The Language of Identity: Part 2 – You're Not In The Club
The last time I went to the doctor and told him my symptoms, he Googled them and then baffled me with a lot of long words that I didn’t understand. I came away none the wiser, convinced I would drop dead at any minute, and wondering if I could have saved myself the trip had I just Googled it myself.
We need experts. They know stuff that we don’t know, and we turn to them when we need help in a particular area. Everyone is an expert in something, and no one is more of an expert about your life than you are. But experts all come with their own language – for doctors its long words, bad handwriting, and a lack of squeamishness about prodding that thing on your neck that looks like it might explode at any moment. For plumbers it’s a knowledge of the right tools for the job, which pipe goes where, and blue overalls. For lawyers its pinstripe suits, important sounding gibberish that could be out of a Dickens novel, and hefty bank balances.
What these languages say about the people to whom they belong is “this is who I am”, and also “this is who you are not”. And at times it can offer us the reassurance that we need – I completely trust this gentleman with his outdated parlance and large fees to get me off this speeding ticket.
In areas where we feel less than confident, we turn to the people who possess the right language, asking for their help, and we find their language alien but comforting. We are put at ease by the doctor’s reassuring bedside manner as he presses a lollipop stick onto our sickly child’s tongue, and tells us it’s just a case of the thingamabobs and one bowl of ice cream twice a day will make it better.
And we also define ourselves, and justify ourselves, by the language we use. The way we speak, dress, go about our business, is often dictated by the roles we find ourselves in and the groups we associate ourselves with. We say this is my tribe, and while my tribe may work with and/or for your tribe, our language identifies us as different. This identity is a representative symbol of our expertise in our given field, and without it you can’t be a member of our club. We fall into niches, and become stereotypes. Why do all advertising creatives have those big, thick rimmed spectacles that make them look nerdy yet cool at the same time? Why do all doctors have terrible handwriting? Why do all barristers talk as if they’re in the court King Henry the Eighth?
I spent a while delivering groceries for a large online supermarket – let’s call it “Brockado” – and from time-to-time the man of the affluent household would see my van and my high vis, and change his language accordingly. Adopting a mockney accent he would address me as ‘mate’ because he assumed that was the language of the van driver. Whether these men were doing it to put me at ease, whether they felt uncomfortable with their regular language of suburban middle class well-spoken-ness in the presence of a member of the working classes and didn’t want to be judged, or whether they just wanted to connect and belong, I couldn’t tell. They saw my uniform, and attempted to speak my language. That someone would go to such an effort felt welcoming.
On another occasion I was sat in the foyer of a national television company, waiting for a meeting. I watched all the TV people come and go, and a lot of them were dressed the same way – quilted parka coats with those big fluffy hoods, jeans and trainers. It was the uniform of television production, and I felt out of place not dressed that way. I wasn’t a member of that club. I was immediately an outsider, and I went out and got myself a parka just like that as soon as I could.
The language of our industry and our tribe creates hierarchies. They tell us whether we belong or not. The yellow jersey is the sign of the pro-cyclist. The go-faster stripes and decals are the sign of the Max Power car modder. The hard hat and work boots are the language of the builder. But how often do we mistake the language of the tribe for the expertise that comes with it? How often do we make assumptions about other people based on the language we think they’re speaking, and how often do we hope that people will make assumptions about us because of the language we use?
Those horn-rimmed glasses don’t necessarily make you an advertising guru. That sharp suit and haircut doesn’t make you an entrepreneur. Those buzzwords don’t make you the next big thing. Talking louder, more frequently, and more aggressively doesn’t make you more of an expert, or more of an authority, or more of a leader, than the people you’re speaking over, Donald.
Conversely, what if we choose not to speak that language – does that affect our ability to do the job? Why do people who work in The City wear suits? Why is shouty Gary Vaynerchuk wearing a shirt in his LinkedIn profile picture, and a sweatshirt on his Instagram profile picture? How much of the language we use to define ourselves is advertising?
I met a guy who worked in music videos. He was a world-class editor, but while his peers dressed a certain way, socialised a certain way, and embraced a particular culture, he did not. While his peers we achingly cool, he was not. To use the language of a bygone era, he was quite clearly a ‘square’. Despite his undoubted skill in his chosen industry, by not speaking that language and fitting in with industry tropes, he just couldn’t make it work. After a few years of being excluded, passed over for opportunities, and generally unappreciated, he changed career.
The thing is, we expect certain things from people of different industries. We expect them to speak a certain language. And when they don’t, we aren’t sure how to handle it. But handle it we must because there’s plenty of benefit to be gained from the left field. By refusing to be defined and confined by the language of our jobs we can bring new things to our roles and our tribes. New textures, and new opportunities. We can offer new tiers of access and thinking by including people outside our club. By opening our arms to different ways of seeing that seem alien to people like us in tribes like ours, we can create new opportunities for connection and growth.
