California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: October 23, 1999
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Throughout this book, we have been focusing mainly on the search for the ideal career through the use of sociological concepts, theories and methods. But in between all that, each of us struggles to get by day to day. We would like to focus on everyday life. That's important too, as we muddle along in our fast-track to success -- fame, fortune and glory. There's not an area of social life or society that sociologists have left alone. Everyday life is an interest to some sociologists. For example, phenomenology is the study of the common-sense everyday world through the individual. Schutz (1932) was mainly interested in how we create a common view or what he called the problem of intersubjectivity. If we are all so different, how do we manage to agree and have some things in common in order to function? There's the everyday world of taken for granted assumptions which allows us to function from day to day. We assume that when we're driving that others will stop at a stop sign and that everyone will be driving on the proper side of the road, and so on. If we didn't assume such things, we would have chaos. It's amazing how much we take for granted which Berger and Luckmann (1967) called "the social construction of reality." Basically, they said that people are the products of the society they create.
Everyday life is full of taken for granted assumptions. If we did not make some assumptions, we would never get much accomplished. Imagine verifying each day when this class is scheduled (to be sure that it meets at a particular time, in a particular room and that the professor is going to be there, (and the poor clerical person who has to answer your questions each day with the same response!). How complicated life would be. But on the other hand, have you ever communicated something that you thought was perfectly clear, but the other person missed it entirely? Another example of taken for granted assumptions but this time, it gets us into "trouble" because we "assumed" the other person understood. (In our student-operated research centers, one of the reminders we kept telling each other is "Never assume!!!" Oh, how much trouble and how many headaches that has caused us! We're sure you can think of similar situations -- with colleagues, co-workers, kids, dogs, and so on.
Ethnomethodologists study such taken for granted assumptions. Garfinkel (1967) liked to bring the commonplace to light; making the unnoticed noticed. That's what we mean by taken for granted. In Garfinkel's words, ethnomethodology is "an investigation of the rational properties of everyday activities and its concern is with finding out how individuals plan and explain their behavior." Therefore, ethnomethodology is just a long, fancy term for what methods people use to come to a consensus and to solve their problems. Simply, ethnomethodology is the study of everyday life. How do people make sense of their everyday life? One way is to upset the taken for granted assumptions -- like "Candid Camera." Disrupt and cause small moments of madness. And then, observe how people cope. How do people communicate what has happened to them?
Throughout this chapter, we emphasize the dual nature of language in 1) sending and receiving messages and 2) shaping thought as well as all the taken for granted assumptions made if we don't carefully tend to the messages we are sending. In sending and receiving messages, we seek to communicate with others, an act which is social by its very nature. Language serves also to order our thoughts and interpret our social world. Language, both verbal and non-verbal is thus a major tool in maintaining the link of our social network, a network essential to cooperative work in any society (Levinson, 1980).
In this chapter, we examine the components of the message: Ideas and words. Means of selecting ideas from fertile background of experience are compared to the process of generating ideas before situations our experience does not cover. Elements of effective presentation are explored: principles of selection and organization, formatting for presentation, patterns of language, and persuasion techniques. And finally, we discuss the actual choice of words. Attention is focused on generating appropriate vocabulary, and on fitting vocabulary to the context. Also in this chapter, we examine the theoretical problems confronted when we are faced with the selection of words and ideas in the message. We address first the problem of originating ideas - from what data pool do we select; and how do we create a data pool if no adequate source exists? We then consider some theoretical implications for the effective presentation of information. Finally, we turn to the nuances of words themselves, and the selection of "le mot juste" -- the precise word, the word which conveys exactly the meaning we seek to convey.
Because language is social in nature, we find complex interactions between language and the social context within which it occurs. Much of this chapter is based on phenomenology, ethnomethodology, and Herbert Blumer's symbolic interactionism (1969). Basically, these theories focus on society as process. Symbolic interactionists are interested in how people interact with each other. Blumer said we are basically symbol-users. We communicate with each other both verbally and non-verbally (you know the saying, "if looks could kill?" - that's non-verbal). Blumer (1969:5) states: "Symbolic interactionism sees meanings as social products, as reactions that are formed in and through the defining activities of people as they interact." We include here language in its broadest sense: both verbal and non-verbal communication of man with his fellow man. We can trace the pattern of man's inextricable social nature throughout the history of our culture, perhaps most eloquently expressed in John Donne's "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main, . .. and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee," (1624).
The importance of the social context to man's very nature is reflected in the theories of phenomenology, ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism. In its early years, such micro-theories gave us concepts such as the significant others of George Herbert Mead (1934), and W.I. Thomas' (1958) man's perceptions of reality: "If men perceive situations to be real, they are real in their consequences." We are brought full circle by those who delve into the shaping of modern belief systems, such as Milton Rokeach (1960), who concludes that men are most likely to perceive that which they expect to perceive, i.e., that which fits their belief system. Our choice of authorities is gratuitous, since it would take an entire treatise to adequately expound on the social nature of man and his identity. Suffice it to note that the social context shapes the language that expresses and shapes our identities while in turn language and the attendant social context are shaped and changed by us.
Language permeates the world of work, just as it does the rest of our lives. Interestingly enough, Harragan (1977) points out that the language used in the corporate world is full of military metaphors and sports vernacular -- all reflecting a man's world. As a tool in the work setting, language is amenable to the acquisition of skill in its usage. The greater the skill, the more effective the tool. This chapter endeavors to teach the social components of that skill: The social context effect on messages at work, the individual's imprint on the career messages she sends, and the social psychological rationale for the choice of the ideas and words of which the messages are composed. These are the contributions that the sociological perspective can offer to your acquisition of language skills. There are other language skills you will find honed by other disciplines. Seek them out and add them to your repertory, for skillful language usage is one of the means through which you will expand your alternatives throughout your career.
In the first part of this chapter we consider the ideas that form the content of our work messages. We suggest sources for ideas and explore effective means of presenting them in messages that will enhance the image we want to convey.
Choosing the Appropriate Idea
Language messages are designed to convey ideas. In this section, we consider the problem of the sources of those ideas. Some of us have a background so rich in achievement that we can select appropriate work related achievements at will. Others scan their background in dismay to find it littered with messages about skills suddenly rendered obsolete by new technology, or perhaps about all the crises that loomed in a suburbia filled with children and pets. Valid message content is usually there. But it takes a bit more ingenuity to synthesize it in some instances.
Selection from Plenty With a strong background of work-related achievement the problem of selection focuses on priorities. The person with such an abundance of material to draw from must guard against two basic problems: 1) an appearance of disorganization, and 2) overqualification. When one has numerous examples to choose from, there is a tendency to throw them all in to impress. Consider, for example, the middle-level manager who seeks a new job before an impending merger causes reorganization of line positions in her company. During an interview, Harriet Hufferton elaborates on the skills she has developed in negotiating performance standards, and including staff in decision-making, mentions several examples of instances in which she was able to cut production costs by re-designing technical procedures, alludes to her skills in interpersonal relations and offers specific examples of having smoothed over difficulties in liaison between production and marketing departments. She speaks with confidence of her ability to make production decisions - to see the potential in new techniques and to provide administrative support for product development. Hufferton then goes on to talk of her effectiveness in helping subordinates plan their careers effectively and meet their career objectives in the organization. She describes a project in which she developed a manual for tracing career opportunities in the company and matching them to work preferences. She is very much interested in the new literature on quality of working life, and hopes to contribute a professional article on the subject as soon as she completes her Master's thesis, which is on the impact of high technology on production careers.
You can see the problem. What is she applying for? A personnel position? An administrative position? She starts off with supervisory skills, then jumps to cutting production costs, then to interpersonal skills and departmental liaison. Then she goes back to production, this time emphasizing product development. Then she returns to supervision and interpersonal skills, only to jump to her academic interests and ambitions. Even these are scattered. She plans an article on work satisfaction, but is writing a thesis on the impact of high technology. She seems to have presented us with everything she has done, is in the process of doing, and plans to do. This kind of message system is related to "dumping" a computer file. The whole contents of the file comes spilling out so that you can scan it and try to make sense of it. Computer people rather anticipate the headache of imposing order when they dump a computer file; but few humans are prepared to process an unconnected mass of data in normal work transactions.
The manager in our example thus leaves us with a scattered, disorganized feeling, as though she's saying, "Give me anything, I can do it." Hufferton could avoid this impression by careful selection of her accomplishments. Suppose she wants an administrative position in a production department. Consider the effect if she explains the success she enjoyed in her current position in a production, where she has been able to cut production costs by encouraging her unit to re-design some technical procedures. She attributes her success in this area to management techniques she has learned in her M.B.A. program; inviting her staff to participate in monthly meetings on production concerns, ongoing negotiation of performance standards, and discussion with staff of their career objectives. She would like to work along the lines of encouraging improved production techniques through staff participation. She believes that her foresight and business training help her identify potential product development areas. In this example, we have used the same information, albeit quite a bit less. Enough is enough. And now there is a train of thought developed through the accomplishments. Hufferton no longer sounds as if she were trying to parade every badge of achievement she had ever won. She starts in a logical place, with production cost savings; offers an explanation for the skills which led to that success; and sketches the direction she would like to take.
