Saturday, September 22, 2007

Linguistic Hygiene

In the 1987 film Broadcast News, a professional colleague turns to Holly Hunter and says “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to think you’re the smartest person in the room.” “No,” she sighs, with a pained expression on her face. “It’s awful.”

That scene came back to haunt me at a dinner party last year. One of the guests had recently left his job as a performer on a cruise ship. Eager for an excuse to entertain a captive audience, he inserted his karaoke tape into the host’s sound system and began to perform his tried-and-true repertoire. Although this man had religiously committed Frank Sinatra’s stylings to memory, he did not realize that one of the notes he sang was flat. Later that evening, when he sang the same song again, he flubbed the same note the same way without having the slightest idea of what he had done. Because I’ve always had perfect pitch, I found this mistake most curious. Did I point out his error to him? No. Did he lose credibility in my eyes as a professional musician? Of course he did.

This incident offers a perfect example of why some aspiring medical transcriptionists do not get hired. Without even knowing it, they display a laziness about language which, to a potential employer, stands out like a sore thumb. I learned this lesson many years ago when a friend of mine was Director of Marketing & Public Relations for the San Francisco Symphony. I had referred a young woman to him who was eager to work as an arts publicist. She was bright, sassy, looked like a young Bette Midler, and had a way of charming the press at the regional opera company where we had met. When my friend refused to give the young woman an interview, I asked what was wrong. “There’s no way in hell I’m going to let someone who has three typos on her resume write press releases for a major symphony orchestra,” he replied. “If she can’t spell -- or make the effort to run a spellchecker -- then I can’t waste my time on her.”

When I told the woman what had happened, she just laughed it off. In the years that followed, I saw her charm her way into a number of jobs which she eventually lost because of an overinflated resume, poor skills, and an ego that was rarely in touch with her employer’s reality.

A new trend is developing in America wherein people are being refused employment --and in some cases even being fired – because they have lied on their resumes. These people have ranged from football coaches to corporate executives. Some claim to have graduated from universities they never attended; others claim to have been employed by companies that can find no trace of them in their personnel files.

Letting someone check the claims you’ve made on your resume isn’t the only way to blow an employment opportunity. When push comes to shove, one’s ability to use the English language properly can make a substantial difference in one’s future. In Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw demonstrated how one’s use of the English language could transform a common flower girl into a duchess. When Pygmalion was adapted by Lerner & Loewe for My Fair Lady, audiences took great delight in listening to HenryHiggins cry: “Use proper English, you’re regarded as a freak! Oh, why can’t the English learn to speak?"

The influences of rap and Ebonics have taken a terrifying toll on the common use of the English language. When combined with such cross-cultural phenomena as “Engrish”and “Spanglish,” one cannot ignore the tragic results of dumbing down America’s education system. What Shaw saw as a verbal class distinction has become visible in electronic format all over the Internet. In e-mail messages and bulletin board postings, one sees medical transcriptionists using the most atrocious grammar. Computer slang runs rampant. Homonyms appear everywhere.

Poor language skills will betray a medical transcriptionistas easily as a piece of spinach that has gotten stuck between one’s teeth. And you never know who’s paying attention. The excuse offered by many when their e-mails and Internet postings come under scrutiny is that they are either rushed, or not concentrating as intensely as they would if they were actually transcribing a report. In the casual atmosphere of an e-mail or discussion group, they don’t feel the need to pay careful attention to their use of language because they assume that everyone will understand what they mean.

The whole point of using language is to coherently and concisely communicate one’s thoughts to others. If every sentence ends with computer slang like “LOL” or an Internet emoticon, the reader is confronted with a potential lack of sophistication and/or professional work habits. Loud, shrieking alarms are triggered the minute an MTSO realizes that a medical transcriptionist only plans to be conscious about her use of language while the meter is running

While being interviewed by James Lipton for Inside the Actors Studio, actor Will Smith described growing up in a Philadelphia home where his parents read to him and his grandmother kept a sharp lookout for any abuses of the English language. Smith, whose two-pronged career as a musician and film star has brought him great success from the use of rap (as well as a more formal approach to the English language), laughingly recalled the day he burst into his family’s kitchen asking if “Y’all gonna go down to the......” and was stopped in mid sentence by his grandmother, who sternly admonished that “A yawl is a boat, young man.”

About 10 years ago, I was a guest speaker during a day-long seminar for aspiring arts publicists. I was scheduled to follow a high-powered publicist who would outline what materials should be placed in a press kit, how they should be delivered, and how to make appropriate follow-up calls to critics, writers, and editors. My role was to describe what a music critic looks for in a press kit and explain how I might react to different kinds of materials.

With this woman’s sample materials in front of me, I apologized for whatI was about to do and then told everyone to listen very carefully. “It’s rare for a speaker on a panel to take a colleague to task for her lack of professionalism. In fact, it’s considered quite rude. But if you read the second paragraph on the second page of this press release, you’ll notice two critical spelling errors. These are words which sound alike and would easily make it through your word processor’s spellchecker. But as used here, they are the wrong words in the context of what must be communicated to the reader. These are common grammatical errors. If the person who wrote this press release had simply read the text aloud, these mistakes would have been obvious.”

“I’m willing to bet that the reason these mistakes went unnoticed was because this woman ran the spellchecker in her word processor as she was desperately racing against time. Although her spellchecker accepted thesewords as having the correct spelling, they were, alas, the wrong words. Such mistakes tell a critic or editor that he’s dealing with someone who has sloppy work habits,” I explained. “When he sees a press release with those kinds of grammatical errors, not only is he less likely to regard you as a professional, that person is less likely to want to write about the clients who are paying you to represent them.”

No one had ever humiliated this well-known press agent for something like that! But she came clean and admitted that she had indeed been racing to get out the door and, in her haste, had failed to catch the mistakes in her press release. Unfortunately, a press release is as crucial to her success as a well-written resume or a cover letter can be to getting a break in the medical transcription profession.

In today’s world of medical transcription, the language we use to communicate with each other has deteriorated to such a degree that people feel no need to check their linguistic hygiene before applying for a job. Think about this for a minute. Before you leave the bathroom, you usually wipe yourself and wash your hands. Before going out on a date, you might even take a minute to floss your teeth. Before an important job interview, you might check to see if huge boogers are hanging from your nose. And yet, when approaching a potential employer over the Internet, MTs do the most amazing things.

  • Some attach a resume to an e-mail message and send it without any kind of introductory text message.

  • Others write about how eager they are to work at home so they can take care of their children and attach a resume that shows no work experience in medical transcription (previous employment as a grocery check-out clerk or web designer won’t convince me to hire you).

  • Some devise a simple message using compubonics. For instance, “r u hiring?”

What these people don’t realize is that whoever reads their resumes and e-mail might have standards which are beyond their reach. If that person is a self-proclaimed “detail Nazi,” their chances of gaining employment suddenly become much smaller. Why? Nobody likes to be intimate with a person who suffers from severe halitosis. And MTSOs are notoriously reluctant to hire people whose poor linguistic hygiene is apparent in their written communications.

No comments: