Finding Your Professional Voice

Jade PerryJade Perry, Coordinator in the Office of Multicultural Student Success at DePaul University
Twitter: @SAJadePerry1

Many times, the word professionalism conjures thoughts and images of workplace dress, norms, and habits. However, there is yet another consideration for people  who speak more than one language and/or have mastered more than one dialect of English. This includes reconciling notions of professional voice.

Given the various dialects of English and the purpose of this article, I will refrain from calling some “proper English” and others “broken English.” These are value statements that detract from how the English language is actively shaped by both context and community. Yet since navigating language depends on context, we also must think about how students and staff negotiate language in the workplace and/or other professional settings (i.e. student meetings with university staff, interviews and interview prep, presentations, etc.)

For example, one afternoon I was chatting with a student in a dialect form that we both shared. (To be clear, this is not slang, catch-phrases, and/or lazy forms of standard English. By shared dialect, I mean “a systematic, rule-governed (form) of English” that we both could navigate well despite regional variations of said dialect; Jones, 2015, p. 404). We had a long conversation about what was happening on campus, goals for the next year, and more, until I was interrupted by a phone call from a colleague. This colleague happened to be able to navigate the dialect we were speaking. However, because it was a colleague, the conversation moved to include more formal / standard modes of English. The student commented, “You’ve got your work voice on!”

This does not just happen in our colleges and universities. We’ve seen this on the stage of arts and entertainment as well. If at all possible, briefly suspend your understandings of Kanye West’s canon of art and/or personality antics, to take a closer look at how he uses language. In recent interviews, Kanye slips into an extremely different mode of English than in his body of music. In the past, this has prompted strong reactions in news publications and on social media about “Who is Kanye trying to be? Why isn’t he using his real voice? Is this Kanye’s ‘interview voice?’ The choices that we make about language in the workplace often hold implications about who we are AND how we are perceived. It’s important to draw students into conversation about some of those things.

Communication and Career Capital

Dr. Tara Yosso (2005) poses an interesting question in her work, Whose Culture Has Capital? A Critical Race Discussion of Community Cultural Wealth. Quite often, when we think of capital, or various forms of wealth, we have limited views and understandings of what these forms of wealth can be. Many of our students hold a great deal of linguistic capital, defined by Yosso as the “intellectual and social skills attained through communication experiences in more than one language and/or style…Reading, literacy, oral histories, cuentos (stories), dichos (proverbs), sophisticated linguistic code switching (2005, p. 78).” This comes in very handy inside and outside of the workplace, as they navigate the different communities that they hold dear. So, when we talk about our modes of communication in interviews, in the workplace, and for career goals, there may also be opportunities to talk with and learn from our students about their understandings of professional voice.

Each day, our students navigate home dialects and standard English workplace/academic dialects. Thus, navigating multiple languages and dialects of language is a part of career capital: What are we saying? How are we saying it, depending on the context?

My “work voice”  and even the work voices of my colleagues can change, depending on how we need to function in that moment. At any given moment, you may hear standard American English (SAE), Spanish and dialects of Spanish, African-American English (AAE, which encompasses various sets of rules, depending on region), and more as we have conversations about student success, retention, persistence, and career capital. In a meeting with executive leadership, we might slip into more standardized dialects of English, due to context and shared understandings. For students finding their professional voice, it’s important to talk through these contexts, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be difficult to do so.

Learning from Creative Reflection

One of my favorite activities to take students through is an auto-ethnography of how they use language and how they are currently developing their understanding of professional voice. It’s easier to do this activity around written language, since they can access that from their phones and/or e-mail accounts. I ask students to observe and reflect on the language they use in the following contexts:

  • Contacting someone from your professional field (for students, this can be any current supervisors they have, mentors, etc.)
  • Contacting a family member
  • Contacting a peer or a close friend
    (you can also add other categories as appropriate)

It’s best if you can show them an example from your own life, to provide a template for the activity. Students may notice themselves code switching: slipping into and out of various languages, different forms of language, and even the use of imagery as communication, i.e. memes, emojis, emoticons. This prompts conversations about when they choose to use standardized/formal English dialects and when they choose to skillfully use various forms, as well. In many cases, this has also prompted conversations about authenticity in the workplace. (What makes someone authentic? How do we communicate in authentic ways, regardless of context?) This is also an activity that you can do with staff, especially if you are in the early stages of understanding. It’s important to stay away from value statements on how students are using language, but to help students to simply reflect on how they are already using language and how they might make sense of their own linguistic and career capital.

Further Reading:
Jones, Taylor (11/2015). “Toward a Description of African American Vernacular English Dialect Regions Using ‘Black Twitter.’ ” American speech (0003-1283),90 (4), p. 403.

Yosso, T.J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth
Wofram. Sociolinguistics Definition from the Linguistic Society of America.


The Social Media-Enhanced Job Search: Creepy or Courageous?

kevin grubb NACE Ambassador Kevin Grubb
Associate Director, Digital Media & Assessment at Villanova University’s Career Center.
Twitter: @kevincgrubb
Blog: “social @ edu”.
Blogs from Kevin Grubb.

At the 2014 NACE conference, I heard lots of conversations about social media, recruiting, and job searching. That’s not surprising; social media is still influencing our work and changing it with exponential speed. I found myself often reflecting on the class that I teach at Villanova on social media and creating a professional identity online and whether all that we can do with technology now is creepy or courageous.

In my class, I have every student read the privacy policy of Facebook or Twitter and write a reflection on what they found. If we were taking live polls of my ratings as a professor, I can tell you my scores would drop like a lead bucket as soon as that assignment goes out. Doesn’t everybody just click on “I agree to (insert website name) privacy policy and terms of use” right away and start the sharing? Ugh!

Facebook Terms of Use

Have you ever read this entire thing?

But, when I read the resulting papers and talk with students afterward, there’s always been only gratitude. What they learned was a mixture of “creepy” and empowering: they’re now aware of what information is out there and start confidently making decisions to be smart online.

“Creepy” is a word I hear often when I talk with groups of students and professionals about social media. I hear it especially in conversations about LinkedIn’s “Who’s Viewed Your Profile” feature, which shows you just what it says it will. Conversely, when you view the profiles of others, they would be able to know that, too. You can change your visibility in this feature via privacy settings, though I will say I think users should remain visible in almost every case. I’ve heard many good stories about connections getting made and even an interview being offered when two people realized they stumbled on each other’s profiles.

Are there elements of social media that feel creepy? I won’t argue that it can create uncomfortable moments. However, social media can also be empowering, as the students in my class find out together. To get active, to share your goals and your ideas (without “oversharing”—either emotionally or just by posting too often), and to connect with people about those ideas: that’s a powerful possibility social media creates.

It’s a big, big stage we’re on when we talk about sharing ourselves and our stuff on social media. Anyone who realizes the magnitude of reaching thousands or millions of people with a few taps on the keyboard and a mouse click is right to say, “I should really think carefully about this.” In my experience talking with people, that also scares the heck out of them. What if I share some things that really matter to me and nobody cares? What if someone bashes my ideas? Do I have anything worthy enough to share?

For students, being active on social media in a professional manner takes courage. It’s trying something new. Just like putting on a business suit for the first time felt strange, so does putting on your digital suit when you interact on social media. Did it take them a little courage to make the first introduction to someone at a networking event or career fair? So, too, does it take courage to ask for help from alumni on LinkedIn, to tweet to professionals they think are doing great work or to write a blog post?

Perhaps the social media-enhanced job search is part creepy and part courageous. For now, I’m in the courageous camp. NACE blog readers: What do you think?