“Well, actually, it’s pronounced…”
Does this interjecting correction sound familiar? At some point in your career, you’ve probably run into one or more of these characters in the workplace: the gods of grammar, the superstars of spelling, the upper echelons of editing, and of course, the pronunciation police. The desire to help us all “communicate properly” may come from a well-intentioned place, but more often than not it leaves the offending speaker feeling annoyed or embarrassed.
What is it about this word-rectifying that prickles us so? Perhaps it comes across as self-righteousness or reeks of one-upmanship. Another reason could be the possible lack of trust or established positive relationship one has with the correcting character, thus the helpful feedback is misinterpreted as an attack or criticism.
Maybe there is some innate hypocrisy involved, where the pronunciation pouncer may be spot-on but employs subpar conversation skills, evident through excessive use of “I” statements, failure to ask open-ended questions, or reliance on long monologues tinged with judgements, opinions, and dramatic stories.
The zealous correction also may raise concerns about empathic ability. In the quest for perfect pronunciation, has the underlying reason for the so-called mispronunciation been considered? There are several factors aside from ignorance that can account for mispronunciation, such as a neurological disorder, a speech impediment, hearing loss, or even fatigue and stress. And pronunciation missteps are par for the course when it comes to English-language learning. Acquiring “proper pronunciation” is a particular feat when words are pronounced differently across the country or across the pond.
Even for the most fervent logophiles, Merriam-Webster is quick to remind us tricky words lurk in every corner; it offers this list of commonly mispronounced words.
It’s hard not to sound like a nitpicker when you correct someone on their pronunciation or grammar—even when the feedback is meant to be helpful. Your good intentions are far likely to be interpreted that way if you already have the trust of the recipient. Here are three communication strategies that, with regular use, will strengthen your relationships at work, and help the potentially awkward moments go down easier.
1. Use inclusive language
Anytime the use of the word “we” is incorporated into written or verbal communication, it goes a long way in establishing rapport and laying the groundwork for relationship-building. More so than perfect pronunciation, “we” is indicative of a leader. Use of the word also suggests one’s potential as a team player.
2. Ask open-ended questions
If there is one easy communication skill to master, it is the art of asking open-ended questions such as “What did your meeting cover?” or “How would you approach the situation?” Just as journalists use the 5Ws and How to get the story, this technique can also be used to spark a more in-depth conversation and avoid a stalled reply of “yes” or “no” (though caution should accompany the word “why” as it can sometimes put people on the defense). By being more preoccupied with being interested than being interesting, you’re sure to win over a colleague or a new friend.
3. Share the conversation
There are myriad reasons why people may dominate a conversation—and in many cases they may not even be aware of their habitual blabbering. To avoid becoming that person, first engage in some self-monitoring and check the airtime in the discussion. Has it been awhile since the other party contributed? Do you find yourself interrupting to get one more point in? For added perspective, try visualizing beforehand what a balanced conversation looks like —and read this brilliant piece on how a great conversation is like a game of catch.
Proper pronunciation and grammar have their place but not at the expense of emotionally intelligent communication skills. By incorporating these three approaches, the pathways for building trust and connection will more likely open so when the occasion does arise to offer feedback for improvement, the message is more likely to get through.
Kacy Vega is a director of internal communications at the University of California, San Diego and formerly served on the board of IABC/San Diego as vp for PR and marketing.