We all do it. Most of us without thinking about it. We change the way that we speak based on who we are talking to. There are the obvious times – when talking to babies. Then there are the less obvious situations. You probably don’t realize that you use different vocabulary when talking to your boss than to your co-workers. And I know you don’t notice the subtle changes in grammar either. But they’re there.
It is estimated that everyone can fluently speak between 10 and 20 dialects of their native language. They change their dialect (or code switch) depending on the situation, people present, goals for the encounter and relative rank in society among other factors. By the time they are in fourth grade, most kids use different dialects (including grammar) with their friends vs kids they don’t get along with. Both of those dialects are different from the one they use with their teachers, which is also different from the one they use with their parents. Many children develop this ability much earlier – especially when their parents use different languages, or a different language from the cultural norm (eg, Deaf or Foreign born adults). I know one four year old CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) who had a Hearing mother and Deaf father. She was able to seamlessly switch from ASL to English and back in the time it took for her to look from one parent to the other. That is an extreme example, but the skill is quite common. If you have children (or access to children in their home environment) listen to how they ask their parents for the same thing.
Adults don’t lose that ability, rather they refine it. Think about how you talk to your best friend at work. Now think about how you talk after work. Since you work together, chances are at least part of your after work conversation is about work, but the way you talk about it will be quite different at the coffee shop or bar than in the office. I’ll bet you never noticed that before. You’ll see it in the level of formality. When you are just being friends, even though you are talking about work, you’ll use a lot more contractions, partial words, dangling phrases and things like that. In the office you aren’t so casual and words get fully pronounced, phrases are completed and you don’t let anything just drop. Neither way is wrong – communication happens and that’s the important part.
What’s different is the subtext or meta-language. That part of communication that has nothing to do with the words themselves, but still carries a lot of meaning. In some studies as much as 90% of communication has been shown to be in the meta-language. I tend to agree with the studies that show closer to 75%, because words do have some meaning. In either case, a significant majority of the communicating is being done without the words. This includes tone, volume, pace, extra-linguistic noises (sighs, grunts, lip smacking, etc) and anything else that can carry meaning. So looking back at your best friend from work, what’s the different meaning that you are giving and receiving between in the office and the coffee shop? Well that depends a lot on how you actually feel about the work in question. Most people however show a more emotional response to their topic in more casual settings (the coffee shop) as opposed to the work environment. Especially in our culture where emotions are to be suppressed at work.
Let’s move on to a different example. Talking about a project with your team vs your boss. For the purposes of this example, you are the team leader. When it is just the team, you are top dog. You speak with authority, your decisions stand even if you are benevolent enough to consider alternatives. You give commands. You get the idea. Now enter your boss. Suddenly you aren’t top dog anymore. You have to justify your decisions. Instead of giving commands, you ask for things to be done. The schedule doesn’t change, the product doesn’t change in fact your boss likes the way things are going so isn’t even challenging any of your decisions. Your language still changes. Why? Because your boss expects of you what you expect of your team – respect. The thing is respect is shown differently from the top and the bottom of the social ladder. Respect from below needs to be made in requests – from above it is in offering approval. When you approve your team’s requests you are leading them with respect. You also show them respect by giving them clear directives. Those clear directives also show you to be a competent leader. If you were to ask of your team what they wanted to do, they would lose respect for you – you aren’t communicating like a powerful leader so why should they follow you. At the same time, you can’t demand things of your boss. That would be assuming more power than you have. Giving your boss clear directives alters the social standing. While you still need clear communication, it must come in the form of a request. “We’ll need more time in the conference room to set up for the demonstration, could you arrange that?” is still clear enough without challenging the boss’s position. Imagine what would have happened if you’d walked into your boss’s office and said, “arrange more time in the conference room before the demonstration for us.” Not pretty.
These power and ranking effects of language are present in every conversation. In every situation, there is social ranking. Humans fight for our position in the tribe just like all the great apes, only we do it with language (most of the time) rather than physical chest thumping. Whenever we get together with people, there is a time of jockeying for position as we try on various linguistic modes with the people around us until we figure out who we can use the higher ranking grammar with and who we must defer to. Most of the time this works itself out rather quickly and we get on with life. Every once in a while you end up with a rivalry that seems to make no sense. You’ve seen it, the two co-workers who snipe at each other at every turn or the friends who just can’t get along. Look closely at the first things they say to each other every day and you’ll probably find that they are both using the higher ranking language with each other. Since neither will defer, there is a mismatch of rank. In the natural world we would expect them to wrestle it out. That’s not appropriate in human contexts, so they continue to try to out rank each other until they are separated, either by a transfer or other employment change or people stop inviting them places together.
There isn’t a hard science to this kind of thing, so I can’t give you the rules for showing relationships in manner. I can tell you that there are some writers who get it right and others who don’t. The ones who get it right become famous for their wonderful books and great characters. The ones who don’t tend to remain in obscurity. Even that isn’t a hard and fast rule. Some authors get it right and remain undiscovered (yet). The best advise I can give you is to listen. Listen carefully to the way things are said in the kinds of relationships you are writing. Then use what you hear in your stories. And know that you can manipulate the relationships by using the different dialects of respect. Imagine the impact of a secretary being able to command her boss – what does that tell you about the relative power? What kind of intriguing mystery is there in just one little interaction. And the beauty is that most people won’t even know why that relationship stood out to them.