Not just what you say, but how you say it ...
Wow. So many important points here I hardly know what to say. One point I will make, however, is the significant role strong family structures and rituals can have. However good your education was, I strongly suspect a large part of your (and your siblings’) social development came from the Finkelstein Friday night dinner table. You argued, discussed, laughed and cried together and learnt a great deal. Furthermore, when you ventured out in to elderly relatives’ homes for afternoon tea, you were not allowed to sit sulking in the corner of the room; you were supposed to account fully for yourself - what you were doing, your interests and experiences. But, looking back on what I’ve written, I realise that all sounds so terribly middle class, doesn’t it? It assumes a structure of family, home and networks that so many people nowadays are not lucky enough to have. I realise now we were pretty privileged.
Lots of food for thought here. I've been in a board meeting with a newly-employed twenty-something, who thought it was fine to have her cigarette packet on the table and slip out for a smoke during the break instead of following her colleagues' example of networking and gathering tacit insight into what members were thinking. She treated work (the thing we were paying her to do) as an optional extra. I've also been confident enough in the capabilities of a colleague who had recently joined us straight from university to ask them to take minutes at a high level meeting. I was provided the next day with half a page of bullet point notes that told me very little of what had been discussed. They simply hadn't understood what was required in that particular setting (and yes, I had discussed it with them beforehand!). My first thought was to wonder about the basis on which this person was awarded a degree. My second (more charitable) was to coach them on how to pick out the salient points of a discussion and record them helpfully...then find some opportunities to practice. My third was a reflection on how fortunate I have been in my educational and formative experiences: family expectations of polite behaviour, earning luxuries and the maxim 'if a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well'; teachers at my (State comprehensive) school setting standards for discipline (for which I now read: respect for others), good manners and well-presented work; experiences at university that filled in the gaps of social norms to which I hadn't been previously exposed; employers and managers who showed by example what was expected in professional settings.
I think I'm concluding that we're all presented with examples of how to behave every single day. We're also given the opportunity to influence each other through the examples we set, and by how ready we are to explore alternatives. It's less about sticking to a single codified way of doing things at school, university or elsewhere and more about understanding the life skills that those conventions help to develop...and spotting where a bit of (supportive, non-judgmental) gap-filling might help. Yes, keep up with the times, but don't stop developing skills that contribute to a society that is inclusive and well-functioning.
I agree universities have a role here. And an important one to, dare I say it, "level up" those who do not have the privileges that certain home circumstances and prior schooling bring. Can you say something about how universities make room for this additional role? Do you employ extra staff to make the space for this to happen? Should you lobby for proportionally increasing the funding of institutions with higher numbers of those who would benefit from this extra support? Do we teach less of the 'domain' to make way for more of the "form"? I'd be interested to know how you think we can bring this about.
I very strongly agree with much of the initial post. Education is a primary force for social mobility, and assuming we believe this to be a desirable end (i.e. we don’t just want various groups in society to ‘stay in their place’) we owe it them to provide them with the best possible support in order to do so, to open up possibilities which were not there before. I was privately educated and went to Oxford, and was used to interacting in various types of circles even before going to university, but this is by no means the case for many others from less privileged backgrounds. To try and maintain that we have no business trying to teach others modes of speaking, writing, behaviour which are likely to be at odds with those they have encountered in their prior domestic or educational background is simply to leave them at a disadvantage, to limit their ability to interact within ‘informal networks’ (such a big factor in many of the more prestigious areas of employment), and I would say to succumb to the poverty of low expectations. Of course we need to make adaptations for those with learning difficulties and disabilities, but that shouldn’t mean giving up on the project of helping those to write or speak in a clear, grammatical and well-formed manner, which I cannot imagine ever being a harmful skill to possess. Even the skill of being able to write a coherent essay is not just an academic fetish, but an indication of an ability to organise and present information and arguments in a coherent manner, another ‘transferable skill’ which has widespread application.
I’m very drawn to the comments above about the concept of performance in this context, and not just from the perspective of a musician. In a sense, we are always ‘performing’ (‘all the world’s a stage’ and so on), and develop, expand and create our selves through interactions with others. The norms of any inherited behaviours common to a less privileged social milieu are no more ‘authentic’ than any others; they are products of particular types of socialisation. For some to learn how to interact in quite different environments is not to decry or demean those forms of interaction with which they are already familiar, just to expand the possibilities available to them – not unlike learning to speak and think in another language, perhaps. I’ve for a long time coached sessions with students about delivery (for the purposes of giving lecture-recitals), just getting them to speak about any subject they like (can be what they had for breakfast), and inviting responses from others about projection, clarity, timing (sometimes thinking of delivering sentences and leaving sufficient space between them in the manner of musical phrases), structure and so on. Occasionally there has been a comment about how the things suggested by me and others mean these students might end up speaking in a way quite unlike how they would otherwise, thought to be 'unnatural'. But they are learning how to deliver in a particular context which may be quite different from others that they have encountered. Speaking on a podium to a group of people who may not yet be familiar with your subject, and ensuring they can follow what you say and engage with it, is the type of skill which is going to be useful to many people, and not at all like simply conversing with one’s friends. Actors understand this absolutely – delivery on the stage is a distinct skill to delivery in other contexts. This doesn’t mean that all actors will ask someone if they can get them another pint in a pointed rhetorical manner which will mean hundreds of others will be able to hear what they say.
But communication and networking skills can also take very different forms. Interacting in the world of fashion is quite different from in that of high finance, or interacting with children in an inner-city school (which I would find very challenging). Developing communication skills is not simply a process of ‘embourgeoisement’ but really one of expanding social and cultural diversity. Perhaps with this in mind, beyond the teaching of skills to facilitate professional interaction, we need to look further at teaching about understanding different social environments and learning general approaches to be able to interact in these through understanding their norms and other aspects?
Anthony; I totally agree; a personal story to illustrate, I hope what you have said. My theoretical Physics tutor at Oxford pulled me up in a 3 page proof and said it ' it is correct Brian, but it lacks style'. He showed me the 3 line proof! Two things; being correct is not enough, being correct with style really matters, and second, he gave me this advice with style, an added reinforcement which is one of the reasons it has stayed with me for 50 years(!). Second main input is the concept of performance; if a conversation of some formality is thought of as a performance then it is more likley to have positive impact on an audience. I am grateful for school plays for giving me an appreciation of that, nerve racking as it was at the time. Advising government ministers as we have both done was the pinnacle of bringing these factors together.
"It's all about class" is an important realisation to come to. Then thinking "therefore students should be forcibly transformed into the middle class" is not. I really wish even the most basic grasp of the humanities - particularly sociology - was compulsory for all university senior leadership staff.
Conventions change. If we are going to achieve diversity of thought, we must evaluate people's ideas irrespective of "how and what they reveal of their class and background."
Also, I think you would agree we should be willing to embrace the unconventional. We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.
So, it seems that what you actually want is formality and deference?
P.s. Ironic that, in a post about conventions in communication, you omitted a question mark after retrogressive.