By Marie Ebenezer
This semester I am taking an English Linguistics class at Freiburg University in Germany called “Language and Identity.” I chose this class because I have always wondered about the relationship between the language(s) you speak and how you identify yourself.
I am bilingual, and people ask me all the time: “Do you feel more German or more French?” “What language do you dream in?” or “What are you going to speak with your children?” Speaking several languages changes how people perceive you and consequently how you are identified.
In public relations, we write many different kinds of materials — press releases, blog posts, tweets, speeches and more. The format and the style change depending on the type of document/post and the audience. This also happens in everyday situations. You speak differently to your best friend from college than you do to your boss.
As an example, President Obama’s speeches, written by PR professionals, reflect the identity he adopts at that moment. Here is an excerpt from his inauguration speech in January:
“What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Obama is the solemn, composed head of state in that speech, and his words reflect the importance of the moment. In contrast, here is part of a speech he gave at Manor New Tech High School in Texas earlier this month:
“Hello, Texas! Howdy, Manor. Go Titans! I hear that there’s a rule that anyone who gives a presentation in front of the class has to dress up, so I made sure to wear a tie. I didn’t want to lose points.”
By using “howdy” and making reference to a popular sports team, Obama takes on a different identity – that of a cool and friendly president. It makes it easy for students to identify with him. The light and humorous tone stands in complete opposition to the graveness of the inaugural speech.
The relationship between language and identity is extremely relevant in PR because language is our main tool. All the aspects we need to consider when thinking of an audience – age, gender, cultural background – are what constitutes our identity.
In everyday life, most of this back and forth happens unconsciously. We don’t calculate how we talk to our friends or bosses because these processes are deeply ingrained. In public relations, however, we have to be aware of this difference.
Ebenezer is a former intern at Olmstead Williams Communications.