Finding Your Professional Voice

Jade PerryJade Perry, Coordinator in the Office of Multicultural Student Success at DePaul University
Twitter: @SAJadePerry1
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/pub/jade-perry/21/667/b25/
Website: jadetperry.com

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.

 

Etiquette Is Professionalism at Its Best!

Kathleen Powell

Kathleen Powell, Assistant Vice President, Student Affairs, Executive Director of Career Development, Cohen Career Center, William & Mary
President-Elect, National Association of Colleges and Employers
Twitter: @powellka
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/kathleenipowell/

Remember when you witnessed students, colleagues, and co-workers on their phones and perhaps thought, “Why are they checking Facebook or texting?” Well, the fact of the matter is, they could have been checking the time, tweeting something you said that was profound or thought provoking, or uploading a PowerPoint deck slide to LinkedIn or Twitter. With technology comes a new world to navigate and etiquette requires a new way of thinking and working with others.

How did we ever get along without e-mail, texting, chats, and messaging? Do you find yourself inundated with e-mails and voice messages? Last year at the 2015 NACE conference, Lindsey Pollak shared that XX Company did away with voice mails and others would be following suit. For those who are aligned with companies/organizations where voice mail is a thing of the past, it is one less distraction. However, there are still organizations, mine included, that have voice mail. So, what is the protocol for replies?

Must we answer every e-mail that comes to our inbox, must we return every call? It seems if those seeking our attention don’t get our consideration via voice mail, they share on their message they’ve sent us an e-mail, just in case we need or want more information and want to respond through e-mail versus a return call.

The question still stands, “do we need to reply to every e-mail and voice mail?” Professional courtesy and etiquette dictates that we do! Between you and me, I try to respond to every ping, but some days I’m outmatched by my inbox! That said, I find great joy in unsolicited mass e-mails where I can choose to reply if the message is of interest, or use the ever so efficient, delete key.

The best way to handle unsolicited, mass e-mails is to find the link to unsubscribe. Sometimes I wonder how I got on some e-mail distribution lists in the first place! Please don’t be annoyed, rude, or indifferent. Either unsubscribe, ask to be removed from the list, or delete. Don’t unsubscribe by hitting “reply all.” Reply if you’re interested, but otherwise, unsolicited, mass e-mails from those unknown to you don’t mandate a response.

I’m going to switch gears to an arena that doesn’t get much attention. Deadlines, meetings, and the way we speak and treat our co-workers! I’m a strong believer in professional courtesy—etiquette. You know you are expecting a report, data set, something that is required for you to move. If you’ve promise to deliver on a deadline, respect that deadline. If you find yourself up to your eye balls in alligators, step up and ask if there is space and place for an extension as courteously and professionally as humanly possible. Being human is hard, but I’ve found we may be hard on the outside, but soft in the middle. We all want a win and success is achieved when we work together to solve for the greater good. Meeting deadlines and fulfilling promised obligations goes a long way.

Meetings! Do you find your work world is a series of meetings? You move from one to another, and let’s not forget about conference calls! If you give your word and commit to a meeting or conference call, keep that commitment. Good etiquette—professionalism—aligns with dependable and punctual. In this day and age, many of us are oversubscribed, double-booked, and rarely have time to come up for air. It’s not a contest to see who is busier, has more meetings, or who is more important. If possible, control your time and commitments. Remember, others may be counting on you and you can’t be all in if you’re physically in one place, but mentally in another.

I mentioned conference calls. Don’t be the person who puts their phone on mute and is never heard from again! Or the person who is typing, and yes, talking on their cell phone thinking they are on mute when in fact, we’ve all just heard what you think about the call itself! Research tells us we can’t multi-task. We think we can, but are brains are not wired that way. Your multi-pronged attention will be at the expense of something!

Have you had a colleague, co-worker, or supervisor who uses words as weapons? Don’t be that individual. Speak to others as you would expect others to speak to you. Being human is hard and emotions can and sometimes do run deep. Once words are out, they can’t be taken back. Come to a place where facts, and maybe figures, drive a debate, heated conversation. Perhaps, “I believe” is heard over “I feel.” Feelings can be hurt, words can hurt, but beliefs change, opinions can expand and retract. For some, apologizing is a sign of weakness, for others it is a “tool” to move on to the next item of business; no harm, no foul. We’ve all heard the saying, “people may not remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.” I may not always get it right, but in my humble opinion, the sign of professionalism is acknowledging our own shortcomings, accepting responsibility when things don’t go well that were in our control, and the courage and steadfastness to make amends.

In essence, professionalism—etiquette—is how you engage and treat others. Those who exemplify strong etiquette treat everyone as valuable, contributing members to their organization, treat everyone’s time as valuable as theirs, are tolerant of being human, and are considerate and kind when it comes to people’s feelings.

For me, at the end of the day, acting with professional etiquette, integrity, means bringing my best self to the table.