Her other skills may eventually come to light, some in the interview, in response to questions, some in normal transactions on the job. But she no longer seems to presenting herself as "Superwoman." In addition, by highlighting the skills she chooses to project, and eliminating extraneous skills, she now illustrates how well qualified she is for the position in production that she wants. The interviewer no longer has to sift through unorganized data to determine whether her experience relates to her current career objective - she relies on her selective presentation of data to do that.
The experienced worker is not the only one who must beware of the pitfalls of abundant data. Students sometimes attempt to dump the entire contents of their college curriculum to impress the interviewer with their academic prowess. And adult re-entry women, who have been helped by numerous counselors to translate their years of experience with home and family into work-related skills, often try to dump the entire array of skills on the poor interviewer at once. The results, in both cases, are not unlike those we have described with our experienced manager.
Incongruity and Planning in Case of Scarcity There are times in the career life cycle when one either has no work-related experience to call on, or much of that experience is for some reason inappropriate to present career objectives. In this case, new work-related data must be generated. The first and most obvious technique is the translation of past experience to present objectives: Regroup and redefine. Consider the example of an elementary school teacher who has decided to go into banking. Mark has no experience in anything but teaching. How can he translate this experience to effective messages for the bank interviewer: 1) During his three years in teaching, Mark was active in coordinating PTA fund drives for the school. In his bank interview, he can discuss the skills he has developed in representing the institution to its clients and the community. 2) He can also point out the public nature of his work in teaching - he meets with parents and concerned members of the community frequently, and is at ease in dealing with this boundary position. 3) While at his present school, Mark developed a special program for after-school enrichment and a curricular package designed to relieve math anxiety in sixth graders. Mark can discuss the interest he has shown in the broad variety of problems that face the institution, his ingenuity in finding creative solutions, and in fitting those solutions into the institutional context. Now, Mark can conclude that he would like to broaden his work experience, and explain that he feels his teaching would serve as an excellent background for a career in customer relations with the bank.
Again, the general principles involve a careful selection of experiences that bear some relationship to the new objectives and limitation of the list, so that those chosen can be effectively highlighted.
The Starting Point - Generating Ideas. Translation of experience to new applications is not always easy. Most campuses have student placement and counseling offices that offer professional help. We offer here some general guidelines on generating ideas. The process is similar to dumping the file that contains all your past accomplishments and then imposing some kind of selective order on the list. It is a valuable exercise; and we recommend it as one starting point.
Another starting point is a technique used by writers when faced with a blank page and no idea of where to begin. Start with anything. Trying to come up with good ideas for your performance review next week? Mind a total blank? Okay. Just start! "Went to lunch with Charley. Had tuna. Charley complained about the way we'd been holding up the widgets for the left-threaded wratchets. What does he expect when I've been telling him for weeks that the walfestingers weren't going to hold up. Luckily I ordered the replacements when I did. We're producing ten times as many widgets as he'd have gotten otherwise." And so on.
Now go back and sort out the information. Sometimes being able to say "No, that's not what I want to say" will get you two steps closer to what you do want to say. No, having tuna with Charley won't get you promoted. and it's not necessary to confide that Charley wants more widgets than he's getting. But strategic planning in ordering walfestingers weeks before they were scheduled has enabled you not only to keep up standard production, but also to increase production ten times over to meet Charley's demands for the new project. There's one item for your list. and in reviewing your "stream of consciousness" notes you've recognized that was, in fact, strategic planning.
Sometimes overcoming the blank page syndrome is all that's needed, and you can proceed to relate all the accomplishments of the last six months. Sometimes the problem is that you're not accustomed to thinking of your work in terms of accomplishments. In that case, you may have to go back to "stream of consciousness" data for the whole six months and carefully pick out performance achievements. Particularly in the latter case, you should make a habit of tackling this process regularly. You can forget a lot in six months.
Another technique for generating ideas is to look for patterns in the ideas you have, to see if any other categories or subtopics suggest themselves. This is how the existence of new elements was predicted. Remember Chemistry I and the Table of Atomic Weights? Scientists studying the table noticed patterns of progression. Wherever the pattern was broken, scientists predicted that a new element would be discovered to fill in the gap. And so it was.
The next step is to set up some organizational framework for the data you have generated. Here's one possibility:
1) Hold meetings with all employees in
unit for input to decision-making that
concerns unit. Better crisis management,
arguments, blaming averted.
2) Establish confidence in subordinates.
Aware of problems as they develop.
3) Establish liaison with other units.
Strategic planning for personal needs.
If you have established unit meetings, that could be one major category. Two purposes the meetings have served in these data: employees have input to decision-making that concerns them, and a crisis was more effectively handled, an argument averted. Now, the framework should stimulate you to think of other advantages to these meetings. (Remember the taken for granted assumptions that we make and Garfinkel explained?) Maybe you haven't yet realized them all - but with the help of an organized framework you can see for yourself what additional steps you might take, without waiting for your supervisor to suggest them. For example, in the first category, meetings with subordinates might offer the occasion to discuss crisis management techniques; might allow the unit to explore production alternatives that could increase output; might help identify problems in quality control, and so on. Have you done any of these things? or others that begin to suggest themselves now? or could you include some of them in your performance review as planned moves as soon as the Beaverman project is completed?
In the second category, you have only one item - aware of problems as they develop. What other items could fit there? Make it a point to check on employee's family problems? or know the signs of alcoholism, drug abuse or other family disturbances, so that you can refer employees to the appropriate employee relations department? And have there been any specific cases other than Celia? List them all. Maybe some will require a separate category.
In the third category, you have networking outside the unit. In this case, you managed to relocate personnel. What other external links have you established or might you establish? With employee relations to find out what kinds of assistance are available? Would they send someone to talk to your unit during one of your unit meetings? Would the health and safety department talk to your unit about how to recognize drug or alcohol problems in their family and what resources are available to help with such problems? Could you establish links with other production departments to share ideas on quality control, dealing with cost overruns, etc.?
See how far you get with four brief streams of consciousness statements? The rules are simple. Start somewhere. Ask questions to elicit more specific information. Translate to the official jargon you need. Organize statements into a framework. Then proceed to fill in the gaps in the framework.
Often you will find yourself with so much data that you'll have to go back to the rules on selecting from plenty. Use the organizational framework to highlight your most important achievements, and then just fill in a few details. Performance reviews, like interviews, require careful selection. No one likes to have the whole file of your accomplishments dumped at his feet. Besides, careful organization and selection serve to highlight your competence.
Sneaky Strokes - Generating Experiences. In the process of generating statements to fill in the gaps in a framework, you will discover possibilities for new experiences. For example, in the preceding example, you might not have used employee relations as a source before. That is now a new avenue you have discovered through your framework. Whether you are in school, planning your first job, or long graduated, contemplating a top executive position, you will occasionally find the need to generate new experiences which will validate your qualifications for a new career objective. The regroup and redefine technique of analyzing the experiences you already have offers one solution to the problem. Sneaky strokes offer another.
Sneaky strokes are reinforcing behaviors designed to elicit behaviors we want to reoccur. Consultants on the East Coast designated the behavior as "sneaky strokes" because they involve conscious control of behavior that are usually out-of-awareness. For example, Sam Swaggermore, who is known as laconic and aloof, decides that he is unhappy with his image. Actually he would like to be friendlier; but he is shy. One solution the East Coast consulting firm offered: at the weekly board meetings, instead of the perfunctory handshake, hold the other's hand for just a few seconds and hold his eyes, too. Think about the short greeting formula as you say it. Give him your full attention for just a few seconds. The consulting firm reported that executives who tried this particular sneaky stroke found that people gathered around them to shake hands. If Sam Swaggermore wanted to experience a friendlier work environment, this is one way to elicit the friendliness without any major changes in his personal style. Sneaky strokes are also advantageous in that, if they are sincere and do fit the personal style, they are unnoticeable. People respond; but they are often unaware of what it is they are responding to.
Sneaky strokes can also serve effectively to defuse disagreements in the workplace. Most people reject criticism as useful information. Thus, if a subordinate persistently makes the same error, it might be more effective to offer a suggestion that would remove the possibility of that error, instead of pointing out the error each time. For example, if your secretary repeatedly misspells "hierarchy", "occurrence," and "Procedure", you might suggest that she keep a card on her desk with those three words spelled accurately. That simple action can eliminate one source of negative interaction between you.
The simplest and warmest sneaky strokes are smiles. They cost so little, yet do much for a work environment. Smile at people, and give them your whole attention for a few seconds when you greet them. You'll soon find the whole office is smiling back. And learn their names. This is such an anonymous world that we're always flattered to learn that people have taken the trouble to learn our names.
Organizing and Presenting Ideas - Elements of Effective Presentation
We have already touched on the importance of selection and organization in the previous section. Selecting out unnecessary information, and organizing the whole into an outline for the intended projection of messages, is one technique for generating ideas. It also enhances image projection. Whenever communication is composed of a series of messages, there are guidelines (many based on theoretical, others on practical grounds) that assure us of effectively presenting the whole set of data. Messages, like images, can contain elements which appear to make them incongruent. For example, when Harriet Hufferton applied for a middle-level management position, her scattered presentation of so many achievements formed a hidden message embedded in the image of proficiency she was trying to project. She appeared disorganized and overachieving (in the sense of one who tries to do everyone else's job, too). Such internal inconsistency in the message content detracts from the overall credibility of the image. In this section we explore a variety of techniques for efficacious presentment of messages.
