Monday, March 15, 2010

When dealing with the general public: diction and enunciation

We should always try to use good diction and enunciation – especially when we deal with the general public. Here’s an example of bad diction and enunciation:

I was down to my last seven blood-pressure pills. I took the bottle to the local supermarket and walked to the pharmacy window. I handed the bottle to the clerk and asked for a refill. She looked up my account, handed me back the almost-empty bottle, and said the refill would be ready in 20 minutes.

I took a seat and opened my paperback. A minute later, the clerk politely called me back to the window. Clearly, something was wrong. I walked over.

CLERK: “We can’t refill it.”

ME: “Why not?”

CLERK: “It’s feature fill day.”

ME: “Excuse me, would you please repeat that?”

CLERK: “It’s feature fill day.”

ME: “What is that? Something like April Fools’ Day?”

CLERK: “It means we can’t refill it until Thizzday.”

ME: “So, what’s the feature?”

CLERK: “The first day we can refill it is in the feature.”

ME: “Do you mean the future?”

CLERK: “Yeth.”

ME: “So, by ‘feature,’ you mean ‘future’ – in this case Thursday?”

CLERK: “Assuhlooly.”

ME: “OK. I just want to make sure that I understand this. (Lowering my voice to a confidential level) Are you saying that there are some rules about the dates or days on which this pharmacy may refill prescriptions?

CLERK: “Assuhlooly.”

ME: “And are you saying that, in the case of this bottle (Holding up my bottle), the rules say that the next permissible day is Thursday?

CLERK: “Assuhlooly.”

ME: “Mary (not her real name), when I hear you say ‘assuhlooly,’ I get distracted. Just for me, could you say ‘yes’ instead?”

CLERK: “Yeth.”

ME: (Sighing) “All right. What are the rules?”

CLERK: “I’ll ask the pharmacist* to come over.”

ME: “OK. Thanks.”

The clerk whispered to the PHARMACIST, who then came to the window.

PHARMACIST: Your insurance company will pay for a refill only if at least 80 percent of the prescription time has elapsed; for example, 24 days of a 30-day prescription. (Unlike Mary, he didn’t slur any consonants or mispronounce any vowels. He’s from India.)

ME: “Thank you. That was helpful.”

PHARMACIST: “What else can I do for you?”

ME: “Please ask Mary not to use pharmacy jargon or Valley Girl pronunciation. They are confusing and they waste time.”

PHARMACIST: (Nods a few times, indicating that these are not new topics to him. Then a brave smile.) “I will try.”

That was encouraging. But still, I could feel that my blood pressure was up. As I left the store, I dry-swallowed one of my pills.

The Takeaway: When dealing with the general public (as opposed to our own insider groups), we must be careful to do the opposite of what Mary did. We must use plain language as opposed to insider jargon. We must say things directly as opposed to indirectly. And we must enunciate clearly and drop any speech affectations we may have picked up. Customers will cheerfully tolerate speech disorders, if not self-inflicted.

*Mary perfectly pronounced “pharmacist,” a difficult word for anyone who has a lisp. Therefore, Mary’s use of “yeth” for “yes” was not a real lisp; it was just a Valspeak affectation. Other Valspeak affectations were “feature” for “future,” “Thizzday” for “Thursday,” and “assuhlooly” for “absolutely.” HUMOR: Here’s a satirical treatment of similar self-inflicted speech disorders (warning: adult language).

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