I got a call recently from the owner of a consulting agency where a former student of mine had applied for a job for which I’d recommended him. My student didn’t get the job, but another student from my college, Davidson, did. The owner of the agency—the young man’s boss—was being driven to distraction by a habit of his new hire: despite the boss’s every effort to block the habit, the young man persisted in using constructions like “me and Jimmy will take care of that matter later today.”
I’m still not quite sure why the boss called me, since the person he hired was a graduate I didn’t know. Perhaps it was a combination of reasons: seeing whether I could help, venting, and posing the question “How did someone who talks like this graduate from Davidson College?” Equally baffling to the boss, who is himself an alumnus of Davidson, the young man had been given excellent recommendations by the faculty who had taught him. The boss seemed to fear that his alma mater going to hell in a hand basket.
The boss told me that he had warned the young man repeatedly, even threatening to fire him for this habit, which humiliated the boss in front of clients and embarrassed him on behalf of his agency. He couldn’t understand why his efforts at correcting the young man’s grammar weren’t working. His explanation of the grammatical error and his expectation that the young man would fix it were clear, he thought. Why wasn’t the young man’s behavior changing accordingly? Was he being defiant, dismissive, disrespectful? Didn’t he care that his job was on the line?
I wasn’t sure how to answer, but when I offered to speak with the young man on the phone, the boss readily accepted. I began by corresponding with the young man on email, where I could see that he was more than literate. When I spoke with him on the phone, he told me that he knew his problem was serious—that his job was at stake—and he wasn’t sure why he couldn’t correct it on his own. He assured me that, otherwise, he was as literate as I had already taken him to be. I continued to believe that his use of this one faulty construction, which was a deal-breaker for his boss, was a bad habit that could be isolated and broken.
I told him my theory and said I’d try to help him break his habit if he was willing. He agreed to try. I said my first goal was to be sure he understood what was at stake for his boss, why his boss was so concerned about this one seemingly small issue. He said he was beginning to understand that point. As a result, he was also coming to understand that, fair or not, people judge us by our language every bit as much as by our clothes and grooming.
In the next post, I’ll explain how the young man was able to overcome this bad habit.