Attention to context First, we consider the context as a whole. Selecting out irrelevant information, and organizing the information into a logical pattern, are elements of the context. There are many additional aspects to consider. Messages are an integral part of the work environment. They issue forth in a near constant stream, since organizations cannot function without communication. Even the taciturn play an active role in negotiating and presenting their work in the organizational setting. And with rare exceptions, each speaks for herself in the work environment. In personal relationships, we often encounter one partner who speaks for both. In the work environment that is rare. Your friend may like to speak for you but in the performance review you'll have to speak for yourself. We have been operating on the assumption that everyone engages regularly in sending work-related messages. Some are more valuable than others; but all participate to some extent.
Thus, for each person there exists a total universe of messages sent. When studying effect, we would normally establish a given time period. We could then examine the content of all messages sent by Timothy Taciturn in a few hours of observation, or in the course of a work week, or a month or a year. If we are quite thorough we should examine messages sent in the early morning, midday, and late afternoon, for Timothy might change his style during periods; or his work might change in nature (from paper work to supervision, for example).
If we examine a sample of Timothy's message for a given time period, we can now determine patterns in Timothy's presentation of himself and his work. One obvious approach is content analysis. What subjects does Timothy discuss in his messages? And does the content of messages change at certain predicable times?
Such analysis has always been a part of folk wisdom. I remember in particular one of my high school teachers who struggled to prevent our gossiping. Her rationale was folk wisdom: "People with the least intelligence talk about people, those who are brighter talk about things and events. The most intelligent talk about ideas." Thirty adolescent girls transcended gossip that semester, each tying to surpass the other in the brilliance of ideas. Mrs. Brown was as wise and content as a Cheshire Cat. And her simple rule still holds true. The proportional content of messages is a good measure of the image that is projected.
The same type of analysis should be applied to any planned set of data. For example, if you are sending a memo, scan the contents. What proportion of the memo is devoted to: reprimand? compliment? directives? suggestions? transmission of information? request for information? etc.? Does the proportional analysis fit your intent? For example, if you want to persuade another department head to accept two of your personnel who must be relocated, have you devoted some space to formal recognition of the favor and an expression of gratitude and future support from your unit?
Because language is so much a part of our daily lives, because it is always plentiful, always there, we tend to use it without caution. It's all too often taken for granted!! Yet words once spoken, messages once sent, may color the social context for a long while. Miranda warnings (Anything you say maybe used against you) should perhaps cover more than arrests. Who amongst us had not watched and listened as someone "put her foot in her mouth" and then stuck the other foot in while trying to talk her way out?
The tale of the frozen words lends a piquant sense of reality to the substantive nature of language. The freezing of words, holding them constant and unheard, as if it were, is a remarkable analogy to the actual process of short-term memory. In the short term memory whole images are retained without decoding. A passing billboard may suddenly present itself to your consciousness seconds after you passed it on the roadway. You may be engrossed in reading, look up and ask, "What did you say?", only to be told that the question was asked five minutes ago. We store a substantial amount of information in the short-term memory. Much of it is never decoded, never processed. But occasionally something triggers decoding and like the "frozen words", all those complaints of a disgruntled spouse about overtime suddenly crowd into consciousness as you are served with the divorce papers. Now you can hear them. With each complaint, you flinch at the battle tones that had been frozen without hearing by exhaustion and pressure. Now you hear them as they melt in the heat of a marital tempest.
Frozen words can be disruptive enough at home. Better not to have an unnecessary surplus of statements you'd rather not hear coming back to roost in the workplace. Be aware that words once flung are difficult to retrieve; and use them cautiously.
The tangible quality of spoken evidence leads us also to urge sincerity. As we have shown throughout the text, there are so many ways to construct effective messages, only fools and miscreants should be caught in insincerity. Outright untruths always carry with them the danger of melting one day at the worst possible moment. Take a little extra time and find an honest way to wriggle out of or into the situation honestly. Dishonesty and insincerity can destroy in a moment the credible image it took years to build. As half of us were counseled in high school long ago, a reputation is a delicate possession, deserving of protection. One misstep can destroy it. And nothing but a long and tedious path back to honor can restore it. You gentlemen may have missed that lecture because of the double standard. We share it in the modern spirit of equality.
As we have so carefully demonstrated, messages are not launched into a void. Responses are reflected back from the social context. Try asking Henry (who is only 39 and should not qualify as either a young child or as senile) when you can get those left-threaded widgets.
- Henry, when can we get those left-threaded widgets
we ordered two weeks ago?
- Susan, you wouldn't believe the problems we've been
having with the wrachets. And the walfestinger's
been down for two hours.
- That must present a real problem, Henry. But about
- Can you imagine trying to wring those wrachets over the
wock without the walfestinger?
- No, Henry. I can see that it would be difficult. But . . .
- I've been telling Karen for weeks that we ought to
order a replacement for that walfestinger. But she's
so rigid about requisitions and cost overrun. Now it's
really going to cost us. Production will be down for a
week. I warned her.
- Henry, about the widgets.
- Widgets? What widgets, Susan? We can't possibly take
any new orders with the walfestinger down.
It is at this point that some workers claim that there is such behavior as "justifiable" homicide, and that it would be in the best interests of the quality of working life to sanction it, (that being a purely philosophical issue, we shall not attempt to debate the merits of either side here). We shall simply note emphatically that communication is greatly improved if one pays attention to what the other party in the conversation is saying.
Another interesting example is provided by a doctor. He worked in medical research and tended to be preoccupied. His conversation with colleagues ran something like this:
- Bill, what's the deadline on that call for papers?
- The tenth of January.
- Have you seen that petri dish with the new culture
in it? Amazing pattern, isn't it?
- Yes, I saw it this morning. Have your figured it out
- No. I was wondering. . . By the way, what's the deadline
for that call for papers?
- (Pause) The tenth of January.
- I was wondering if could be caused by a different bacillus
than we thought.
- I don't think so. Controls were pretty tight.
- Yes, of course. You're right. Do you know what the
deadline is for that call for papers?
- Myron, you've asked me that question three times.
- What question, Bill?
These samples are not as extreme as they may appear. This is another reason for our emphasis on sincerity. Don't ask a question, unless you are prepared to listen to the answer. And listen to the questions that people ask of you. This simple rule is much harder to follow when you are not really interested in the transaction. If you limit your messages to ones of genuine interest to you, you'll find it easier to attend to the feedback. There is nothing more frustrating than to discover that you've been "talking to a brick wall." Thus, there is a clear need to consider the social context in formulating and presenting messages in the work environment.
Formatting Ideas In addition to the processes of careful selection and attention to social context, the format of the presentation alters the effect. We provide here a general framework that will serve for most memos, reports, proposals, presentations, etc., with slight modification.
Statement of the Issue. There is no reason to assume that the person you are speaking to (or writing to) has focused his attention on the same subject you plan to address. It helps to rivet his attention by announcing the subject. Most memo forms recognize this by including "re" or "Subject." This first component is related to the "statement of the problem" in term papers, research reports, proposals, etc. Even in letter writing, it is important to open the letter with an explanation of the subject. Think how frustrating it is to wade all the way through Cousin Frugal's letter to discover in the last paragraph that what she really wants is for you to invest $500 in her new feather plucker project. If she'd put that in the first paragraph you'd have skipped the whole letter. (Cousin Frugal's not so bad at message sending, if she successfully hooked you along the way. When you're trying to sell a feather plucker project, it's maybe a good idea to avoid mentioning the subject.)
Background. The second component relates the subject or issue to any relevant background material. If for example, you're trying to get left-threaded widgets out of Henry, you might try, as Susan did, to remind him that they were ordered two weeks ago. In term papers, research reports, proposals, etc., this is the section that reports on other studies that relate in some way to your present topic. Often this section shows the relevance of the topic to the organization's goals.
Methods and Procedures.This is the main body of the research paper in which you present the study design, the sample included, methods used, and procedures followed. The equivalent section in a memo, letter, or presentation would be the detailed development of your subject.
Analysis and Results. This section will appear only when you have data to analyze and results to report. (It should be omitted when there are no data, as it is difficult to analyze a null set). However, you might discover that you do have observational and statistical data to support your requests or claims, if you look around for them. We include this section to remind you to consider collecting information to support your arguments.
Unless you work in a research department, the most extensive analysis you'll want to use in general is percentages of maybe net present value (NPV), internal rate of return (IRR), or break-even point in some business settings. Any analysis you use with such frequency that the calculation will be automatic for you. For example, if you work with NPV and IRR, chances are that you have a calculator which is programmed to calculate them automatically when you input the data. More extensive and esoteric analysis is usually left to the research staff whose specialty that is.
Summary and Conclusion. With a long presentation or report (several pages), it is important to summarize what you have said. (The audience may have been asleep, the reader inattentive). This is your chance, having laid the whole presentation out, to sell the idea or project by invoking the gestalt. This section completes the process of communication. You started with a brief statement of the subject; gave the necessary background; enumerated the details; and now you package it. Finally, you draw conclusions. You may want to generalize from your experience to other departments. You may want to suggest further development you should pursue in your unit. And so on.
