Have you ever experienced secondhand embarrassment? It’s that feeling you get when you witness someone doing something embarrassing and you sit there cringing, waiting for it to stop. That’s how I feel when I come across grammatical errors on a company’s web site or hear a presenter use a word that isn’t really a word (e.g. irregardless). The way we speak and write greatly impacts the way we are perceived. Whether or not it’s true, the inability to effectively communicate often makes a person appear… well… unintelligent. In the Brand Acceleration office, we have near-daily discussions about the gross mistreatment of the English language. The most bothersome atrocities are the errors we encounter in professional writing. Just the other day I had a little gripe session about LinkedIn’s suggested subject line, “Can you recommend me?” This all got me thinking: has our love affair with technology ruined our ability to speak proper English?
In high school, I experienced the rise of Facebook, and Twitter broke through into the mainstream early in my college career. Thanks to social media, we are able to communicate more easily than ever before. Unfortunately, many people spend more time Instagramming a picture of their lunch (#turkeyburger #yum) or tweeting about a boring meeting with no regard for how the 140-character mindset affects the way we think. Every once in a while, I catch myself saying something like “BTW,” and that’s when I know I need to reconsider my life choices. Social media allows us to be a little lax in our grammar and spelling. Using proper punctuation might put you at 143 characters, so you delete a few commas here and there. No big deal, right? For now, but how long is it until you forget what proper punctuation looks like? Suddenly, you find yourself leaving commas out of company emails and RFPs. It’s a slippery slope, my friend. A very slippery slope…
The problem expands far beyond social media and the dreaded character limit. Some television programing has made a habit of glorifying the uncouth. I love an occasional mindless television show as much as the next person, but I experience some severe secondhand embarrassment when a show has to have subtitles for a person who is speaking English. On the whole, Americans are lazy speakers. We mumble, run our words together, and don’t enunciate very well. “Would have” becomes “woudda” and “to” becomes “tuh.” Anyone who’s travelled knows how easy it is to pick up an accent, so it would stand to reason that we can just as easily pick up the speech patterns of people we watch on television. If you don’t think you have a problem with enunciation, I challenge you to spend one day really listening to yourself speak. I think you’ll be amazed to find you don’t speak as clearly as you think you do.
While I could probably go on for days about how to improve the way we communicate, I decided to give you three general suggestions I think will get you on your way to becoming a better writer and speaker:
1. Don’t be complacent. It really gets my goat when I hear people say “I’m a terrible speller” or “I’m bad at grammar.” I know I’ve been pretty hard on technology, but I’m aware it can be a great resource. Google (or Bing, I’m not biased) “common grammatical mistakes” and have a gander at what comes up. If there are almost three million web pages on that topic alone, imagine what else is out there! Don’t know what a word means? Look it up. Not sure if that should be a comma or a semicolon? Look it up. Even though I consider myself a fairly decent writer, my search history is still sprinkled with such queries as “Is ‘everyone’ singular or plural?” and “continuous vs. continual.” With the myriad resources available to you, there is no excuse for being “bad at grammar.”
2. Read. From a very young age, my parents instilled in me a love a reading. As I grew, I saw how my bibliophilic tendencies made me a better communicator. Reading expanded my vocabulary and showed me how to express myself with words. To this day, I am an avid reader and this pushes me to be a better writer. I can hear you saying, “I don’t have time to read!” You’re reading this, aren’t you? I’m not saying you have to commit to epic novels, but take a few minutes every day to read something for fun. Put down the proposals and the budgets, and pick up a magazine or read an article online. Pay attention to sentence structure, vocabulary, and writing style. The more you read, the more you’ll learn about effective communication and be able to improve your own writing.
3. Be an example. If you set the bar high for yourself, the people around you will likely follow suit. My friends don’t send me texts that say “Where u at?” because they know a text like that will force me to seriously reevaluate our relationship. Take a quick second to think about how many people you emailed yesterday. How many people did those people email? Without getting too deep into the “butterfly effect,” you can see how a small change in your behavior can cause a ripple effect throughout your professional network. If we all make a conscious effort to speak and write properly, and make it clear we expect the same level of commitment from those around us, we might begin to make a dent in this issue.
In today’s environment of status updates, quick emails, and some pretty inane television, it takes work to maintain a grasp of proper English. Take some time to really assess how you communicate and the impression it gives those around you. Do your writing and speech accurately portray your level of knowledge and intelligence, or are you selling yourself short because you’re (quick frankly) lazy?