what Black people are supposed to sound like because if they wanted to place first in the contest to be the coolest fool, they would be there alone. In my family there were a bunch of school teachers (dad, aunts, great aunts, grandmom) who wouldn't let me talk street slang in their presence. That doesn't mean I didn't learn it--it just means that wasn't all I learned.
    (For the record, for those that don't know, there is no such language or dialect known as "Ebonics". The proper term is African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as modified by location and country of origin. "Ebonics" was the system created by the Alameda County (CA) School District to teach AAVE to non speakers in attempts to better reach its students).

    With the fellas its one style, with your lady its another style, and in business it's the style the situation calls for. Some people think it's phony or that you're patronizing them, but I think it's a sign of true communication.

    Language is useful only for its communicative purposes. I've always felt (and you linguists here feel free to speak up) that the purpose of any language is to either be very pleasing to the senses (i.e the tonal language of music or interpretive language of dance or the awesome numerical language of mathematics) or convey an exact message to another being with as little effort and misinterpretation as possible.

    If that is the goal of language, as a medium of communication between two or more beings, then the act of slipping into an inflection where local tones, dialects, dipthongs, tripthongs, and idioms are used more frequently by a person who has never had previous reason to employ such means of message conveyance is a mark of intelligence, smarts and common sense. People who notice such behavior and are offended are either: a) not sure if they are the butt of a private or public joke, or; b) not awfully bright, travelled, or experienced enough to have brushed up against varying persons to have been able to use the ability themselves or notice the use.

    However, I do believe that people who want to communicate better are maybe more intuitive and more self reflective than those who do not. People who could care less if you get their message would be less like to change their tone to suit your ears.

    Some call this riding the wind of opinion--I say that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers, and divines. Well, actually, it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said that, but it is my favorite quote from history and unfortunately it is as relevant today as it was when first uttered.

    By Anonymous Big Daddy, at 4:39 PM  

  • One more thing--I didn't get into all the issues of cultural hegemony and classism that usually manifest themselves when a discussion on language is held. Let's just say this--all of us here speak English, which, as Winchell pointed out, is a bastard child of many other languages. The folly is not in one demands that there be one and only one properly spoken and intoned English dialect--the folly is in the person who accepts that notion.

    Excuse me while I practice my Creospanglishuese.

    By Anonymous Big Daddy, at 4:53 PM  

  • James, I believe you can still see it on CNN, since it was only aired yesterday. It's probably in their video section.

    By Blogger Manola Blablablanik, at 7:03 PM  

  • i speak perfectly utterly clear non accented english when it comes to business but when i get to visiting family... i sound like my grandmother with crazy spanglish accents. movies do it to me too. when i see something in spanish.. the accent from nowhere comes out. i also talk kinda like a valley girl when i'm with friends or ghetto with my girls. depending on who i'm with.. my brain follows that track.

    sometimes i think i do it because humans want social acceptance and subconsciously we want to blend.

    other times i think i do it because i'm a damned chameleon. ;D

    By Blogger Yasamin, at 7:53 PM  

  • i used to, but now i don't. i've learned that not caring is much more beneficial, long-term.

    By Blogger Brooklyn Frank, at 8:02 PM  

  • Christina, I'm glad you liked Aventura Mall. I'm curious about the rest of your trip, what you thought about this nutty town.

    WoW, I never thought of it as a sales tool. I like the analogy.

    Erica, I go back and forth from socially savvy to socially inept.

    Kevin,all bets are off at the bachelor party. Eeeeeeeveryone acts and talks differently at the bachelor party.

    Verticus, I have to go. It's time for my evening conversation with myself.

    H&B the clothing analogy is good. Like that.

    BD, well-written on both counts. I got that same thing from other black children when I was younger: you talk like... Damn shame that some misguided or uncaring adult had convinced those kids that proper grammar was for punks.

    MB, I'll check out CNN.com.

    Yas, my goal is to be an expert chameleon. I don't think it's a bad thing either. Like BD said it shows great communications ability, like Erica said, shows some social skills.

    BF, you're like that dude Peter Gibbons from Office Space. "It's not that I'm lazy. It that I just don't care." Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 8:28 PM  

  • I definitely alter my speech...when I'm around drunks...or is that when I'm drunk?

    By Blogger Lee, at 10:22 PM  

  • I agree with you, we pick up our speech patterns from those around us. I'm from southern Indiana but don't have too bad of an accent, but if I'm around the right group of people, you'd swear that I was from the Deep South. I added you as a link by the way, if that's not ok with you just let me know and I'll remove you.

    By Blogger Brandon, at 10:58 PM  

  • I tend to pick up accents from time to time depending on who I am surrounded by or so I've been told. I think we all do this. I get a kick out of Oprah when she does it. It is SO obvious.

    By Blogger Dayngr, at 1:54 AM  

  • great post!omgawd yes oprah definently does it and i don't know why but it super bugs me!!!

    By Blogger acaligurl, at 9:49 AM  

  • Lee, tsk tsk. We all "speak" with that accent from time to time, I guess - at least those of us who indulge.

    Brandon, it's funny you say that. A good friend of my wife's is from Southern Indy, and my wife swears if she hadn't known better when they met she would have thought the friend was from the deep south. Anyway, thank you for adding me as a link. I'm flattered. And as soon as I get around to doing site maintenance over the next couple of days I'll reciprocate.

    Dayngr, I'm a closet fan of O's show. Next time I get a chance to watch I'm gonna look for that accent thing. I've never noticed. Mrs. B watches the show when she gets home from school. I'll have to ask her about that. That's really funny.

    Thanks, Acaligurl. And I see you and Dayngr picked up the same foible from Oprah. I'm really gonna look for it next time I watch the show.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 1:40 PM  

  • I know this is for an older post, but the definitive answer to your question is YES. I totally mirror the people I'm around. It must be a defensive mechanism so I don't stick out like a sore thumb with people I'm not familiar with. Probably comes with my tendency to be an observer in crowds - until I get comfortable enough singling someone out and engaging them.

    By Blogger The Dummy, at 4:15 PM  

  • Mr. Burnett you are a complete IDIOT.

    For years the liberal media (which is you) have crucified George W. Bush for his "fake" Texas accent.

    (which I'm not sure how anyone would know it's fake, since it's been "maintained" for decades...)

    And now Hillary and Omamma (son of a polygamist -- no lie) drop fake accents in the most tacky, vote getting way (one of them in church to a group of blacks) and it's "OK" or "I get a kick out of it"

    You are a total f-ing fool Mr. Burnett.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:46 AM  

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