Starting in the spring of 2010 I found myself starting to dabble in the idea of slam poetry. Slam poetry is a kind of poetry that holds true to an antithesis of formality, commonly found in traditional forms of poetry, and is culturally relevant to young people.
I stumbled upon poet after poet that constantly rocked my ideologies and changed the way I saw different ideas and concepts in our world. One of the many poets that crossed my path was Taylor Mali, and one poem in particular changed the way that I saw human interaction and communication skills in our culture.
This poem goes by the title Totally like whatever, you know? Mali noticed something about our verbal communication skills in the 21st century; he points out how they have deteriorated to nothing more than a “tragically cool interrogative tone.” I started to dig into the truth of the problem presented by Mali, and what I found amazed me.
Have you ever noticed it? Possibly in your own speech or that of your peer groups. It is this tendency to be uncertain in how we speak, to add question marks to the ends of our sentences where it is grammatically incorrect to have a question mark. It is also being inarticulate when we address a certain topic.
All of these are portions of a plague that has hit our society, more specifically the youth and young adults of our society. In an interview with the poem’s author, Taylor Mali, he noted that it is a problem for “whoever has not recognized [uncertainty] as being an impediment to clear communication. Usually teenagers.” He believes that there is a problem and that the problem is not only limited to teenagers but also those who cannot recognize that such a tone is destructive.
Mali continued to say, “We are afraid of sounding stubborn and authoritarian.”
“In America, it’s not cool to change your mind about something. We overvalue strongly held opinions, so we express what we think to be true in a voice that suggests we are not really invested in it.”
Let me put this whole idea into context for you. You are sitting a lecture room with around a hundred other students. The professor poses a question to the students: “What did you do on thanksgiving weekend?”
He selects a person in the front row and they reply with the shrug of a shoulder: “Um, I worked, went to a party and had a family gathering, I guess?”
Now hold up a minute. I am sure many of you have already realized what is wrong with this statement, but for those who do not, the problem is as follows. The young person who answered the question stated what they had done on the weekend, the main events that highlighted the majority of her activity. But once they finished stating their activities they summed it all up with “I guess?” Wait, you guess? So you really don’t know what you did on the weekend? For all you know, you did nothing because you have to guess as to your activities. This is it in context, yet blown slightly out of proportion, but I hope more of you are following me now.
So where did this problem originate? I first noticed this among my classmates in high school. I can vividly recall certain individuals on multiple occasions answering questions that were asked by the teacher and summing up there answers with a questioning tone, slightly raising their pitch and slowing their pronunciation near the end of their answer.
Answering a question in this way screams of uncertainty, possibly because they did not know the answer or possibly because there were larger problems at hand. This continues into my post-secondary education, where I have noticed that it is just as prevalent among university students.
We have successfully defined this problem and determined its root, but we have yet to give it a name. Lack of confidence? Uncertainty in speaking? For arguments sake we will call it lack-of-convictionism.
What are the ramifications of those who suffer from lack-of-convictionism? How do they come off to others?
Mali told me that when he hears others speak in such a manner he cringes. He goes on to say, “I can easily ask someone to repeat what they said without saying um or ah or like. But it harder to ask them to sound like they believe what they’re saying.”
As for myself, I instantly see a lack of intelligence and confidence. When you cannot speak with any sense of conviction you have opened yourself up for attack.
Allow me to explain: If I were to present a philosophical argument for the existence of God and present it as follows: “Nature is complex, ya know? The world as we know it probably could not have come along without a divine power. Does that make sense?” Ignoring the context of my contention, you could simply start to tear apart my argument on the basis that I was not secure in transfer the information that I apparently believed. My lack of conviction seems to take away from the validity of my argument, just because the way it is delivered.
Now think about it. How are we supposed to become the leaders of tomorrow when we don’t know how to speak with conviction? We absolutely cannot stand up in a political debate — much less an argument with our friends — while speaking like this, because we don’t seem to believe what we are saying.
As Mali puts it in his poem, “I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions, okay? I’m just inviting you to join me on the bandwagon of my own uncertainty?” He captures this problem in its totality with such a statement. How are we to become successful in life without knowing how to properly communicate our ideas and views?
In an email, Mali made mention of a point that I find terribly troubling. He explained how this new way of speaking is “an American culture that does not value thoughtful deliberation.” It this can also be said of Canadian culture.
We seem to live in a disconnect society where both our careful consideration of our own opinions and views and the ability to speak with conviction and certainty in what we are saying are lost arts to a vast majority of people.
Do you suffer from lack-of-convictionism? Do you know anyone who suffers from such an ailment? If so, what should you do about it? This is a problem that will not go away on its own and needs to be addressed in our culture.
Step one is to recognize the problem. You need to keep an open ear to hear things in a different way that you usually would. Listen for that “tragically cool interrogative tone,” for those “invisible question marks and parenthetical ‘you knows?’” and stay alert for “disarticulation . . . ness”.
Step two is to call it out for what it is. When you hear someone speaking in such a manner, speak up and correct it. You may come off as a know-it-all, but big deal. You’re helping someone else with there speech patterns and hopefully this will lead them to think about what they really believe.
Mali said: “I wish peers would bust their friends for speaking like that. ‘Would you mind repeating yourself and sounding like you know what you are talking about?’”
All in all, Mali explained that you must constantly remind yourself to speak with conviction, because by doing so you will rid our culture of lack-of-convictionism and make it cool to know what your talking about once more.