language and career - talking the talk and walking the walk

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Bill Law
14 December 2011

Bill Law

Talking is more than just communication; and that means more than the sort of thing that, done well, recruiters look for in employability.  Language is how homo sapiens’ makes useful sense of things.  We need language to sort out our experience of work; and we sometimes do that in terms that employers don’t much like - think of whistle-blowers.  Words frame what we believe, and what we mean to do about it. Walking-the-walk is more dependent on talking-the-talk than some people realise. 

There’s a big difference here between what powerful interests urge and what reality requires.  And so, taking on board how people talk to each other about career raises challenges to conventional careers-work thinking.  The most troublesome of these challenges is for understanding the way people are prepared to converse with us - or are not.

Conversations are conducted at any number of different levels - we...

> chat < > organise < > figure-out <...
...> disclose < >  question < >  check <...
...> review < >  accept < >  decline <

A careers conversation may be carried along on any part of that stream.  It runs from the day-to-day arrangements that people need to get on with things, to the purposes that make it worth bothering.  Such talk moves between ‘what’s happening?’ and ‘what does it mean?’.  Both states-of-mind have critical practical value - on the savannah, on the street, on the net... and in the interview.  The way people talk is part of their chances in life.


looking for what’s happening

We all talk about what’s going on, for example by asking...

where and when?
are we okay with this?
do we go with it?
is it still on?
what’s next?

There‘s a here-and-now feel about it - concrete and practical.  It can also have a now-or-never urgency - do it or lose the chance.  But the facts can be easy-enough to check, and the responses not-too-troublesome to agree - or disagree.  It can be impulsive.  It can also convey a sense that people know each other well enough to readily understand the shorthand.  That valuing of no-nonsense immediacy features in contemporary culture: it informs cut-to-the-chase popular narratives; advertisers pretend to it’s familiarity; politicos posture its style.  It’s sentences are short - saying one thing at a time; people take pride in speaking so plainly.  And to fail to do likewise may mean losing their interest.  Happening-talk can mean that the next thing done corresponds with the last thing said.  If that makes things random, impulsive and chaotic, then that’s how things are.

Purposeful action can hang on such tangible and immediate pay-offs - for example about wages and social life.  It would be overly controlling to assume that no career conversation should be like this.


looking for meaning

But careers workers look deeper.  And finding meaning in what’s happening is more demanding, for example by wondering...

does this make any sense?
why do I need to know?
who else has an interest?
where would that take me?
what makes it such a good idea?

Ascribing meaning starts with such puzzlement - even acknowledging that there could be more than one thing going on.  It needs to take this one thing with that other thing.  If there's to be meaning, then the chaos needs sorting out.  Other points-of-view need acknowledging - and that can mean wondering about people we haven’t met yet, with their different perspectives.  Sentences get longer - loaded with contingent clauses.  It may all need qualifying adjectives, and elaborating adverbs - and parentheses.  And if any state-of-mind is being described, there could be abstractions - needing the ‘as if...’ talk of metaphors.  So people might need to hesitate..., interrupt themselves..., stand back..., try again - this conversation is a journey, not a race.  Talk like this is needed when people need to get to know each other.  But not everyone is comfortable with it - some deliberately avoid it.  So it may remain an inner conversation - a soliloquy - which is probably how it started anyway.  In any event, the meaning we attribute is personally wrought - for each our own.  And so, in such talk, we become disclosing and vulnerable - which means that trust and confidence are important.  For some people ridicule can be a killer... one way or another.  But some people thrive on such talk, and seek it - their dinner parties are at least as much for talk as for food.  Some guests may not be used to it - they get tongue-tied, or blurt things out in a way that others find inappropriate.

That can also happen in careers talk.  But the bigger problems is that timed-and-targeted provision struggles to accommodate it.  So the tongue-tied get lost.  This is important: talking about what’s going on, and whether and what meaning it has, are the run-up to deciding what to do about it.  Talk, meaning and purpose shape a narrative - and a narrative moves on. 

A selection interview is also where people need to get to know each other.  And recruiters are alert to the differing narratives, and how they might seem to move on.  Each story comes across differently in different selection settings.  A few will seem to the recruiter to offer a better fit to the work.  But that short-listing may operate at a half-aware level - more like personal recognition than an explicitly worked-through process of criteria matching.

All of this means that different kinds of talk get recognised as welcome in different selection situations.  And there are other talk-related influences on selection: accent, articulation and modulation all make recruiters more comfortable with candidates - or less.  The overall effect is stratifying: the kind of talk gets the kind of job.  None of this has anything necessarily to do with achievement or potential; it has to do with how applicants have become used to talking.

There was a time when this would have suggested remedial work, which might include elocution lessons.  But that attributes the problem to the psychologised individual rather than to her or his socialising experience.  Which may be why it doesn’t work for our Eliza Doolittles and our Lenny Henrys.  Contemporary careers work needs a wider understanding of what happens in the conversations we engage with clients and students.  Evidence on credibility shows that people are more willing to turn to us for help with immediate and tangible action.  But, when it comes to probing for meaning, they turn to the trust they invest in each other. 

So here’s the issue: is there anything in our radically-changing situation which offers opportunities to reposition ourselves as trusted and trusting? - we would be helpers worth investing in.  Our responses to the issue would call on how we see careers work - in relation to guidance and education, to markets and social enterprise, to public service and privatisation (Law, 2011).  It’s a challenge to our innovatory re-thinking.  And a pretty urgent one.

note:  I owe these thoughts to the widely influential work of Basil Bernstein (1965) and Denis Lawton (1968) - both developing ideas for the usefulness of ‘elaborated’ and ‘restricted’ language codes.  Their work still attracts attention (Young-Spring, 2002).  Here, I’ve tried to expand interpretations of the original work by drawing on recent social science, and re-applying it to contemporary conditions.



Basil Bernstein (1965, 2005). The Structuring of Pedagogic Discourse - Class, Codes and Control.  London: Taylor and Francis

Bill Law (2011).  Propositions in Search of Professionalism. The Career-learning Café

Denis Lawton (1968, 1998).  Social Class, Language and Education. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Richard Young-Spring (2002).  Basil Bernstein’s Sociolinguistic Theory of Language Codes.

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