By: Miriam Robles
Early in my nonprofit career, one of my senior colleagues pulled me aside before a meeting with one of the organization’s most prestigious funders and kindly made me aware of the unspoken expectation of how to communicate with them just so they would take me seriously. “You probably want to avoid saying ‘like’ so much,” they had told me. After getting over the initial surprise of this, I appreciated the forewarning, because my colleague was correct. There are certain, unspoken expectations when it comes to how we communicate within a work environment and, as a woman from a minority community, I didn’t feel privy to this information. But I, like so many others before me (and countless others after me) have adapted.
I left behind my Spanglish phrases and Gen Z terminology because it was considered unfit, unprofessional, and an affront to the English language. This is true of almost all regional dialects: African American Vernacular English (AAVE), American Southern English, Cajun American Creole. The”y’alls” and the “ain’ts” and the “gonnas” that make professionals turn up their noses are considered crude, and most importantly, “not real English”. If anyone wants to be taken seriously in their professional life, they must shed themselves of their colloquialisms, accents, and dialectical turn-of-phrases.
I would argue, however, that a knowledge of these dialects, words, and languages that are widely considered something that one must “overcome” and train oneself out of, are a considerable asset, especially in the nonprofit sector. Oftentimes, the communities we serve communicate within themselves in this way. Whether the nonprofit work focuses on serving children, the unhoused community, migrants, or other underserved communities, feeling able to communicate in their everyday language or dialogue, without judgment, without pretense, is the first step in building trust. It is the difference between talking to someone and talking with someone; the difference between charity and community building.
Moreso, being able to successfully communicate in any regional dialect, such as creole, or pidgin, for example, is actually a signifier of better mastery of language, because these languages are often more nuanced than standard English. Plus, people who grow up learning regional dialects or languages such as Spanglish or AAVE are skilled at code-switching, the skill of alternating between two or more different types of speech, behaviors, or appearances. Cultural linguists often associate code-switching with a higher understanding of two different languages or cultures, not a lower one.
A famously cited linguistic study affectionally nicknamed the “Cookie Monster Study” showed how African American children who used AAVE had a higher understanding of complex
linguistic concepts like the “habitual be” than their non-black peers.
These language variations may not be considered “professional,” but that should not reflect poorly on their users, and should be viewed in a positive light. Language creates community.
The culture around what is considered “unprofessional language” is not going to change anytime soon. However, there is something to be said about embracing the communities we serve, language and all.