20 November 2009

Communication - A Dying Grace?

Leah K. over at Working (on) Motherhood posed a question to the community of parents that she serves so well today: Do you swear around your kids? Her piece, along with the question and answers brought me back to my very own thoughts on language and communication, not just with respect to swearing but in the way we communicate in general - and how we're teaching these skills (or not) to our own kids.

My own personal "Blue" vocabulary is possibly more extensive than the rest of my vocabulary. I like to think that being in a male dominated, military profession has truly helped me hone my ability to string profane words together into a higher art form. It's true - I've seen battle hardened Marines get tear eyed, moved by the sheer beauty of my words.

There is, of course, an inherent danger in this use of vulgar language. It mostly lies in the fact that people can no longer tell when you are, in fact, really angry. To compensate for this, when I am angry, I don't swear at all. And on those rare occasions when my rage is so white hot and finely tuned and directed that it makes anger look like puppy dog kisses and rainbows, I don't even yell. On those occasions, the words, "Time, Distance and Shielding" are given new, more urgent meaning.

There are those among the intelligentsia who will shake their heads sadly and point out that vulgar and profane language really only serves to make the speaker (or spewer, if you will) appear ignorant, uneducated, backwards and stupid. I do like to believe that none of those traits apply to me in a more general sense, although on some issues and topics I will cop to being all of the above plus a few not mentioned.

Yet somehow, it seems that today, profanity is less profane than it used to be. In fact, it's the ability to converse and communicate eloquently, succinctly and clearly that seems to be a dying grace. And it is a grace. So why do people find it to sound so old fashioned? James Parker, contributing editor to The Atlantic, recently wrote an OpEd in praise of Laughing Babies and the voice he chose was a high tone, with tongue firmly planted in cheek. I loved it. There were adjectives used in such a way that I haven't seen in print since my literature classes in college. But some commenters didn't and an argument broke out in the comments section over the tone he chose. He was accused of speaking like an "alien" visiting earth. [sigh]

I myself have one or two words in my arsenal that extend beyond two syllables (and I can even spell them!) and I absolutely believe that that face we put forth to the world at large says less than the utterances issued forth from said face. Accents, colloquialisms, slang and just general poor language skills do indeed detract from our ability to have others take us seriously.

In fact, I see this a lot in blogs. While I'm very aware that my proofing skills need work, I have read some publicly posted blogs on this worldwide web of ours that, frankly, make me want to stab my eyes out. It's not because I disagree with the point that the author is trying to convey, but because there are only so many "for all intensive purposes" I can take in one paragraph and, frankly, because text speak makes you sound like a moron.

By now you're wondering what any of this has to do with parenting, I'm sure. Well, it all comes back to what we teach our children, doesn't it? While we celebrate first words and encourage the language waterfall, what are we actually, unwittingly, passing on in our manners of speech?

My daughter won't inherit a Boston accent. It's a dying breed and I don't have one. I am, however, afraid that she may inherit my chronic and totally voluntary Tourrette's. One day not long ago, I let loose with a string of some of my most Prosaic Profanity to date while driving to the store. When I was done, I felt better, but it was short lived after I heard a giggle from the back seat. I took that moment to turn my tirade in to a learning experience..."Honey," I said oh-so-sweetly, "I'm sorry. Those are Mommy's driving words and they're not very nice. Please disregard them." I swear, she snorted sarcastically at me.

Now, I swear in German. It's no better if you're a native German speaker, but most people around us aren't (well, except for one of our closest friends who is...) and hell, if Eliot on Scrubs can get away with yelling, "FRICK!" 50 times an episode (yes, that is German for "F**k"), then it can't be that bad, right? Yet, there is an alarming number of babes in our neighborhood whose speech is unintelligible, except for those bits pepperd with profanity. It's shocking when I hear it from a 7 year old who uses it the way that I do, as an integral part of his vocabulary.

It does make me wonder what we, as a generation of parents, are actually teaching our offspring about the value of diction, elocution and having a broad vocabulary. Creative licensing aside, it seems as though the Ugly American has returned from Continental Holiday and is taking over our own streets once again.

Whatever my own linguistic shortcomings, I do hope that I can show our daughter how to rise above and teach her that speaking intelligently and listening critically are not, in fact, bad traits at all.

What about you? Do you swear around your kids? Do you put a focus on communication in your household or do you think it's all much ado about nothing?


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