Randy: Where do you work?
Julie Richman: At my parents’ store.
Randy: What do they sell?
Julie Richman: Health foods.
Randy: That’s cool.
Julie Richman: Like, it’s not cool at all! Like, it’s all this stuff that tastes like nothin and it’s supposed to be so good for you. Why couldn’t they, like, open a Pizza Hut or somethin?
-scene from Valley Girl, 1983
“Do ya wanna be startin’ somethin’”
-Michael Jackson, 1983
Guy 1: I mean you beatin’ 10 cops? You puttin a man in the hospital? How come I don’t see no bruises on you?
Guy 2: Yeah!
Billy Ray Valentine: ‘Cause I’m a karate man! And a karate man bruises on the inside! They don’t show their weakness. But you don’t know that because you’re a big Barry White lookin (guy). So get outta my face!
-Scene from Trading Places, 1983
“What a feelin”
-Irene Cara, 1983
Tony Montana: “What you lookin’ at? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me so you can point your (not nice) fingers and say, “That’s the bad guy.” So… what that make you? Good? Say good night to the bad guy! Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you. Make way for the bad guy. There’s a bad guy comin’ through!”
-Scene from Scarface, 1983
Q: What’s for breakfast?
A: Nuttin, honey.
-Commercial for Nut N’ Honey Cereal, 1983
Aurora: “Garrett! What is it that makes you so insistent on shocking and insulting me? I mean, I really hate that way of talking. You must know that. Why do you do it?”
Breedlove: “I’ll tell ya, Aurora, I don’t know what it is about you, but you do bring out the devil in me.”
-Scene from Terms Of Endearment, 1983
“Mr. Gorbachev, like, tear down dis wall.”
-Ronald Reagan, 1983
We apparently forgot how to speak properly, officially, on January 1, 1983 – 20 yrs b4 txt.
Today, “casual” conversation has become the speaking standard by which you and I tend to communicate with everyone, regardless of how “cas” our relationship is with them.
That level of informality differs in each of us, by age, gender, background, education, culture, region and situation. In the end, hey it’s our mouth, we can send anything out of it we want – like, if wez chillin with Gramps and Grams and we wanna be keepin it real, den gettin all up in it, ain’t nutin.
Yo, it was not always so.
Watch an episode of Leave It to Beaver – it’ll feel like it was just pulled out of an Egyptian sarcophagus. Jerry Mathers sounds like a linguist for the UN, compared to the way kids – and young adults – and adults – and old geezers – speak today. The worst grammar you’ll get from “The Beav” is, “Awwwwww, shucks.”
Our 21st Century “shucks” verbiage equivalent is fine and good for friends, family and getting the dog to do weird things. (“Poo-poo wan ’ems stinky ball?”)
But when informality and slang spill over into the workplace – particularly when employees are talking to customers in a retail setting – our devolving penchant for clear, articulate phrasing, becomes obvious and, at times, offensive.
Here is an actual exchange between a grocery store employee and a customer, heard this weekend:
“Can I help ya find somethin?”
“Is the white tuna in this aisle?”
“Ya just missed it – you were almost lookin in the right place.
“There it is! Thank you!”
“I figured you was lookin for it – I was gonna say somethin…”
“No, that’s great, I’m glad you did.”
“Yeah, no problem.”
Somewhere, Noah Webster still weeps.
Does it matter if we butcher the ends of “ing” words, use one of the seven ways to say “yes” except the actual term, or sound, like, the cover of, like, Tiger Beat Magazine – cool!
In the workplace – yeah.
From Hansen Communication Lab, a business training site:
But if those employees use lazy, informal slang when interacting with consumers, then they’ll sound under-educated (read: stupid) and the employer will look under-educated for hiring them.
Here’s more, from Hansen Communication Lab:
“Colloquial speech is littered with signs of laziness. We drop word endings, run our words together and create sentences that never seem to end. Sometimes it is too easy to take this style of speech into the boardroom. Be sure to enunciate your words. Put a special focus on word endings such as ‘ed’ and ‘s’ that act as grammatical markers. If you leave the ‘ed’ off of a past tense verb (“Our profits increase last year” instead of “increased”) it sounds as though you are making a very basic mistake in English. Your education, aptitude and credibility could be questioned.”
What’s the remedy for a front counter that sounds like it’s staffed by a biker gang?
1. Have everyone take ownership
Most of us are used to not really caring about the way we speak, or having anyone else care.
Owners and managers who make it known that they do – that lazy, informal grammar isn’t acceptable – will be sending a powerful message to their employees, not just about the way they talk but the way they do everything.
Bottom line – employers tend to get their staff’s attention real fast, if they demonstrate a willingness to micro-manage the way their employees speak to customers.
2. Record employee phone conversations
If employees are using inappropriately informal language on the phone – where most of us have a tendency to be more formal – then it’s a good bet that what’s spewing outta their pie holes in person, is worse.
Playing those recordings back for employees, one on one, can bring a lot of these verbal missteps to their attention, in a way that merely pointing them out, can’t.
3. Post reminders
As stated earlier, most of us are genetically lacking the elocution skills of William Buckley – we were, for the most part, raised on or around farms, where a pig doesn’t care whether we say, “suuuuuuEYYYYYYYYY” or “May I have your attention, please – silage is serrrved.”
Employers should post the right way to say the wrong words, in employees’ plain view.
“YES” not “yeah,” “yep,” or “yah”
“NO” not “naw” or “nope”
“YOU” not “ya”
“THINKING” not “thinkin”
“GOING TO” not “gonna”
“THANK YOU” not “thanks”
“YOU’RE WELCOME” not “no problem”
KEEP TALKING, not “uuum” or “uh”
KEEP TALKING, not “like”
Do the ole’ “nickel for every time you cuss” trick, except it’s for every time someone says “-in” on the end of an i-n-g word – anything that will help employees self-police, and break those bad, imbedded verbal habits.
One final word on talking – on the pace of speaking, from Hansen Communication Lab:
“We all speak too fast. It’s a terrible habit! And the faster we speak, the more mumbled our speech becomes. Slowing down the pace of your speech is vital in situations where visual communication is lacking, for example an international conference call. It is just as important however, while running a meeting or delivering a presentation. Make sure everyone can follow what you are saying at all times. Otherwise, what’s the point of saying it?”
Of course, most of us need not worry about using proper pace, diction and grammar in a conference call to a Proctor And Gamble Board Of Directors meeting, from a secure line out of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Then again, if we don’t worry, we’ll probably never get there.
So for any of us who deal with the public, let’s remind ourselves that it’s not just clothes that make the (wo)man, it’s not just about dressing the part and it’s not just about looking like we belong.
Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of “The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show,” Saturday mornings 8-9am on 1350 KRNT. Email Jonnie at firstname.lastname@example.org.