Think about the language of terms and conditions. We are asked to accept terms and conditions almost every day when we install a new app, sign up for a new service, start a new job. But when was the last time you actually read the terms and conditions? Usually we don’t, because they’re inaccessible, achingly long, and might as well be written in another language altogether. There are people whose jobs it is to write these things, and they are expected to be unintelligible, complicated, verbose things. They are designed to be intentionally unpleasant and time-consuming to read and understand, because if it was clear just how many of your rights you were giving away you probably wouldn’t have signed up to Facebook in the first place.
But surely it would be better for everyone if they were written in a more inclusive way?
This particular set of terms and conditions uses phrases such as:
“A few rules that stop you (and us) getting in trouble.”
“Apart from what we’re responsible for when there’s a mishap, we’re not liable for anything that happens to you if you use our content.”
You can’t get much clearer or more human than that. Someone has taken the time and gone to the effort of creating something that doesn’t use the language we have come to expect from such terms and conditions, and the result is undeniably positive. When we read them suddenly we can breathe again. We know what we have to do, and what is expected of us. Whoever wrote them said “my language is your language, together we can create something, we’re all in the same club.”
In plain English, the BBC has opened up its language, and in this document it’s saying these are the rules, they’re easy to understand so there is no confusion, now let’s work together to make something awesome. This approach, of breaking free of the language of our tribe is inclusive. It delivers a fresh perspective that is beneficial to all. No one is excluded. Everyone is welcome. We are of the people, for the people.
Indeed, since 1979 the Plain English Campaign has been working to break down these barriers. I shouldn’t need Google Translate to understand what you’re saying, and you shouldn’t be so overwhelmed by my enormous glasses and fluffy parka hood to think that we can’t work together.
Of course some specific jargon is necessary. You wouldn’t want to dumb down a group of brain surgeons or rocket scientists when they’re in the middle of trying to save someone’s life or send a spaceship to Mars. But similarly, when we perceive these languages – these identities – as things that exclude us from realising our potential or trying new things, then they become barriers that need to be smashed to bits. Both in our minds and in society.
Remember the scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts goes into the boutique in Beverley Hills, dressed in her ‘casual’ attire, only to be refused service by the snooty shop assistant? Their respective languages built a barrier to their individual and collective success.
Yet, if we learn to recognise these language barriers for what they are, and then subjugate them to our own will, we can become empowered to push beyond them. Sometimes that means learning to speak the language and adopting that identity, before we can do our own thing and disrupt the norm.
Remember when Julia Roberts scrubbed up well and returned to that boutique, only to rub their snooty faces in it?
Remember when Neo learned the language of the Matrix before manipulating it to bend the spoon?
Remember when Luke travelled to Dagobah to become fluent in Jedi before blowing up the Death Star?
Remember when Marie Clément struggled to fit in at the assassin academy, until she was taught the language of the femme fatale by Amande and became the ruthless killer Nikita?
Remember Picasso’s beautiful, conventional early works that showed his true mastery in his field, before he went on the embrace the avant-garde styles for which he’s known?
Remember when I used all of those different cultural references to connect with people of varying tastes and show off my eclectic artistic knowledge?
This is the hero’s journey. And when we teach ourselves to look past the established language of the tribes, which serve only as fences to keep them in and to keep us out, we can see that these barriers are, in most parts, abstract concepts. You don’t need to speak like an electrician to change a lightbulb. You don’t need to speak like a mechanic to change a tyre. You don’t need to be fluent in legalese or adspeak or corporate bullshit to embark on your own hero’s journey.
And instead of using language to define ourselves as members of a select group, how about using language to connect to a wider circle? How can we use language to reflect our humanity, and reach others rather than creating professional and personal roadblocks, boundaries, hierarchies, and differentiation? How do we learn to speak human?
Perhaps we can start by listening to what people are really saying?
If politicians really listened to what people were saying, they would understand the language of homelessness and poverty, and not just the language of money. If news editors really listened to what people were saying they wouldn’t stoke a culture of fear and hatred based on their own agenda. If any of us really listened to what people were saying we’d understand the language of emotions, or compassion and humanity, and not just the language of appearances, or of our own need for transactional interaction.
When we stop trying to make a sale —the sale of the image of our perfect lives, of our political agenda, of our story (just as soon as the other person finally stops talking), of our newspapers, ideologies, sneakers — and we actually start to listen, a paradox occurs. People start to buy what we’re selling, because what we’re selling is based on understanding, connection, and communication. And not just hard cash.
And this new, unfettered, human communication and connection would perhaps go some way to creating an inclusive world where everyone is valued for who they are, not just what they do for a living.
That’s one dream. But where does itleave us right now?
It leaves us with a reminder that language cannot – and should not – stop us connecting. It is not a physical barrier. And while some people use it to define themselves and their place in society, to turn their nose up at others, or to falsely believe they – we – aren’t capable enough or good enough, let’s remember these borders between tribes are abstract and imagined. When we recognise this we can cross them, use them, play with them, and distort them to achieve our goals and to bring people together.
And when we recognise this we can start to overcome the voices in our head that set us aside from people we perceive to be better, cleverer, more worthy or more successful, simply because they speak a different language. And we can start crossing the language divide and start doing amazing things with amazing people.
Then we’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only ourselves.