This broad general framework will serve as a rough paradigm for memos, program reports, research reports, master's theses. The contents will vary considerably. But the organizing principles remains the same. Moreover, this framework will provide a starting place to begin writing when you're faced with the blank page syndrome. Simply use the question technique. What is the problem I want to address? Why is it important? Where does it fit in? How do I want to go about tackling the problem? What steps will I take? Is there anything in the work environment to support my proposed steps (like production trends, worker complaints, requests, etc.)? And so on.
One word of advice: You don't have to start at the beginning. As a matter of fact, by the time you get to the end, you'll probably discover that you have to rewrite the beginning because you have developed precision in your thinking about the problem as you go through these steps.
Language Patterns Another important component of the message is the language pattern adopted. Language specialists have identified a variety of ways to analyze language patterns. We explore here one of many theoretical perspectives: restricted and elaborated language codes. We chose this perspective because it fits well into sociological analysis. You might explore the options in a linguistics department for pursuing the study of language patterns in far greater detail than we can allow here.
The restricted language code contains simple, unqualified statements. Those who use this pattern tend to be taciturn, finding verbiage an unnecessary intrusion upon more important activities. In this pattern, one relies more on "showing" than "explaining". Vocabulary is often limited to a familiar stock of oft-used phrases and familiar roles to fit those phrases. The very nature in which the work pattern suits it to use in settings in which the work is repetitive and physical, involving very little abstract thought? Some examples of restricted code usage:
A plumber to his helper: "Wrench." (In contrast to the elaborated code form: "I'll need a wrench to do this job. Could you get one out of the tool box?)
A supervisor to a draftsman: (pointing) "Not straight." (In contrast to the elaborated code form: "This line is not precise. You'd better check it.")
Foreman in noisy workshop: "Shut up." (In contrast to the elaborated code form: "Could you be quiet for a minute - I've got a long distance call here.")
The elaborated language code, as can be seen from the above examples, offers detail and explanations. This pattern is well suited to abstract thought, and is generally characteristic of higher educational attainment. In the workplace, the elaborated code is less likely to lead to misunderstandings. For example, the foreman in the above example may find union objections to his attitude in ordering workers to "shut up", even though actual request was reasonable. In that case, the language alone rendered the message objectionable.
Generally, the elaborated code is more likely to establish good communication in a work setting. People express greater satisfaction when they create individual variations in their work roles than when roles are rigidly defined, as they usually are by the restricted code.
For example, Marilyn Marvelton is in charge of the typing pool for engineering groups. Freddie Flopalong is a unit supervisor who often seems to get stuck with the last minute details and needs of rush copy. Every time he asks Marilyn to do a rush job, she answers: "Nope. Can't do it." And Freddie has to lope over to a friend's office to get this secretary to get the rush report out. When Marilyn Marvelton goes on vacation, Freddie discovers that Ellie Effort handles his work differently. To a rush job, Ellie replies: "Freddie, we can't possibly get to it before we finish Group Q's proposal, because that has a deadline for Washington. Now, is your job more urgent than Group L's report on quality control? What kind of deadlines are you facing?" Freddie no longer feels rejected. He may still have to lope over to Harry's office, but he has been given a reasonable explanation. When Ellie Effort decides she would like Marilyn's job, she can probably count on Freddie's support. Marilyn may be doing an excellent job. But the fact remains that the restricted language code she is using holds rigidly to her rules (maybe two days' lead time) and treats Freddie as another client who has to follow these rules, not as an individual faced with unique problems. Ellie may be less efficient, but she handles Freddie as an individual.
The choice of language code is particularly important when coaching subordinates and negotiating performance standards. In most cases, work organizations do not run like the army (although horror stories do exist). Most people respond more quickly and more accurately when you clarify the reasons for the response you want. The typing pool does require two days lead time, but if you need a last minute change in a proposal, exceptions can be made. They are more likely to be made when you offer an elaboration as to why you need exceptional treatment (unless, of course, you run into Marilyn Marvelton). One final remark on language codes: jargon lends itself to a restricted language code. Jargon originally developed to reduce the elaboration needed to guarantee that both parties were agreed on all definitions. Often, as a technical work group spends a great deal of time together they develop a restricted language code, in which each knows the other's role and few words are needed between them. This can be unsettling to outsiders, since so much of the action if formalized that the conversation doesn't make sense unless you belong to the work group. One example might be surgeons and nurses in an operating room. Their jargon is highly specific; and they need few words to effect decisive action in the operating theater. Communication problems develop when the surgeon expects the patient's family to understand the same brief explanations as his colleagues. This is one element of "poor bedside manners" - failure to switch from restricted to elaborated language codes.
Social psychological research provides us with a vast array of studies designed to establish the most effective persuasion techniques. In this section we offer a brief overview of techniques that may be applied in the work setting. It is fairly common, at least since the Free Speech Movement of the '60's, for those who wish to persuade, to present at the outset the nature of the conclusion they wish to draw. Thus, we are confronted by statements such as: "Capitalist society has always used the worker for its own ends." "The Imperialist powers have exploited the resources of Third World countries." "Only solid, conservative Republicans can harness the rampant inflation liberals have fed so freely." The issue we address here is not the accuracy of the statements, but their effectiveness in persuasion. What would be the reaction of a conservative to the first two statements? She would probably conclude the speaker was a rampant liberal, and stop listening. And the reaction of a liberal to the third statement? Probably the same - not to listen past the first sentence. If, on the other hand, the first two statements were made to an audience already supporting a socialist or communist ideal, the speaker would find his communication accepted. In this instance there is no need to change or create attitudes, only to reinforce pre-existing attitudes. If the third statement were made to a Republican audience, it, too, would serve merely to reinforce a pre-existing attitude.
Persuasion is then a matter of changing attitudes, creating new attitudes, or reinforcing pre-existing attitudes. The techniques of persuasion will vary according to situtations and objectives. Examples of all three occur in the work setting. Effective persuasion requires that we differentiate carefully.
Creating an Attitude
Creating new attitudes requires much the same techniques as creating a new image. A high proportion of the messages sent should center on the attitude in question and occasions for presenting those messages in the appropriate context will have to be found. In addition, messages will be more effective if the position is developed subtly. A blatant statement of the new attitude will often appeal only to those who already share it.
In the workplace you may encounter the need to convince a supervisor that your contributions are valuable enough to justify a new title and its attendant compensation, even though your position is at the top of a dead-end career path. You could simply announce your undeniable value to the corporation.
How much more effective would it be if you:
1. Succinctly reviewed the problems handled by your unit.
2. Described the costs in time, resources and personnel
that would ensue if your unit were not there.
3. Added the serendipitous benefits gained through the
services of your unit and gave them a cost estimate.
4. Concluded that the savings items 2 and 3 represent
your value to the corporation.
5. You deserve the title and the compensation.
Combatting a Negative Attitude
There are two schools of thought on the problem of changing an existing attitude. One suggests logical contradiction of the old belief or value. This school is well represented in techniques we consider later as general persuasion. The other school, having been bred in the back rooms of politics says "Never mention your opponent" - or the opposing belief. Since no public relations expert can guarantee the effect of any persuasion, the safest bet of all it to ignore the existence of the opposing value. The less exposure you give it; the less the effect it will have.
There are specific occurrences in the work setting for which we would strongly urge the politician's stance. These occurrences are in the socio-emotional domain and are not amenable to technical argument. Examples: the nature of the image you project; office romance or purported romance; the assignation of blame for major debacles, etc. In situations such as these, debate is futile. We suggest you decline the gambit. So did Disraeli and Henry Ford II: "Never complain, never explain," (Bernstein, 1980). For example, if Jones of the Prindley-Jones dyad decides to eliminate the "low energy" messages of fatigue and headache from his image, we suggest that he can do so more effectively by monitoring future messages and sending only "high energy" information in the future. Excuses, promises of change, etc. would only draw attention to the "low energy" messages; and the best evidence in any case is the actual change to "high energy" messages.
Strengthening an Existing Attitude
One example of strengthening existing attitudes in the work place relates to image maintenance. We mentioned this earlier in connection with the advantages of reduced performance anxiety once one has established a successful image. But we also mentioned the necessity to send out maintenance messages. One cannot retire on one's laurels, never to produce again. As a matter of fact, it is important to recognize the stage at which the successful image has been established. To continue to broadcast "high energy", multiple project performance beyond that point is to run the risk of establishing an "overachiever" or "overqualified" image. Anxious to prove themselves in their new position, they sometimes fail to perceive the moment when they can shift into lower gear. To continue in high gear past that point is to project qualities other than competence - like searing ambition, or frenetic insecurity. A little attention to the output levels of those who are regarded as successful in the organization should furnish that anchor in reality that will permit you to set reasonable performance parameters.
One-Sided versus Two-Sided Arguments
Another factor that affects the persuasiveness of communication is the inclusive nature of the arguments chosen. Early research (Stouffer, 1949; Hovland, 1957) on this topic suggested that the more educated the audience the more effective the use of the two-sided argument. That is, if you are trying to convince a college-educated supervisor of your sterling qualities for promotion, you'll probably be more persuasive if you recognize some minor weaknesses and suggest plans for strengthening them, than if you mention only your strengths. (Yes, that is why some applications for employment and for graduate school ask you to discuss your weaknesses as well as your strengths. They're serving notice that they mean to be treated as a well-educated audience.)
Of course, they don't want an orgy of confessions as you collapse into a heap of incompetence. The "socially accepted" practice is to recognize that we are all just a little less than perfect, and then devise an impressive schedule for dealing with these minor flaws. Flaws, at least tiny respectable ones, make us human. So it's important to include an occasional mistake, an insignificant shortcoming. Unless. . . your supervisor is not one of the brightest, or is vindictive. In that case, we suggest you refrain from offering valid evidence of any mistakes. Keep up a perfect front until you can get out of there. Remember, no persuasion technique is immune to the effects of the social context. There are theoretical solutions to hypothetical problems. Before you actually try any of them, be sure they are appropriate to the context you're dealing with.
In staff positions, decisions must be made. In this position, it is important to be able to back your decisions with a variety of arguments, weighing the pro and con. But you must be able to come to a decisive conclusion. Too many ifs, buts, and howevers, may make it appear that you fear responsibility. Solution: You could use the standard framework under Formatting ideas, then sell your decision as the conclusion. Or you could keep your mouth shut and see what your boss has to say before you present your decision. That depends on you and your boss, and your respective ambitions in the organization - the social context again.
The use of the two-sided argument renders the presentation less amenable to counter arguments. That could be important in the workplace. If you manage to sell your dream project with a brilliant one-sided argument, someone may come along next week and by simply offering counter arguments unsell your project to you. Of course, there is the danger that experimental social psychologists acknowledge, that no one has ever really been able to decide just how much "con" is needed to effectively balance the "pro" side of the argument. There are some gaps research hasn't filled. You'll have to go with your instincts. This could be why the world of work still needs entrepreneurs. There are still risks to be taken, as the auto industry has so recently proven.
The Order of Presentation Still another factor which carries persuasive impact is the order in which we present the components of the message. Should the "pros" precede the "cons" or vice versa? Research on this issue remains ambiguous. But there are some practical guidelines where theory fails.
The primacy effect suggests that first impressions count in speech as well as appearance. However, most of the research in this area has dealt with debate, the pros and cons. In general, patterns of communication, however, the first argument sets the tone, orients the attention, and thus colors the whole communication. Because of our natural rejection of disjunctive concepts in favor of positive feedback, presentations would probably fare better to begin with pro arguments, thus setting a positive tone.
Although some research fails to show any long term effects resulting from primacy in the ordering of arguments, most of this research has been conducted in social psychology labs. In the everyday world of work, most decisions are made fairly near the time of presentation, so that a primacy effect probably does operate. (Perhaps you should schedule presentations and/or send summary memos very near to decision-making time, to take advantage of both primacy and recency effects) And laboratory research does show that arguments presented first seem to carry more weight. Unfortunately it is difficult to measure the effects of persuasion without the contamination of other variables (like subject's prior convictions, strength and logic of the arguments, etc.).
The entire situation is complicated by research which shows that the arguments presented last may cause listeners to forget the first argument, giving the advantage to the last argument. For example, there is always the poor lost soul who is told by Mary to sort the mail, then told by Harry to file his memos, then asked by Helen to cover the switchboard, and then fired when she "hasn't done anything anyone told her to do in the last half hour." She is obviously a victim of the recency effect - tossed about by each new whim that enters the office.
The real issue in the controversy between primacy and recency effects is forgetting. Does the first argument presented have the advantage of "prior entry" thus interfering with the next argument - ceasing the first argument to be more effectively remembered - the primacy effect? Or does the second argument retroactively interfere with the first, causing the most recent arguments to be more effectively remembered - the recency effect? Unfortunately, as we noted, the research gives ambiguous results, mainly because laboratory control over message construction varies greatly from one study to another. There is no evidence to support either the primacy effect or the recency effect as being the stronger of the two. But research does tend to support the fact that both effects do operate to some extent. We shall thus try to take the best of both worlds, by constructing our presentations to take advantage of both primacy and recency effects.
When preparing memos, letters, reports, presentations, we can utilize the effects of primacy and recency by 1) starting with an "attention-grabber," a strong statement that will set a positive tone and rivet the listener's/reader's attention, 2) developing the body of the communication by a logical train of arguments that 3) climax with our main argument. Thus, we give particular attention to the first and last statements, in order to benefit from both primacy and recency effects, and gain the added impact of building to a climax. Consider the following example:
To: Karla Quashlicker
From: Bill Banter
Re: Project Coordinator for Alcoholism Project
Helen said you were looking for a coordinator for your new project in identifying employee alcoholism for the Wee Wooley Widget Company. I'd like to recommend Jim Juniper.
Jim has been a Research Associate with our community health project for two years. He has come up with several good ideas, and shown himself capable of carrying a theoretical idea through to practical application. For example, Jim was responsible for introducing the journal component in our health survey. He reasoned that forgetting would have a major effect on retroactive reporting, and suggested that we would get more reliable results by providing respondents with journals to be filled in regularly. He has published two articles on the effectiveness of this method and its implications for health care reporting.
Jim took this Ph.D. with us in Social Epidemiology. His background includes extensive work in the substance abuse area. His specialty is methodology, which should serve your needs well. He is particularly adept at working with field problems that present difficulties in assessment. I believe he would welcome the challenges in assessing the extent of alcoholism at Wee Wooley Widget.
Jim has been an active member of the East Bay Alcoholism Council for about 18 months. Since the Wee Wooley Widget company is located in East Bay, his position on the council should help in establishing the kind of liaison I'm sure you'll want with the local community treatment programs. I think Jim Juniper could be just the person you've been looking for. If you're interested, I could have Jim forward a resume.
In this memo, Bill Banter uses references expressed to Karen's expressed need for a coordinator as an attention-getter (the equivalent to Statement of the Problem). Bill gets the advantage of appealing to something Karen wants for the primacy effect. The rest of the memo follows a careful developmental pattern. Bill implies that he knows Jim's work personally for two years of work on the community health project (the equivalent to Methods and Procedures). The first qualifications Bill mentions: creativity - "good ideas" and ability to carry the ideas through. (As the first qualification, we can hope this benefits from some primacy effect). Bill then offers a specific example of Jim's contributions. (The equivalent to Analysis and Results).
Bill chose not to mention education first for several reasons. 1) Possession of the Ph.D. does not guarantee ability to produce good field results. 2) Completion of the Ph.D. is not generally a requirement for a project coordinator's position. 3) Bill knows Karla doesn't have a Ph.D., and is probably not going to place primary importance on the degree., She wants results. But the Ph.D. is certainly an extra plus, given Jim's other qualifications. Bill indicates that the Ph.D. was earned in his own department, so that he knows about Jim's educational background (another equivalent to Methods and Procedures.) Having introduced Jim's educational qualification, Bill offers details that show their relevance to Karla's project (another equivalent to Analysis and Results).
Finally, Bill mentions Jim's connection with the alcoholism council in the local area of Karen's project. He does not leave the implications of this serendipitous fact to chance, but points out the importance of established liaison to local treatment programs (another equivalent to Analysis and Results). Bill places this strategic bit of information last where it can benefit from the recency effect. Not only is our man in East Bay qualified - he's right on the spot, established with the local groups. Thus, the memo builds to a strong concluding recommendation. We can't tell whether the primacy or the recency effect is stronger. We can only organize the memo to take advantage of both to whatever extent they are operating. Careful consideration of both effects combined with a build up to the concluding remarks produces an effective memo.
On the Importance of Being Positive
Our mothers used to say "If you can't say something nice, Dear, don't say anything." Like many things our mothers told us, it turned out to be excellent advice. Not always for the reasons Mother thought it so, but excellent nevertheless. We have already discussed the importance of analyzing the proportional distribution of messages we send. If a large percentage of Jones' messages say "tired," Jones risks being labeled "low energy." If young women are often overheard gossiping instead of "discussing ideas," they are likely to be valued for qualities other than their intelligence. And if a substantial proportion of the messages we send are negative, we are very likely to be seen as "negative" people.
Numerous occasions arise in the work setting when we have to say no. And despite Mother's warning, we can't always say nothing in those circumstances. Thus, the problem is one of finding a positive approach to matters that require some kind of negation. Actually, it's not that hard. Let's look at a few examples. Suppose Marcy Makework asks you to develop a new program. You know that she is not planning adequate resources for the program. She plans to let someone do extra work. Compare the following three approaches:
Henry Hooked: "Well, Marcy, that's a lot of work. Were you planning to shift some of my counseling load? Oh, you couldn't do that, hmm? Yes, I know it would look good on my record. Of course, I'll try to get a program together for you.
Nelli NoByte: "No way, Marcy. You know what that would do to my workload. When they put money in the budget for it, I'll set up a program. Not until."
Suzy Slick: "Develop a whole program, Marcy? That seems a little unrealistic with no budgeting allowed for it. But I do think you've got a good idea there. How about my turning my juvenile diversion project over to Henry? He's expressed a lot of interest in that project. I think he'd like to work on it. (And we all know Henry can be hooked.) That would free some of my time to work out some ideas and get the background we'll need. Then we can turn it over to Mike to develop a funding proposal. I'll get started on it tomorrow, okay?"
