One of the tricky parts of having multiple lines of work is that I often have to use multiple speaking styles, depending on whom I’m talking to.
Day job: We’re all college educated, and we’re all writers and/or editors. So we can use almost any complicated, absurd word under the sun, and almost everyone will get it. Our jokes tend to be more erudite, too.
Nonwork friends: See above. But I tend to use less formal language, because I’ve known most of them more than a decade. We’re all capable of the big speech and can pull it out, but when you’re discussing “NBA Jam,” it’s not necessary. Boom-shaka-laka!
English Mass: Here, we have a wider mix of people. Almost all adults have a high school education, but they may not have college under their belts. Many folks are tradesmen or -women, and others are retired. So I have to drop some of the big words and explain more stuff, just in case.
Spanish Mass (speaking in English): For most of these folks, English is not their first language, and they don’t have as wide a knowledge base in the English language, especially in idioms, as I do. Many of them are less-educated tradesfolk. So I have to simplify my speech a lot more.
Now, here’s the tricky part of the last two: I do have to change my normal speech a little bit to communicate well — but I run the risk of sounding like I’m talking down to these good folks, and I totally don’t want to do that. Here’s how I try to avoid that:
1. Do not change your tone of voice. You know what I mean — some people switch to a patronizing tone when they have to switch their speaking style. This is not good. Do not do it. And be vigilant that you’re not doing it, because people can read a lot you don’t mean out of the tone of your voice.
2. Err on the side of overexplaining, and if you’re called out on it, just explain that you do that a lot just because you’re not sure what knowledge base people have. This turns it on you and keeps them from feeling dumb, if you tell them you do this a lot.
3. Listen. You can pick up on others’ speaking styles and move from the general to the specific. I mean, you’re supposed to be listening anyway, because it’s polite, but it also provides you with cues that help you determine how you should be speaking.
It’s not like anyone bats 100% on this, especially me. I was talking to a couple after English Mass a few weeks ago about how my company was selling stock. I used the term “IPO,” which means “initial public offering,” referring to the day we started selling stock. A couple minutes later, the nice lady politely said, “I fear I’m not as up on some of these terms as you are. What’s an IPO?”