I’m at an international conference and something happened today that bothered me. I had to take a walk to decide why that was the case. I did and now I think I know.
Here’s what happened – during a series of "rant" presentations, a person from the U.S. stepped up to the podium and used language (and displayed some PowerPoints) containing what is commonly called “street language”. Now, I’m no prude and I understand sometimes language like that is used to show intensity (and it was the stated goal of the session to be a rant) or the ability to communicate broadly across all levels of society. To be honest, I’ve been known to say a word or two that crosses that same barrier, although not in in this kind of forum. And that’s what bothered me. It didn't offend me, but it bothered me. Here's why.
This is an international conference and primarily a conference of people who work in libraries and/or Librarians. We’re in the business of being the purveyors of existing knowledge and most certainly a key part of the ecosystem responsible for creating new knowledge. As such, we are in possession of a rich tapestry of words, phrases, images and recordings that we can use to express our ideas and thoughts. For instance, I love to read Thomas Jefferson or Cormac McCarthy’s writings. Those are two very different authors, yet both are authors who take ideas and express them in amazing sentences consisting of words and phrases that not only convey a concept, but also intrigue and cause one to stop and peel the words apart and look for the layered ideas and meanings contained within. The thoughts conveyed are often illuminating, sometimes disturbing but always intriguing and certainly mind expanding. It conveys a brilliance that causes one to admire them deeply. Of course, I also realize, we also shepherd materials that contain far more colorful language. But those convey something different.
When a person steps up to a podium to speak in a international conference like this one, they’re obviously taking the opportunity to convey something they think is important and of interest across a wide set of boundaries. Which is great.
But here’s what they need to remember, and what I think was lost today, and I sure wish it hadn’t been. When we step up to that podium, we represent ourselves, our organizations, our profession AND when at an international conference, our country. There are nearly 500 people at this conference from countries around the world. So, it’s not an intimate gathering of close friends, it’s a major professional conference. In that context, as a speaker, when you choose to use street language to convey your ideas, you’ve conveyed a lot more than you realize.
For instance, remember, you don’t likely know all the cultural norms and customs of all those attendees. So you’re conveying your understanding (or lack) of their culture. If you use street language, you might also well offend others, just by putting those words on the PowerPoints or saying them. Which might result in their minds shutting off before you’ve even fully voiced your ideas for them to be heard. For others, you’ve conveyed something (albeit maybe a small something) about you and our profession. Most certainly, you’ve likely conveyed something about our country that, in this case, may confirm some of their worst impressions, probably formed from what we regularly transmit via television around the globe. Is that what you really wanted to convey?
So here's what I wish people would consider when they choose to step up to that podium. Remember who and what you represent and please choose your words carefully so as to convey fully and accurately the ideas you wish to share. Respect others and their cultures. Finally, let’s use the best of the richness of the vocabularies, materials and ideas we shepherd across the centuries to convey what's valuable about our profession and the people who work in it. Let’s set the bar really high, not really low.