Hooked Henry followed Mother's advice. He waffled about the work load, and nothing negative, and was stuck with the whole project. Nelli NoByte doesn't buy Mother's advice. She has a well developed flair for saying "no". But Suzy Slick managed to say nothing negative, dump some of her work load on Henry, and replace it with a reasonable piece of the new project. Suzy Slick is truly the child of Mother's heart.
When promotion time comes, consider the image these messages will have delivered. Hooked Henry is a good guy. He'll do anything you ask. But he's always overworked and hassled. Not really much leadership potential there. Nelli NoByte is competent. You can count on her work. But she's not committed enough to do anything beyond the usual workload. Suzy Slick is also competent. But Suzy will take on extra assignments; and she manages her time so effectively that she doesn't appear to be overworked and hassled.
But, you object, part of Suzy's image depends on having Hooked Henry around. What if Henry takes a language analysis course and throws the juvenile diversion project right back to Suzy? True, that would make the situation a little more difficult; but our bet is that Suzy could handle it. Her positive approach depends on 1) taking on only a piece of the task, and 2) negotiating her workload. Henry is convenient for so long as he's willing to keep accepting work overload; but he's not indispensable (which would probably be quite a shock to old Henry). Think about it, though. Most work settings (including the family) function fairly effectively when the Hooked Henry breaks down, and we are deprived of their services.
Thus, when we speak of a positive approach, we do not necessarily imply thereby acquiescence. We mean that the tone of the message should be positive, not that the answer should be yes. As a matter of fact, from the supervisor's point of view, Suzy is exhibiting the very qualities of leadership that employers look for - someone who will say "yes" to the challenge, and then delegate enough of the work to make the increased workload manageable. Henry made a weak attempt at negotiating workload he asked if he could have relief from his counseling load. That is, he left the burden of delegating work overload to Marcy; and Marcy apparently declined,. Suzy accepted the challenge by negotiating her workload on her own initiative. Thus, she is a better candidate for promotion. And yet Hooked Henry might be doing more work!
There is another very good reason for avoiding the use of a negative tone in the work place - this one purely theoretical. In A Study of Thinking, Bruner (1956) explored our reaction to disjunctive concepts, that is, concepts such as "not A." He found that humans tend to abhor negative information, and continue to search for positive clues, even when the negative information is adequate to answer the question. Bruner's findings in this respect have important implications for language in the workplace. Information stated in a positive form is more likely to be effectively processed than information stated in a negative form, even when both messages contain the same information.
Thus a positive approach to messages in the work setting fits both our theoretical understanding of how people think and process information, as well as theories of attraction in interpersonal behavior. We process positive feedback more readily than negative; and we are attracted to the people who present a positive image.
Specificity. Another factor which influences the persuasiveness of our messages is the degree of specificity they include. The more specific the message, the more unique its representation of you as an individual. Some people pay little attention to the words they use to describe themselves in general messages, (another example of the taken for granted). They would be quite surprised if we gathered a representative sample for them to analyze:
"Nice job, Charley."
"Good report, Helen."
"Thanks, I was proud of the way that job turned out."
"Mac, I've done a good job around here. I deserve that promotion."
Can we garner any information from these messages about the individual they represent? He or she makes supportive comments to others, uses a positive tone, is proud of his/her work, and believes he/she should be promoted. The language is almost that of a restricted language code: good, nice job, proud of work. There are no clues as to whether this person is a supervisor, line or staff. No clues as to how he/she makes decisions, takes risks, shows leadership. Now watch the individual emerge as we switch to an elaborated language code, and add specifics to those same statements:
"Nice job, Charley. You fielded that client's questions very well. I've considered giving you the Blane account. If you can handle Blane as well as you handled Harrison today, you'll do alright. Would you like to tackle it?"
"Good report, Helen. I was impressed with the thoroughness of your data."
"Thanks. I was proud of the way that job turned out. You know, Coggins was terribly displeased with our first campaign, and I knew I had to manage something to instill confidence. That idea Sharon hit on was sheer brilliance. That's what turned the trick. Old Coggins is pleased as punch now."
"Mac, I know money's tight. But I've earned the promotion; and I think I should get it now. I've brought in five major accounts in the last few months -that alone justifies the promotion. But I think I need the title to keep up the morale of my team. They know we're turning out good work; they need to see that I can hold my own with the other account execs and see that our team gets fair rewards for all this work."
Now the picture of an individual begins to emerge with the messages. He or she is in a supervisory position, line job, boundary position. The compliments to Charley and Helen reflect the higher status of the individual speaking. They also reflect the individual's attention to detail in observing the performance of his/her staff. The third remark now reflects decision-making ability and risk taking - the speaker had the authority to decide how to handle Coggins and was willing to tackle an account that was already disillusioned with earlier results. The third message also reflects the speaker's self-confidence. He/she gives full credit to Sharon for her idea; and yet graciously accepts recognition for having guided the account to a successful end.
The fourth message now offers two specific reasons in support of the promotion 1) the attraction of major accounts (the bottom line argument) and 2) the necessity to uphold his/her relative status in the organization to assure his/her ability to spur the team to creative work, and the rewards it brings. The self confidence manifested in the third message is thus reinforced by the fourth. The speaker is self-assured enough to be able to marshall sound logical arguments in favor of his/her increased status.
It should be rather obvious that such elaboration is not appropriate for every message sent. A quick perusal of the messages will ascertain that the length of the second set precludes the exclusive use of elaborated messages. You'd never stop talking. But the overall pattern of messages should include sufficient specificity to adequately represent the speaker as an individual.
We have tried classroom exercises in which we've asked students to describe themselves. The following is a sample of the kinds of lists we've heard: "I'm loyal," "I like people." "I like to help others." "I'm intelligent." "I'm curious." "I like to investigate things." "I'm attractive." and so on. That same list would describe my dog! We hope that makes our point. If the messages you send are so non-specific that they'd fit anyone, including my dog, then don't be surprised to find that you don't stand out on the job. Your image is worth a lot more attention than that.
As we noted earlier, the actors in the social setting affect messages by their relative status and by the imprint of their individuality. It thus follows that you want to elicit messages about yourself and/or your work from communicators who have high status and who convey strong positive images. Thus, we elicit messages from others in some instances in preference to sending them ourselves. If the company president has a magnificent idea for solving a supervision problem, he might suggest the idea to the union representative, and allow the union representative to act on it. Union workers are more likely to perceive a plan from their representative as a sincere effort at change than a plan submitted by one of the company administration. The communicator colors the message quite as much as the content and the context. All three must be considered as we analyze the effect of messages in the work environment.
Words in Context
At last we come to the fundamental particle - the word. Messages are composed of words (with a cautious sprinkling of tone, nuance, and movement). In this section, we turn full attention to the words.
The Temporal and Spatial Context
The meaning of words and the social acceptability of ideas change over time and space. This is readily illustrated by our norms governing taboo expressions. Language we find admirable in one setting, may offend in another. Language, both verbal and non-verbal, appropriate to each setting, has been socialized into us from infancy. We were all given to understand (at least all of us who grew up before the most recent cohorts) that certain words were never to be uttered.
Yet we find the remnants of such language taboos all about us in the social context. How striking was the country's reaction when the infamous Watergate tapes were finally unveiled. The coverup was bad enough; but four letter expletives had been uttered in the White House, and with shocking regularity, by men in positions of great dignity. In some circles "expletives deleted" was more scandalous than the alleged felonies. Such is the power of affect in the social setting.
Such taboos have considerable import for the career world. The use of taboo language has long served two purposes: 1) the release of tension, and 2) the identification of a safe backstage area. Taboo language still serves these purposes in the modern career world. Undoubtedly the use of expletives in the oval office could have been similarly explained. It might have been quite a project to discover the norms governing who could begin, and at what point in his career, to utter an expletive in the oval office. Were all allowed to do so? Or would that have been presumptuous? Was one admitted as privy to the circle of expletives only to listen, maintaining decorum in one's own speech for a time? And how long a time? Or was there a veritable orgy of expletives in which anyone could participate?
This matter of expletives assumes even greater importance for women and minorities. As they are hesitantly admitted to backstage areas never before open to them, they must answer all those questions we just raised. Though it may sound a bit silly the norms governing to expletive or not to expletive are very real, and there are few guidelines for these newcomers. Especially women must consider the effect of special taboos in this area for women. The sex-related taboos may override the backstage solidarity, and jeopardize the woman's standing in the group if she miscalculates. In this matter there are no answers. Society is still in a state of flux over developing new norms. But one must be aware of the context. Language changes markedly over time and space. Language varies over geographical regions, and over industries, and even organizations. One must be alert to these changing connotations.
Congruence in the Social Setting Yet another aspect that determines the effects of communication is the actor's fit in the social setting. Studies have shown that young people, dressed as hippies (disheveled hair, blue jeans, slightly grubby) were unable to convince citizens in a house to house survey to sign a petition that was taken directly from the Bill of Rights. Yet in the same middle class neighborhood the same young people (dressed in neat shirts, slacks, hair neatly in place) had less trouble getting signatures for the petition. One explanation for the difficulty in obtaining signatures is that the populace has grown more reactionary since the Bill of Rights was written; another explanation is that people fear signing anything; but a third possible explanation interests us most: people are willing to communicate with people they perceive to be like themselves. Thus we have another important dimension to the social context.
