Switching Gears


Switching Gears - Keeping It Real

By Mamie Webb Hixon
Writing Lab Director

      Let's get rid of the notion that there's always a correct way—a fixed way—to talk. There isn't. Very few people speak the same way all the time. Most of us have one way to talk to our friends and family (Hey, y'all! or Yo, Wassup!) and a completely different way to talk to our colleagues and business associates (Hello, how are you?); one way to talk in the living room, another way to talk in the board room.

      We have our home English and our office English, what the Reverend Jesse Jackson calls our "cash English." We switch gears—back and forth between the two, depending on the audience and the occasion. We switch gears because we know there's no one way that works in every situation. We use our T-shirt English in one setting and our Tuxedo English in another. And most of us do it with ease and dexterity. In the living room, "we get the 411"; in the boardroom, "we research the information." In the living room, "this is on the down-low"; in the boardroom, "this is confidential." "We be down wit dat" at home, and "we are cooperative and agreeable" at work. It's "aw-ight?" at home and "all right?" in the office. We "chill" at home and "relax" in the office. At work, "we are practical and realistic"; at home, "we keep it real." We describe a co-worker as "laid-back" to a friend, but in a letter of reference we describe the co-worker as "a person with a relaxed demeanor."

      Just as we have a clothes closet with varied attire from casual to dressy, we should have a Language Closet, a language repertoire with language choices from informal slang and colloquialisms to formal, dressy English. According to language specialists, there are approximately 1,560 ways to utter any English sentence, giving us the ability to convey a message on any level—from informal to formal. A speaker or writer of English who is hopelessly locked in to only one method of delivery (slang, for instance) is just as inept as the one who can communicate only on a strictly formal level. Our language repertoire should contain enough vocabulary from all levels to ensure that we can in fact communicate with kings, queens, and Presidents or the average Tom and Mary Citizen on the street. The ability to switch gears allows us to express the same idea in several ways:

I ain't got no money.
I'm broke/ I'm busted.
I'm financially unable to afford it.
It's cost prohibitive.
Pecuniary circumstances preclude me from such affordability.

     The ability to switch gears allows us to make these distinct language choices depending on the situation:

T-shirt English - First Gear - is our own familiar language that many of us use to relate to one another. It's the language we use during those unguarded conversational moments when we're not "minding our language." It's conversational English that comes in all forms—from slang to dialectal expressions.

Yo! Wassup! Howdy, y'all!
What went down?
There's something going down in the hood.

Dressy English - Second Gear - is the language of news print, textbooks, and formal correspondence. It's the language that's met with universal acceptance and approval; and it is favored by public figures, television and radio announcers, and most professionals.


What happened?
There's a lot of chaos in the streets of my neighborhood.


Tuxedo English -Third Gear - is the language of formal documents and academic and business correspondence; it is an elevated and formal level of second gear and is favored by many legal professionals and some state and national public officials. Second and third gear speech offers us unlimited professional and academic access, while first-gear speech offers limited access.

Good evening.
Would you recapitulate those occurrences?
There's a civil disturbance in the vicinity.


     Shifting gears! It's what we do well. It's what we do best. We adjust our language. We change our speech depending on the image we wish to create. We may come from a "Hit don't matter to me, honey chile" background, but we should be able to "keep it real" and say "It doesn't matter to me" or "The fact of the matter doesn't alter the situation."

Switching Gears from the Living
Room to the Board Room

By Mamie Webb Hixon

LIVING ROOM: I was real ticked off about not getting the promotion.
BOARD ROOM: I was displeased to learn that my promotion was denied.
LIVING ROOM: I did everything I could to talk some sense into my boss's head.
BOARD ROOM: I have exhausted all attempts to communicate reasonably with my supervisor.
LIVING ROOM: By law, this company is supposed to make sure I keep this job.
BOARD ROOM: It is the legal responsibility of this company to protect my rights as its employee.
LIVING ROOM: I'm gonna punish everybody right now.
BOARD ROOM: I will take immediate corrective action.
LIVING ROOM: Telling on your supervisor shouldn't get you fired.
BOARD ROOM: Filing a complaint should not affect your employment status.
LIVING ROOM: If your boss tries to get back at you, y'all ought to let her go.
BOARD ROOM: If there's evidence of retaliation, then disciplinary action, including dismissal, should be taken.
LIVING ROOM: I told the office assistant off.
BOARD ROOM: I reprimanded the office assistant.
LIVING ROOM: Don't let nobody know I talked to you.
BOARD ROOM: This conversation is confidential.
LIVING ROOM: I jotted down everything that happened before and after the incident.
BOARD ROOM: I documented my job performance before and after the incident.




Go to page 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  Index

Site design and contents © UWF Writing Lab