Professional Identity: Learning how to talk the talk

One of the goals of the MLC program is to provide students with a set of analytical tools.  We provide the training in linguistic analysis that will be needed to be to be able to do a job upon graduation, but another primary aim is to help students cultivate a “voice” that helps them enact the transition from student to professional.  Learning how to talk the talk, is sometimes described as “sounding confident” “persuasive” or “professional,” but whatever its label, as sociolinguists, we know that what it means to “sound professional” will always be contextually situated.  It will always involve a constellation of linguistic practices and features, whose importance have been negotiated by the community.  Some features of your way of talking may mean one thing in one context and something entirely different in another, for example teasing.   In this way, we might think about the research that we will do to prepare for approaching a new organization as an exercise in cross-cultural communication.

An example from my own research experience is the role of narrative within a community.  Drawing from ethnographies that I have done with an improv troupe, a Quaker vigil for peace and from a business school classroom, we can see variation not just in terms of what the stories are about, but how they are constructed, and what they accomplish interactionally.   In the improv troupe, stories are often (perhaps unsurprisingly) about the work of other performers, but they are performed with multiple deictic shifts and character voices that a linguist can analyze and appreciate though exploration of use of constructed dialogue, and even more specifically by looking at how the discourse marker “oh” worked with constructed dialogue to take stances towards these voices within the world of the story, finding that often to construct an argument, these speakers would begin by showing an example of what NOT to do (think, say).  Another aspect of their storytelling that I only came to appreciate when I approached the Quaker community is that the volume of stories that are told can be significant.  Quakers do tell stories but rarely, while Improvisers (and business students) tell them ALL THE TIME.  But to what effect?

Of course the observations that I have about this community of improvisers are only really true of this community of improvisers, but I observed this group to often tell stories that portrayed vulnerability and struggle.  They tell these stories precisely because these are human qualities that they value as artists.  However, many of the stories (at least the ones that I observed being told in the business school classroom), portrayed moments of almost omniscient wisdom on the part of the narrator.  In the business school classroom, what often gets shared are narratives of personal experience, and of course, having been a person in the business world (in any world) means that you have many stories to share which might include just as many struggles as successes.  However, when it comes to identity construction, to be taken as a competent member of this community, you will often chose to present stories that reflect applicable knowledge, take-aways.  This reflects a value (perhaps cultivated through the case-study method) placed on information that can be shared, and applied, best-practices.   And when you chose to share instances in which things did not go so well, it still may be very important that you present yourself as narrator as someone who suspected that it might not work out in the end.  In this way, you establish credibility in your voice as narrator.  You tell your listeners that they can trust your perspective and voice.   Thus in the business school classroom, you will often here contributions from students following some point that the lecturer has made that start with “that’s a good point because in my organization,,,,”

Of course, it goes without saying that your skills and abilities will be the reason that you are hired, and that they will continue to be essential in the actual doing of your job, but to actually get the job, you need to convey your skills, interests, and abilities in a way that communicates passion while simultaneously enabling the employer to hear how it is that you are the correct match for the organization’s needs and goals.  The interviewer needs to hear a professional identity that makes sense within their organization’s evaluative framework for what constitutes “sounding professional”

So, what are you learning from the research you are doing into the organizations that you are targeting about what it means to “sound professional” in that context?

What do you hear from listening to each other that is illuminating?  You are looking at different organizations, but you also have different conversational styles.  What can you learn about your own conversational style by listening to your classmates?

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