The young executives who choose informality in clothes and language will encounter this problem of fit. If they establish images of themselves that clients perceive as reliable in other areas (such as impressively written and printed reports) they may very well be able to sacrifice fit in clothes, language, meeting style, whatever. The latitude to behave differently from the norm of the social setting will depend on their ability to establish shared perceptions on other grounds. Thus, in many and varied ways do actors shape the social context and imbue our messages with added meaning.
Distance Since all messages take place against a social background that in turn affects the message, one important factor in exploring background "noise" is the distance the message must travel. An analogy can be found in the problem of interference with radio waves. The messages sent out on any given frequency have an integrity of their own -- i.e., the message is whole and clear as sent. But, as the waves travel, interference is often produced by the surroundings - proximate car motors, generating stations, brick walls, mountains, etc. Thus the message received may be distorted by "noise" and much less whole and clear than the message sent. The distortion in this case comes from the environment the message must traverse.
Messages (communication) between humans suffer similar distortion. Remember the old party game, "Rumor?" Person X whispers a message to Person Y, who whispers it to Person Z, and so on to the last Person who compares it to the original message from Person X. Distortion can always be counted on to produce a very different message at the end. Although distortion may occur within the message itself, it is almost certain to occur to some extent externally, as the message traverses any environment. The parlor game environment described here is particularly conducive to noise and frivolity, guaranteeing distortion. However, rare is the environment that produces no distortion whatever.
In the world of work and careers, the phenomenon of distortion in communication is an ever present spectre. The warehouse manager is plagued by the return of 144 boxes of 0.2 mm. copper wire that should have been 0.02 mm. in diameter. The executive is plagued by letters lost under "J" for J. Adams and Son, while her new secretary searches futilely under "A". Mr. Tellem believes that Ms. Listen should have shown more responsibility in ordering adequate supplies for the month, while she wonders how he expected her to know he meant "order" when he said "determine what we'll need."
The problem is so extensive that some large corporations actually designate a person (or persons) to supervise communication and troubleshoot when snafus occur.
Centrality of Role Another important attribute that affects the social context is the actors centrality of role. We explore in this section two dimensions of centrality: 1) the centrality of the role in the social setting (i.e., is this scene taking place front stage, center? Or is this group of actors off as a side attraction?), and 2) the centrality of the role is the action (i.e., does the actor play a major or a supporting role, or merely watch from the audience?) The meaning of messages is enhanced by the importance of the actor's position in the social setting and in the action. A reprimand from a group supervisor carries far less weight than a similar reprimand from the unit manager. Consider the importance of this aspect of the social context when interpersonal relations impinge on the job.
The career world affords us yet another example of changing language norms. For some time now, organizations have designated what used to be a secretary as an "administrative assistant." Though the term actually indicates a new and more responsible position in some organizations, in many it is not uncommon to hear that it's a fancy new title for secretaries. Again, both the temporal and spatial components must be taken into account.
Generating the Appropriate Vocabulary Whenever we enter newly into any setting we must listen for clues about special jargon, connotations, denotations, and style in that setting. As we noted earlier, in connection with the Watergate tapes, one must seek out the language norms. Can everyone use expletives? Is there an initial period of decorum? Is there a double standard; or may women use them, too? Are there any restrictions on which expletives may be used? Or can our imagination reign free, inventing new expletives at will? The language analyst could find here a source of pure delirium, easily worth a full length book. Unfortunately we must turn our attention to the more mundane aspects of the everyday work world, where expletives are often banished to loftier or more secluded circles.
The techniques for analyzing vocabulary in the work setting are different from the useful patterns of study you once applied to college. Think back to the means of acquiring the proper vocabulary for exams and term papers. We advise our students to pay special attention to the professor's vocabulary. Within the first few lectures you should have her ten favorite words or expressions in the margins of your notes. She'll use them over and over again. She will be gratified to see them in essay answers and in term papers. At least they provide evidence that you were listening, not sleeping. If the course is of a technical nature, or if she is possessed of an impressive vocabulary, take no chances. Record a few complete sentences using the word. If you're going to use impressive words, for goodness sake, use them correctly. If you're still not sure, ask your reference librarian or some other erudite member of the academic community to check your samples of usage. Armed with such a vocabulary you will have greatly increased your chances of an "A."
Now, faced with the career world, the process is much the same. Listen for the key words in your supervisor's vocabulary. What does he say to people when he is pleased with their work? Does he talk about time saving and cost cutting? Or does he talk about creative use of ideas? Or about perception in analyzing an ambiguous situation? What words does he use again and again? Cost? Time? Client advocacy? Efficiency? Creativity? Ideas? Repeated vocabulary is a clue to priorities.
Is the supervisor taciturn? Does she express approval by a nod? With a simple "Yes, that's fine, thank you?" that makes it a little harder. But ingenuity and perseverance will still yield the data you need. To what does she offer these quiet signs of approval? To new accounts? Or better service to old accounts? To time saved? Or costs cut? To accurate balances? Or to accounts completed? What words crop up most often in the messages to which she responds with approval?
This process of observation should afford you a basic vocabulary about your supervisor's perceptions of successful performance in your unit. Be sure to include that vocabulary in your messages about your performance, just as you would have included your professor's cues about important ideas in terms papers and exams. Observe also the use of vocabulary by those who are considered successful. If there are some who are deemed "going nowhere", try to locate the critical differences in the messages they send. Could the difference be energy? Creativity? Loyalty and commitment to the organization? Fair play in acknowledging others' work? A positive tone?
You will want to select a style and image unique to you. But the analysis of what has worked for others is useful, as you contemplate the messages you are sending. There may be standard patterns of success within the given organization. If you plan to deviate from those standard patterns, you should plan how you will show this deviation to advantage rather than to disadvantage.
Suppose, for example, that you have joined an organization with a long history and staid background. Successful people in your unit send messages about work well done, along the standard lines. In particular, they are complimented for finding ways to increase uniformity, and enforce adherence to rules. You have not heard any success messages about high energy. As a matter of fact someone was told disapprovingly last week that she was pushing herself too hard. You, on the other hand, are high energy, fast moving and would like to introduce changes that would give people more latitude, fewer rules. You have two choices: 1) get another job (you probably shouldn't have taken this one in the first place) or 2) adapt your ambitions to this job before you're fired or acquire a "bad reputation." That's not really so hard to do, if you want the job for some reason. Use your creativity to analyze your supervisor's priorities. Follow the rules in your own unit and keep to the standards. That will get you success messages. In the interim, apply your excess energy to studying the rest of the organization. Seek out a supervisor who would promote creative flexibility and high energy. Save your messages on high energy, flexibility, creativity (including those words) for the parallel organization (meetings, interest groups, committees that involve others on different status levels, and from different departments). In this manner, you can adapt yourself to your temporary situation, while saving your energy for application where it will count.
In any work organization in which you find yourself, look for people who are sending messages that appeal to you. Where have they gone in the organization and how did they get there? What words occur often in their messages? What words are used in messages about them? What words are used to describe them in departments where they've passed through? Are they described as "high energy" or aggressive? as creative or conforming? The vocabulary you hear in messages about them offers you clues to the messages that will fly about you if theirs is truly your style. Are these the messages you would like to hear about yourself? If not, you'll have to analyze the situation to alter the image as you adapt it to yourself.
Most professions have local, regional, and national organizations that come fully equipped with local meetings, duly announced in the newsletters. Attend meetings and add to your vocabulary of successful qualifiers. Eavesdrop as you smile graciously while sipping your drink next to the V.I.P.'s. You'll be so engrossed you'll forget you don't know anyone, and you'll probably acquire status just standing next to the V.I.P.'s, looking intelligent and absorbed. At least, it's a lot better than looking naive and confused.
If you are the timid sort, and will feel safer hobnobbing with the printed page before you tackle warm bodies, ferret out biographies of novels about people who display the kid of image you'd like to have. What words are used to describe them? Does the vocabulary fit your style?
Just as we admonished you not to misuse your impressive vocabulary in the university classroom, we advise you even more strongly not to misuse the vocabulary of your profession. Teachers have grown rather used to bungled efforts at vocabulary building. The indulgent smile at the fumble. The rigid harrumph, and take off a few points for improper use of language. At worst, little harm is done. However, if you adopt words to describe yourself that are at best ill-fitting, the results to your career could be disastrous. Consider the plight of:
The timid young woman from Packing
who wanted to set things a cracking
She chattered all night
with phrases quite trite
Then added, "I'm not always this smashing."
There are hundreds of models for even the most esoteric of careers. And you needn't adopt any one as a whole. Be diligent and search until you find words which are right for the image and right for you. If you're troubled by low thyroid and must fight listlessness at times, maintain a reasonable work pace and look for successful qualifiers other than "high energy". Not every successful person has high energy. Some are simply very good jugglers of priority. Besides, has it ever occurred to you that an office full of high energy people could drive most participants right up the wall? You can aim to be the calm, steady influence they look to when the "high energy" achievers are creating chaos. Look for the possibilities of counterpoint as well as the obvious invitation. After all, you are unique.
