Swanglish in offices

Following a parental intervention on too much holiday television, my 8 year-old daughter told me “Mummy, OMG you need to chillax.” Why are we spending all that money on school fees if she’s going to reduce her sentences to acronyms? “That’s how everyone talks nowadays,” was her tongue-in-cheek response to my stern, no-nonsense, dagger eyed reaction.

I have made it my personal life long objective that I shall not unleash her into the professional world when the time comes thinking that conversations are conducted primarily by reducing each sentence into 140 characters of the mobile texting kind. You can therefore imagine my response when I received an email from a young lady seeking a job that said

“ I av bn lukin 4 u 4 sum tym. I av bn wndrn y u din’t rply to ma mails whch I sent but its ok. Thx and av nice day.”

No, contrary to what you must be thinking, this was not a text message it was an email message. I trashed it. Then I removed it from the trash because it was bothering me. I had to give feedback otherwise the poor lady would go through life wondering why no one was taking her seriously. I called her and gave her verbal feedback. There is mobile texting language and there is email language. Furthermore even as far as mobile texting language is concerned, it’s quite tedious, irritating and downright exasperating to try and figure out what someone is trying to say when removing vowels from words in order to get in 140 characters or “wht sum1 is tryg 2 sy whn rmvng vwls 4m wrds n orda 2 gt 140 chrctrs” – get my point?

I fully understand that languages are dynamic. They are neither stifled by nor stuck in a time bubble of inertia. They morph themselves into tools of communication for the present time that reflects the ebb and flow of cultural and environmental changes. Thus the “Swanglish” that Kenyans profess to speak which is actually a butchered, corrupted and bastardized attempt to speak Swahili has morphed itself into a local “pidgin” dialect called Sheng. I get it. I am a “barbie”. I can deal with that compartmentalization. But I am also a professional and I know that when dealing with customers and clients of an organization, the basic premise is that I will be treated professionally and spoken to in the official language, which happens to be English or Kiswahili sanifu. Not Swanglish, not Sheng, not SMS-speak. Just good old plain English or Kiswahili. So for a customer service representative of my credit card issuer to call me and say

“Unafaa kumalizana na sisi Ma-Customer Service juu kesho morgen tuna-change ma-systems” [You need to finalize with us in Customer Service since tomorrow morning there will be a system change] left me nothing short of gob smacked.

The issuer is –well – a global brand. Not a local ma-brand. And the brand promise is world-class service delivery. Not wasee wataji-sort. [people will sort themselves out] So I asked the “jamaa” [guy] if the call was being recorded. He didn’t bat an eyelid – or so it seemed on the other end of a very shocked telephone line – and said “labda!” [maybe!]. I said in the driest and thoroughly clipped tone possible, “Could you please speak to me in English?” The poor chap thought I was out of my mind. I could hear his thoughts whirring through his mind, doesn’t she know I am speaking English? “Madame, what seems to be the problem?” Ahh! Progress. The fellow was a quick study. Maybe I could turn this situation around. “I’m not sure if you know me, but I have personally never met you and I don’t understand why you are speaking to me in Sheng. You should avoid doing that as it is not professional,” I said. His response: “Sawa, nita-try!” Train smash! I gave up. I told him what he could do with his ma-systems. And when I was done telling him I asked him to have his supervisor call me. Believe it or not, the supervisor did call me. The rest of the story is neither here nor there. What’s important is that the supervisor did express shock, horror and dismay at his employee’s language of choice, fully agreeing with me [By this time I was so rabid with anger and frothing at the mouth that disagreeing with me would have been ill advised I realized later] that it was unprofessional.

Why am I making such a big fuss? Because even if language is dynamic, it should be reflective of the environment within which it is spoken. The office or professional environment is NOT the place for Sheng to be spoken to external stakeholders such as customers or suppliers. Wikipedia defines pidgin language as a simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common. A pidgin is not the native language of any speech community, but is instead learned as a second language. A pidgin may be built from words, sounds, or body language from multiple other languages and cultures. Pidgins usually have low prestige with respect to other languages. I salute Wikipedia. Sheng, in my humble view, is a pidgin language. It is a third language in Kenya after Swahili and English. Call me old fashioned or call me square but as long as I seek service from organizations that purport to operate in a professional manner, please speak to me in the pure English or the pure Swahili that I learnt in school. And if you are going to write me an email, please write your words in full or, quite simply, do not write at all.

Barbie [pronounced baah-bi] a girl from the English speaking side of the tracks
OMG – Oh My God
Chill Out – Relax
Chillax – Chill out and please relax

Carol.musyoka@gmail.com Twitter:@carolmusyoka