Why I Like to Use Slang in Professional Settings
Over the years, I was instructed to avoid slang in professional settings — you may remember that too. You can probably remember teachers who marked our essays in red or mentors who corrected our slang during speeches. We love them for it because they were looking out for our best interests. During college, I learned to correct my grammar and form of speech because I aspired to get a great, prestigious job.
I can speak professionally, but…
I have to admit. I learned some “big” and “fancy” words in college; I still use them every day. My friends tease me all time for it. And I always take pride in my professional etiquette and ability to communicate my message appropriately and effectively.
However, “proper” speech is the not the only form of communication I choose to invoke at work — and I do this on purpose. I believe that slang as a form of communication relays a message in a different and potentially more effective way.
When appropriate (i.e whenever I do not think my career will be in jeopardy), I tend to invoke slang with my colleagues at work on a daily basis.
“Hey man, how u doin”
“Alright. See ya later, take it easy”
“Thanks. You’re a homie.”
These are common phrases I use daily. I like them and my colleagues respond well to them. From my experience, my colleagues feel more at ease with me and they begin to reciprocate the same behaviors. It helps them believe I am not just some corporate stooge trying to make it at all costs; instead, I am here to make friends and build trust, even if I use unconventional methods. I like to think that I am asked for feedback and input at a higher frequency due to my ability to communicate.
Think about your audience
When is it “appropriate” to use slang? The answer is simple. Whenever someone is able to understand you and you can strengthen your message. For example, I doubt you would approach an 87-year-old lady and say, “What’s up homie.” The person you’re addressing would give you a strange look (and personally I would too).
This example helps make my point about being easily understood. Saying “what’s up homie” is not wrong in all cases; however, here you said it in a foreign language to someone who probably won’t understand. It’s similar to talking to people in Spanish when they speak English only. That would be considered rude and doesn’t strengthen the message, which is lost in poor translation.
Needless to say, I am more careful when I use slang with clients, executives, etc. I tactfully manage my communication to move upward in my career. However, in many cases at work I shamelessly use slang to stay true to my background and to relay my messages in more effective ways. Thus far, I’ve seen a positive response.
I know a lot of readers may disagree. We have always been instructed to talk “right” and to use professional demeanor in the workplace. Corporate America currently believes that instead of asking, “how u doin,” one should say “how are you doing?” Instead of saying, “what’s up,” one should say “hello.”
I am not arguing we should replace all professional forms of speech; professional speech can be VERY useful. I am stating that certain types of slang should be considered an accepted dialect in professional settings rather than something we need to avoid. I think that Slang, Ebonics, Spanglish, or whatever you want to call it should be respected.
More than just word choice
In my experience, languages that originate from elites tend to be protected, respected, and institutionalized. Slang tends to be a language of poor communities, and “somehow” it tends to be rejected in professional settings. This essay is more complicated than “slang vs professional speech.” Because if we dig deep enough, everybody knows that a certain type of “slang” isn’t the main issue.
Let me give you a scenario. Imagine an American Southerner saying, “Hey ya’ll, How u all doin’? I reckon you are having a wonderful day today.” You probably have heard this in the past. I personally hear this in the workplace all the time, and subconsciously, I find it endearing. I enjoy southern dialects, but I also realize this is a bias and where it comes from.
This southern dialect is technically considered slang in mainstream America, but do you think that way of talking is unprofessional? I’m willing to bet you would say no. This is because southern dialects are considered cultural variations that are appropriate in the workplace. Slang, specifically Ebonics and Spanglish, should be categorized in a similar way as appropriate cultural communication.
Let’s look at role models
Many famous people know the importance of slang to strengthen their message. You may remember President Obama saying, ““If folks wanna pop off and have opinions about what they think they would do, present a specific plan.” and “I’m not interested in posing,” when discussing plans to defeat ISIS. The media paid attention to the message and talked about it. On a funnier note, his message was also made into a song.
We can also reference Richard Sherman, the American football cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, who received a degree from Stanford in Communications. As an avid scholar of communication, Richard recognized that his message was strengthened through slang. Do you think he didn’t know how to speak professionally? Of course he did. But one important reason his messages resonated was because he spoke truth in a different way. Now he’s one of the most recognizable players in the NFL.
Please do not misconstrue my argument as advocacy or an excuse for people to be unprofessional. I am just trying to broaden what professional means in the workplace.
We especially need to be careful with revenue-generating activities. I personally love making “dat” money, and I bet most of you do too. In client-facing activities, we know speaking to prospects in the voice they expect and recognize is the best strategy — professional speech. In those cases, slang may not be the best strategy and that’s OK. We all change the way we talk every day.
However, let’s not forget slang can also generate revenue. In fact, specific industries demand it. There’s a good chance that anyone using social media, watching TV, and selling products to regular Americans has already embraced many forms of slang. From Doritos commercials to memes on Facebook, certain companies know the marketing secret: people are attracted to slang. Perhaps the rest of corporate America should begin to embrace the benefits.
Independent of money, the main argument here is that we learn to accept people who speak a certain way due to their background as long as they use language appropriately. We are socialized into believing that “ghetto” ways of talking do not belong in the workplace; in reality, it’s a form of culture that should be respected and tolerated. It also makes our messages stronger in many cases.
We have multiple versions of ourselves…
As a young man of color, it’s a difficult balance to stay true to oneself and still continue to be successful in corporate America. Likewise, it’s difficult to convince people that slang is OK when others disagree.
You may argue that someone may not like my form of communication, or that I could potentially make a bad impression and harm important relationships? However, with the same logic, maybe someone does not like the way I look or where I come from? At the end of the day, we need to acknowledge different versions of ourselves and others and accept them. In reality, every one of us is multi-dimensional.
Disclaimer: I use “slang” in this article in a holistic way. I am largely talking about Ebonics, but this applies to other forms of slang as well (i.e Spanglish). Academics will probably note that I mushed together “culture,” “dialects,” and “slang” into one bucket, though larger distinctions exist in the world of academia.
Lonjino Lazcano writes as a voice for Latinos, underdogs, and lovers of life. Share, Like, or Comment if you like what you read.
All opinions expressed are my own and they do not reflect the opinions of any of my current organizations.