Meg Jay, Ph.D.

Meg Jay Ph.D.

The Defining Decade

Close the Urban Dictionary FTW

The Case for Speaking Smartly in Your 20s.

Posted May 04, 2012

Okay, twentysomethings. What no one is telling you is that they cringe when you say “like” and “you know” and “lates” for later and “word” for agree. I know what you’re thinking: “My friends don’t cringe. They talk that way too.”

In my last post, I discussed why huddling together with like-minded peers limits who and what you know. Now, I want to explain why it limits how you speak and think as well.

A century of research in sociology—and thousands of years of Western thought—shows that birds of a feather flock together because of homophily, or “love of the same.” As a result, a group of close friends—such as the urban tribe or even an online social network—is typically a homogeneous clique. Friends share assumptions about one another and about the world.  They may go to the same churches or schools or have the same ideas about love. Our strong ties probably all watch Glenn Beck or Rachel Maddow or The Colbert Report—or they decidedly do not. 

Because close-knit groups of friends are usually so similar, they tend to use a simple, encoded way of communicating known as restricted speech. Economical but incomplete, restricted speech relies on in-crowd colloquialisms and shortcuts to say more with less. Texters all know that FTW means “for the win” just as businesspeople know that JIT stands for “just-in-time.”

When we have conversations with those outside the inner circle, we communicate from a place of difference and so we have to use what is called elaborated speech. Unlike restricted speech, which assumes similarities between the speaker and the listener, elaborated speech does not presume the listener thinks in the same way or knows the same information.  We need to be more thorough and this requires more organization and reflection. There are fewer tags, such as “ya know,” and sentences are less likely to trail off at the end. Whether we are talking about career projects or our thoughts on love, we have to make our case—to ourselves and to others—more fully.

Because the twentysomething brain is capping off its last critical period of growth, the conversations you have day-in and day-out are wiring you to be the adult you will be—and now is the easiest time to change the way you speak.  When I talk to clients about the still-developing twentysomething brain, they say, “Wow, maybe I’d better get out there and learn a language!” “Great idea,” I reply. “Improve your English.”

Now will be the easiest time to rid yourself of that reflexive “like” habit or that way you end sentences with “I don’t know…”  Now is the time to get out there and talk to people of different ages, and different walks of life, who will challenge you to be more clear about what you think.

Something dies inside for employers—and potential employers—when they hear you use restricted speech. They think you don’t take yourself seriously. They think you don’t know the difference between how to act with your friends and how to act at work (and this might translate into inappropriate tweets and silly Gchat posts). They think they’ll hire or promote the twentysomething who does.

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