I have a habit that mortifies Mr. Wordtabulous. I fully admit to it and can only hope he is wrong about how noticeable and offensive it is to others. Because I can’t help it. And I am not alone. Maybe you, too, share this annoying and socially repulsive aberration: Sympathetic Elocution. In other words, the involuntary mimicking of someone’s accent, verbal rhythms, and intonation when one is in conversation. I do it all the time. I spent most of my life until my mid-twenties in rural South Dakota and Minnesota, where we have our own small variations, including cowboy twang and Norwegian lilt, but there isn’t a lot to try on in terms of exotic audibles. I wasn’t really aware of doing it until my husband pointed it out in a taxi from the airport to our hotel in Rome on our first international trip. I was answering a question our cabdriver asked, and was trying to keep it simple, since he was speaking somewhat broken English with a considerable accent. I know he probably understood a lot more English than he was comfortable speaking but I was trying to be considerate. “Why are you talking like that?” hissed Mr. W in my ear. “Like what?” I asked. “You sound like you’re making fun of the way he talks,” he returned, actually turning a little pink with embarrassment. I was astounded. I wasn’t doing the thing where I was over-enunciating, or using volume to make up for shared language, but there I was anyway, an ugly American. I became self-conscious, but still got caught doing it.
In Mexico, in Germany and Austria (where at least I had some language skills) and at home, where I had friendships with people from Rwanda and Sudan, my husband continued to shake his head when listening to me deep in stilted conversation and using words that sounded perfect spilling off others’ lips but clearly sounded odd on mine, at least to him. Not long ago, after spending some hours with a woman about half my age, I heard it myself: a slightly nasal drawl with a questioning lift at the end of sentences where none was needed. I had picked up a hint of Kim Kardashian via my younger friend. I vowed to be more disciplined. I would not be seduced into affecting other people’s speech patterns, consciously or unconsciously, regardless of how interesting or beautiful or at least different I found them. I am myself, after all, why wouldn’t that be enough?
I was at work recently, listening to a colleague finish up a call to Tennessee. She hung up the phone and exclaimed, “Southern people’s accents are so addicting! I was talking to that man, and I kept catching myself starting to talk like him.” I was delighted. “You TOO?” Sympatico. What a relief. Ignominy loves company. But seriously, is the crime an innocent verbal quirk, or the embarrassment it causes myself and others? Because I am not so embarrassed…until the day I get caught on tape, then I will wither with humiliation. Actually, just imagining that gives me the armpit prickles of mortification. (That’s NOT just me; I know at least one other person, not related to me, who gets those.)
I do it here, too. I can’t blog after reading anyone else’s work or I’ll sound more like them than myself. If I try to write after reading Lucy’s Football, for example, I am all CAPS and attempted hysterical, confrontational, witty zigs and zags and cascading asides. When the wuc posted (and her thing is more dark poetry and rated M for mature smackdown satirical descriptions of her life,) my comments would come out like this (in response to a bad relationship twist and it’s purported cause of her lack of mojo,) “I am frequently reminded that the seismic shifts of life that leave us unbalanced is material. I also believe that mojo is like a slow-motion heartbeat, expanding toward the brilliant, then contracting like a fist, only to unfold again. The dog days are over, wuc…” And I kind of love that, but while it’s me, it is more like me on my third tequila shot at 1:00 in the afternoon, not me everyday. And after reading Hot Off The Wire, my prose gets tighter and with a particular highly focused energy that is hard to describe but easy to identify. I can always tell when I have Kelly in my head.
Overall, I tend to think of it as an emulation, sort of an “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” I enjoy the people I speak with, whose verbal vibes I inadvertently copy. I HOPE I wouldn’t slip into a writing style I didn’t love. So, if you and I ever get to chatting in the verbal or written sense, and you hear me starting to sound a little more like you, please, please don’t be offended. I would never make fun of you. (For sure not to your face, because that is rude.) I just dig you, and am feeling the connection. I promise to respect our differences and keep it real.