This entire section, in which we have so brazenly offered you advice, is founded in sociological theory. In particular, we have kept in mind Shibutani's (1961) treatment of the normative reference group. The group to whom we look to formulate the norms which guide our behavior. In the local work unit, the norms are set by co-workers and the immediate supervisor. It is their vocabulary and behavior that will have the most immediate effect upon the message we send. Deviance from their expectations will be treated as deviance in any small face-to-face group. But your career ambitions may lie well outside the local work unit to that extent, your normative reference group must be enlarged - to other departments, organizations, perhaps even to the national professional group. Thus, the concept of local versus cosmopolitan orientation enters this analysis of normative reference groups.
We apologize for leading your down the primrose path. What looked like simple common sense was really classical sociological theory all along. That includes, of course, the necessity of choosing cautiously that which suits you. This follows from the concept of relative deprivation. If you choose norms that are poorly suited to your style, and then proceed to compare the results you achieve to others who appear to share those norms, you may be sadly disappointed. Your style had developed over many years, starting back in early childhood, with many years of habit to sustain it. Far better to choose the norms that match your personality, than to try to change your personality to fit the norms. (Many psychologists claim that to be an improbable feat, at best; impossible at worst.) And since there is such a wide variety of models from which to choose, how much wiser it seems to choose and adapt what suits you! You will then find that you are comparing yourself to a reference group whose qualities of style you can match. Of course, as we've pointed out before, wise men sensed all this before sociologists came to formulate it in concise theories. Hans Christian Andersen offered us The Ugly Duckling in 1835. The poor young swan had only to discover its proper comparative reference group to bloom forth in all its glory.
Models are thus one major source of vocabulary for the successful career. Professional publications are another source. Most occupations are served by several professional organizations on the local, regional, and national levels. Most publish newsletters; most publish journals. In addition, there are myriad independent professional journals. these are a ready source of vocabulary. You can garner from them words and patterns for the successful career.
In this chapter, we have addressed the everyday, taken for granted assumptions we make when we are trying to choose the appropriate message -- our actual choice of words and ideas. Founded on the theories of phenomenology, ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism, we considered the first methods of generating ideas for messages in the work context. The problem of selecting from an embarrassment of riches was compared to the problem of generating experiences in the work environment. We then analyzed the elements of effective presentation of messages: 1) attention to context, 2) formatting ideas, and 3) effective persuasion techniques. The social context, with its everchanging cultural baggage, permeates all our messages and colors our thinking, no matter how we try to escape it. This chapter has offered a brief review of the factors which contribute to this background effect.
We considered the role of the social setting, of the actors, and of temporal and spatial effects in contributing meaning to messages. Finally, we addressed the issue of "le mot juste" - the choice of a vocabulary that precisely reflects our intended messages. We emphasized the importance of generating a vocabulary appropriate to the career context and the need to adapt that vocabulary to the specific work setting.
With a well stocked vocabulary, as befits the modern career aspirant, there are still some considerations of context to be managed. To determine the vocabulary appropriate to the work context, the simplest technique is to cull phrases from the appropriate professional sources. (If the vocabulary is strange to you, be sure to copy full sentences, as many as you can find, until you're certain you've mastered the correct usage).
Words, and their attendant nuances, permeate our environment, challenging us to choose "le mot juste" - the word that conveys precisely the meaning we wish to convey. To some of us the search is an exciting chase of which we rarely tire. Words offer a delightful form of play. But for all of us the challenge remains - to choose well the words with which we sketch the images we project.
Exercise 10-1: Generating Ideas
Overcoming the blank page syndrome takes some practice. This exercise is designed to help you develop techniques for finding a starting place.
1. Read this brief excerpt from one of Dorothy Sayer's (1928) mystery stories. What techniques is Lord Wimsey using to prompt the witness to generate ideas?"Never mind. Go back. Think quietly. Make a picture of yourself getting off your machine -leaning it up against something -"
"No, I put it on the stand."
"Good! That's the way. Now, think - you're . . . trying to attract the man's attention."
"I couldn't at first. There was an old lady. . ."
2. Jill Crumplemeyer has her performance review next month. She wants a promotion to Director of College Recruitment. She has worked as a recruiter for this corporation for two years. Her work is good. A counselor in employee relations has agreed to help Jill plan for her performance review. Because so much depends on it, Jill has drawn a blank.
Imagine that you are the counselor. How could you help Jill plan for her performance review? Hint: Follow Lord Wimsey's lead. Suggest something Jill might have done. As she corrects your assumptions she will begin to give details about what she actually did. For example:
Counselor: Let's see, you developed an interview schedule.
Jill: No, I used the one they had. But I discovered that I had to add a whole series of questions to put myself and the applicant at ease.
Some other areas in which you might prompt Jill: setting the tone of the interview, developing relationships with the college placement counselors, effectiveness of her results (percentage of those she invites for second interview who are hired), her relationship with other recruiters, her ideas for changes she might make in her department, relevant training in her educational background, etc.
Choose a topic and give Jill something to react against to get her started. Give both your statement and Jill's response.
3. Now that Jill has generated stream of consciousness data with your help, she will have to organize it for effective presentation. Take the data you created in Part 2 and set up an organizational framework.
Exercise 10-2: Persuasion Techniques
Analyze the following memo in terms of its use of effective persuasion techniques.
Consider subtlety in development, the use of one-sided versus two-sided arguments, the order of presentation, the positive nature of the tone, etc. Rewrite the memo for greater effectiveness.
Wound Wobbin Widget Company
To: Don Driftwood, Personnel Director
From: Polly Pepper
Re: Employee Relations - Career Development
In answer to your request that we develop a career development program for the employee relations unit, we submit the following suggestions.
1. A memo be sent to department heads telling them not to send people to us for career development until we announce a program exists. We've been getting five or six requests every week! We really can't develop a program overnight.
2. Someone should coordinate anything we do in career development with Harriet Tacky's Quality of Working Life study.
3. Career development counseling will take a minimum of three hours contact time per employee counseled. Our data indicate that at the current request rate our counselors would be overloaded. Therefore we will need to hire at least three new people to handle a career development program.
4. There are several batteries of tests available to help identify people's career interests. We could consider ordering some, or maybe we should just ask what they'd like to do. I'm not sure those tests really tell you anything anyway. And somebody would have to take a course on how to give them and interpret them.
5. Sometimes the supervisors complain to us that employees don't use their time efficiently. Hank Hopscotch wanted to offer a seminar on time management. But you could only do that at lunch time and nobody ever shows up at those lunch lectures health and safety offers. Probably no one would show up.
6. I think we should ask each department head to meet with one of our people to help identify career paths in that department.
7. We could do a survey to find out exactly what people mean when they ask for career development. Three people who came in last week were upset about their performance reviews. They don't know what their supervisors expect, or what to do to improve. If you could negotiate some release time, we could offer a few seminars on negotiating performance standards, setting priorities, etc. It might be most effective to work with the supervisors so they could help their own people.
8. We could coordinate with Harriet's QWL study, and put up some attractive posters about planned seminars at 8:00 A.M., lunch, and after work as part of Wound Wobbin Widgets's anniversary celebration. Don't count on heavy lunch attendance, though.
9. Maybe Harriet has some ideas.
Appendix A: Sociological Terms in This ChapterEthnomethodology
The study of methods people use to come to a consensus and to solve problems. The study of everyday life.
Creating a common view. The taken for granted assumptions we make.
The study of the common sense, everyday world of the individual.
Social Construction of Reality
People are the products of the society they create.
People are basically symbol users. The study of society as a process of interaction.
Appendix B: Self-Diagnostic
Answer T for True and F for False. See how well you understand the everyday, taken for granted world of sending appropriate messages.
Pre-Test Question Post-Test ----- 1. Sociologists don't bother to study the everyday life. ----- ----- 2. People are basically symbol users. ----- ----- 3. Intersubjectivity is just a fancy word for the mixing up of subject matters. ----- ----- 4. Ethnomethodologists like to disrupt and cause small moments of madness. ----- ----- 5. It's not fair to use persuasion techniques in the world of work. ----- ----- 6. We must pay attention to context when we are sending out messages. ----- ----- 7. We have no problem with "distance" how far a message has to travel. It is sure to get there -- loud and clear. ----- ----- 8. Expletives are good words in the workplace. It shows commitment. ----- ----- 9. The order of presentation must be carefully planned to take into consideration the primacy and recency effects. ----- ----- 10. Research has shown that a two-sided argument is more effective with a college educated audience. ----- ----- 11. An elaborated language code is for police officers when dealing with an emergency situation. ----- ----- 12. The simplest and warmest sneaky stroke is a smile. -----
Check the next section for the correct answers.
Scoring and Career Forecast for this Chapter
Score one point for each correct answer.
Your Career Forecast for this chapter:
10-12 points: You're a real pro in the taken for granted, everyday world. You leave nothing to chance. You assume nothing.
7-9 points: An occasional assumption gets you into trouble here and probably in your everyday life. Be more aware the taken for granted.
4-6 points: You carelessly take too much for granted. Everyday life must be assumed as you muddle along. (Yes, just that -- muddling!)
0-3 points: An appropriate message?? What's that?? Huh??? The taken for granted everyday world is passing you by.
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