“Good afternoon, sir,” I said to a distinguished Ghanaian scholar who had just joined our already-crowded minivan as we headed out for more school visits in Kasoa, Ghana last month. We then made introductions around the vehicle, and I mentioned that I had lived in Uganda for nine years, and still spend half my time there. “Ah,” he said, “I knew I heard Africa in your tone.”
Anyone who has visited me at home in Uganda will testify to the fact that my manner of speaking is different there than it is in the states. Why? Because I choose to honor the African way of speaking English, and because I desire to be completely understood.
Many other non-Africans do the same, while others do not. They rattle off in their peculiar (to Africans) accent at a “normal” (for the speaker) pace, walk away from conversations thinking they have communicated, but alas they have not.
As we navigate between circles and groups, it’s important to be able to find authentic ways to adapt our manner of self-presentation if we are to be the most respectful and effective.
Next spring, I hope to offer a course with a colleague. It is called “Finding Your Academic Voice.” (Years ago, my dad wrote an article that was entitled [in jest] “How to write and talk good.” This course reminds me of that.)
So far, my research has led me, in part, to the notion of “code-switching,” a phenomenon that occurs for people who function in bi- or multi-lingual settings. If you do so, you will likely acknowledge that your personality and ways of expression differ, at least slightly, according to the language that you’re using. This is not a symptom of inauthenticity. It is quite the opposite. It is a reflection of our complexities, and of the many ways we have been given to express ourselves.
This is one of the beauties of diversity. By engaging with a variety of groups and peoples, we discover new things about Self, and we invite others to do the same.
If you find yourself mixing with only those of one faith community, one gender, one age-group, or one race, etc., I would suggest that you are not only missing out on wonderful opportunities to learn about Other, you’re not fully understanding Self. And this human experience is not nearly as rich for you as it is meant to be.