Know Your Audience

Couple of gay boys, Mateo and Cam, communicating at a bar in Bushwick

We communicate for a lot of reasons. To inform, to extract information, to entertain, to pass the time, to hear ourselves, to criticize, to persuade, to maintain relationships, etc.

If a person wants to communicate effectively and efficiently, she (gonna be using ‘she’ as a generic pronoun for fun) can’t communicate the same way to everyone. A simple example: She wants to inform a young man that his shoes are untied. But they’re in Ecuador and he can only speak Spanish. She has a couple of options-

  1. She keeps trying to tell him in English.
  2. She points at his shoes and plays charades.
  3. She finds a bilingual individual and speaks through her.
  4. Uhh she can also get frustrated and wave him off.

Option #2 is probably the most effective form of communication in this little scenario. Listing shit is so addictive so I’ll do it again. This is why #2 has a high probability of success:

  • She had a purpose, a reason for communicating.
  • She read the situation and understood that English would not have been effective.
  • She abandoned her language and suggested that he’d abandon his. There was compromise. This is a two-party agreement, so if the Ecuadorian man had no interest, the communication would be lost.
  • She found a common language, body language, and communicated her concern.

Unfortunately, you’ll find that a lot of people go for option #1. They aren’t invested in their reason for communicating, they’ve misread the situation, or they weren’t willing to abandon their language and compromise.

Back to the young (and handsome) Ecuadorian man. The scenario would get considerably more complicated if our hero wanted to talk politics. Shoes are physical, and tying shoes is a familiar motion for those who wear them. Ideas, however, are invisible. She could learn Spanish or go for #3 and find a translator. That’s only half the game. Once she becomes fluent or finds that mediator, she needs to read the situation and figure out if he’s even interested in politics! Imagine learning a language for an individual just to figure out he wasn’t interested to begin with.

Once again we find that even with a common language, or a mediator, or whatever, some people just aren’t great at gauging someone’s interest in what they have to talk about. These are poor communicators, as nothing is being accomplished by their word vomit.

I’m not sure there’s an easy solution for being a poor communicator. My advice is to humble yourself, understand that your message is important to you or the other party, and practice talking to people and targeting their interests and passions.

It’s funny because a lot of these shitty communicators come straight out of academia. Their heads get filled up with all this knowledge and invisible brownie points for doing homework and writing pages and pages of bullshit. And then they go to the average person and talk with the academic voice and use complicated words and confuse whatever message they were ‘trying’ to convey. All that bullshit and fluff. And it sounds cute from the outside, but I’m fluent in the academic language and I know that they can send their message SO much quicker if they just dumbed it down. Unless, of course, if they just like to listen to themselves. If that’s the case, just sit in a mirrored room and jerk yourself off.

The trick of the trade, the trade being communication, is to KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. This isn’t easy at all. Especially if we move away from the one-on-one interactions. Imagine needing to gear your language towards the masses? Why do you think presidents talk in that slow, boring, emotionless cadence? It’s because it is the safest, all encompassing form of English that he could adopt. Now imagine if Obama would communicate in Black English? He comes from an academic background so I’m sure he’s more fluent in Standard American English, but just bear with me. If he got up on the podium and started speaking in African American English Vernacular (AAVE, Black English, ‘Ebonics’) then there would be a LARGE group of Americans that would eat that message up. It would be loud and clear, easy to digest, and would promote a sense a familiarity in all those who are fluent in AAVE. But what about the vast majority of Americans who don’t speak the dialect? They would be confused and frustrated. Knowing your audience in this situation means knowing the majority. So presidents will continue speaking in that boring, slow voice, unfortunately.

For my advanced students, the bonus trick of the trade is CODE SWITCHING. We all do it already, just some of us suck at it or are offensive. Code switching is the seamless transition from one effective language, dialect, etc. to another. For example, the way I speak to my mother is not the way I speak to my friends. The way I speak to my friends is not the way I speak to my hypothetical girlfriend. The way I speak to my professor is not the way I speak to my cousin who lives in the projects and barely made it through high school. Code switching is a sign of a great communicator. Now, it is also difficult to gauge someone’s language before speaking to them. I’d say, in this situation just talk naturally and neutrally. Don’t assume AAVE when you talk to a black dude. Don’t speak slow, broken Spanish when you talk to a brown dude. Yet, people still do those things. That’s not code switching, that’s called being an asshole.

That’s all I got, keep communicating.





9 thoughts on “Know Your Audience

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