Is it fair to say that any and every one of us is a different ‘us’ according to the person that we’re speaking with at any given time? That is, in essence we’re still the same, but we present/come across as just that slightly different when with different people. It’s not always a conscious act of wilful change of being I’m talking about here: this is often an operation below that conscious level, on the automatic level. I had such thoughts when thinking about friends in my social circle going back some twenty odd years ago now. A recent colleague conversation touched on the subject again, and this has now led me to thinking how is it that I am with various different children? Do I communicate consistently with every one of them, or do I shift my intonation or other manners of speaking and being when with each of them?
I really don’t know for sure. I’m too close and in the middle of it. How is this different to my awareness of how I’m different, still, with various other adults in my life? Of course I present in different ways when with work colleagues or with family, when meeting others for the first time or when communicating with other professionals I make contact with. However, I thought I was fairly consistent when with the children I know and share parts of my life with, work and family, but now I’m not so sure. I do make every effort not to (actually or seemingly) talk down to children, though I also make efforts to use words I suppose are part of their vocabulary; I also understand that words in children’s worlds shouldn’t just be restricted to those they already know though, and I like to think I talk with the knowledge that this particular word I’m using might be a new one for them. Family children, being younger than the children I work with, are sucking up all the new words they find and they ask questions, so I give answers. I’m also sometimes slightly amused and amazed at some of the words that, say, six and seven year olds at the playground use in everyday conversation.
Words aren’t the whole of it though: the way that I use them in my inflections comes into this. Whilst I appreciate the ways that almost sing-song, lilting ‘mummying’ language can have in bonding with very small children, it irritates me to hear that sing-song of adults with children who are older: I would hate to think I ever fell into that mode with a child who might, for example, be experiencing a need for sympathy. It can take on the mode of being patronising.
On the playground I also often have in-the-moment-of-play thoughts about the accents and the ‘local language’ of the children I’m with. By this I don’t necessarily mean the cultural background of that child or their family, I mean the wider all-embracing culture of that particular place in that particular part of London. The ‘local language’ is made up of a melge of slang (both enduring and in passing) and other fabrications that come from the play directly or get fused into it via films or TV. The point to all of this here is that I think now, as I write, that I must also become a part of that local language when in that part of London, as opposed to the place that is my home town. I have written about the children’s local accents before, being quite evident to my as-then untuned ear when I first worked at the playground. Now, though, a few years on, I think I must slip into that manner of speaking more naturally. If I push my luck though, I might end up sounding like someone who’s just trying to fit in. From some of the children here, there is a particular use of the slang word ‘innit’, I find. I haven’t yet mastered the finer nuances of this, as I hear it! I’ll keep listening until I’ve absorbed it more fully.
This is strange. I’ve had plenty of conversations in the pubs thereabouts with people who just strike up conversation asking where I’m from, and I slip easily and consciously into my London accent when I hear theirs, and I tell them that I’m from just up the road (which I am, technically, having been born not far from there). I don’t see it necessarily as an insincerity to be talking with an accent that isn’t quite what I normally go about my day with; it’s more a sort of ‘when in Rome’, a form of respectful acknowledgement, perhaps. This is how I see it with the random other adults I meet. With children, though, it seems a little more disingenuous to do this.
Recently, I recognised the way I often communicate with a particular six year old I know. I hadn’t realised this properly before I’d had those colleague conversations about how we are when with other adults. With this six year old in question, I find that I talk with her just as I would an adult. I thought I did this with all the children I work with, but with her it seems, on closer inspection, that I do this even more so. Perhaps it’s because she’s quite often got a serious look on her face, but I know her well enough to know this isn’t because of any sourness of being: it’s because she’s listening and sucking up everything that’s being said around her. She concentrates a lot. She knows some longer words I hadn’t given her credit for. She tells me things about conversations we’ve had or which she’s overheard some days on. I didn’t realise she took in so much. So, I have conversations with her about whatever’s important that day, and the words aren’t too complex but neither are they dumbed-down, and my tone is often even with her, though, as it seems, it’s more even with her than with other children.
What can we take from all of this? I think there are words, and ways of saying words, and ways of using local languages, and sincerities and insincerities, or the possibilities of either, that need plenty of thinking on, both during and after being around the children I’m with. I think there are ways we could think about how we are, more . . .