Proper English does not exist. Let’s just get that out there. No one way one person speaks this language is any more factually correct than, or superior to another. Language is about communication, and whether you freelance as a writer or an app developer, strong and effective communication — being understood — is crucial to what you do.
…but understanding is an elusive goal, and, when we’re talking work and income, it can be just as much about what you say as it is how you say it.
The Weight Of Communication
There’s a quote out there that’s frequently attributed to John Stewart (for the life of me, I can’t find it right now), but essentially it says that, the weight of responsibility of understanding is on the shoulders of the audience, not the speaker.
I’ve always had an issue with it because I’m torn on that dynamic — especially coming from a business background, where the weight of the responsibility of communication is almost always placed squarely on the speaker. It’s your job to know your audience, their preferences, biases, preferred method of communication…basically if you’re going to talk, and you want to get paid for talking, you’ve got to do your homework.
I believe Stewart’s quote is very much applicable in peer-to-peer and non-business communication, but when you’re asking someone to part with cash…even if it’s $.99, concessions must be made.
This is where it gets tricky though, because authenticity of voice tends to be highly important in the businesses Black people run (and hope to run), and sometimes that can fly in the face of what’s deemed “professional” in context.
The Problem With And Power Of AAVE
One of the really amazing things about the Internet is the speed and connection it opens up to so many people. It breaks down barriers of power and distance like nothing else has in history.
A while ago, I was reading Chris Brogan’s The Freaks Shall Inherit The Earth. Pretty early on in the book, he gives you his email address in case you’d like to ask him any questions. While I was laying there reading, I had a question about a print publication I had just launched, so I shot him an email. Literally 5 minutes later, I got a response.
He’d answered my question and asked to hear more about what I was doing.
I’m not a big fan of Brogan, but he does some things every now and again that are definitely worth paying attention to. This was one of them. By including his email address, he’d created a situation where I felt like I was sitting there, talking to the author of the book while I was reading it. He’d created connection.
In standard business advice you’ll hear tips on how to do this through using the right pronouns, simple email templates, even upping your profanity game. One of the most effective ways I’ve seen Black people do it? African-American Vernacular English (AAVE).
Now if you’re not American Black, everything I’m talking about still applies. It’s not so much about your native tongue or dialect as it is about speaking the natural language of an established community in ways that aren’t easily imitated (it is incredibly difficult to teach an adult a dialect, and incredibly easy to detect when someone’s decided to try to “sound Black” for a day.)
If you are talking and selling your services to a community that has its own way of communicating, then the way you speak, as long as it’s consistent and functional, can be incredibly powerful, but I’ll talk more about that in a bit.
First, I want to talk to you about why using dialects can be tricky, but why learning how to do so deliberately can work out to your benefit.
The Use Of AAVE
The challenge with using AAVE (or even African-American slang) in a business communications scenario, is that it is frequently perceived as being inferior (even by Black people who incorrectly assume Standard American English-SAE to be a superior form of communication), and because of that, can create the prejudicial image of a lack of intelligence, sophistication, or attention to detail on the part of the speaker.
This is in no small part due to the fact that AAVE is a high-context dialect of a low-context language, (which is just an academic way of saying that while we’re speaking a Western European language, Black people generally already know, at some level, where another Black person is coming from) and SAE (and many Western-European languages) are low context forms of communication.
Low context languages like SAE provide less room for nuance, and require little cultural familiarity to understand. Because of this, a cultural context has to be established between speakers. A lot of the freelance marketing advice you’ll read is based around trying to establish that context.
High context languages and cultures (like AAVE, Caribbean dialects, most African, and Asian languages and cultures), require cultural familiarity to understand the flow of a conversation (even if you understand the individual words) and are founded on existing cultural connections. If you are speaking with someone from a similar cultural background, the context is already there, so a lot of the traditional advice for building business relationships…well…it’s already done and you can move on to other things (which is why Black freelancers selling their services to Black buyers will likely have an easier time in the marketing department).
If you’re deciding to work with the general population, there are situations where the use of AAVE will be effective (though it’s worth asking why), but for the most part, SAE will be your best bet.
Learning who is willing to pay (and pay well) for your freelance work is a journey. It can take time to understand what your audience needs, what they want, and what they’ll pay for. It takes time to figure out what degree of economic freedom you’re looking for in your life and what you’re willing to, and can give up for it.
Learning the best way to communicate is no different.
If you’ve come through the usual path of school or and want to work a “normal” job or start a “normal” business, the question is generally answered for you…you speak standard English. Online though, you’re not working to conform to a norm…you’re working to find out what connects with your clients. That might be very formal English. It might be typing the exact way that you talk with your friends. It’s most likely a mixture or somewhere in between, and I want to give you a few guidelines to help you find your best “voice”.
Back to that consistency and functionality deal…
The Importance Of Being Consistent
I’m not even saying you have to speak the same way all the time. I’ve seen very successful bloggers, academics, writers, and business people shift between standard American English, dialects, and accents fluidly and effectively depending on platform (blog vs. emails. vs. social), subject matter, or mood. That’s fine, and is really a powerful tool.
When I say “consistent”, I mean correct within its own set of standards. If you type in a dialect, keep your own spelling and grammar rules. If you’re going to drop the Gs off your words, drop them with pride…but decide if it’s going to be runnin’ or just runnin…ya’ll or y’all.
It will make it easier on your reader and provide polish that might not be formal, but still shows you are mindful of what you produce and how you communicate.
The Foundation Of Function
I ran across a blog a while back…can’t remember if it was about natural hair or dating for Black women. Regardless, the deeper I got into it, the more irritated I got. What I thought was an interesting quirk at the beginning of the article, turned into full-on speed bumps as I went.
The writer didn’t use capital letters — at all.
This is cool for, say, someone like bell hooks — It sets her apart, it’s her name, there’s a purpose, and it’s only two words. In a paragraph though, not capitalizing letters causes the eye to run ideas together (who knew periods alone weren’t enough?).
English grammar and punctuation has a lot of stuff that’s largely unnecessary, but a lot of it actually serves a functional purpose — specifically, in this case, giving the reader lots of warning that one idea has stopped and another has started. This is why I believe in periods, commas (which I personally tend to over-use), semi-colons, most capitalization, and the necessity of some proper spelling.
Social lets us bend the rules a bit, but for the most part, it’s easier on everybody if your writing, especially your blog and email writing, is as labor-free as possible.
Clark Alford says
Great article. Back when I was in college my Black professor called it ebonics. When I was in high school my white teachers called it colloquialism.