Sunday, November 06, 2011


I have a friend who uses exclamation points when they text.  It works -- it fits their personality. Now, I have absolutely nothing against exclamation points (when used appropriately and in moderation -- which my friend does) but I'm not an exclamation point kind of person (I rarely use them unless quoting or for ironic value).  Except... when returning their texts.  Similarly, I am never even tempted* to use 2 for to or 4 for for or U for you... unless I am returning texts from my college-aged son, who, sadly enough, uses those abominations sometimes.

I was wondering aloud about this phenomenon this morning (after returning a exclamation point containing text to my friend) when the Rocket Scientist noted that it is akin to adopting people's accents when talking to them, which I also do.

I have lived in Northern California for well over two decades now.  I now have, realistically speaking, no accent.**  I go home to Florida, to visit my  mother who still retains something of a Southern accent, and the accent I used to have deepens a shade. I go to Mississippi to visit my brother and sister, or to Georgia to visit my in-laws, and my accent deepens a lot. My speech, which tends to be somewhat slow anyway (law school training to get rid of "ums" and "ers") becomes a drawl. Southernisms such a "y'all" and "fixing to go do..." (as well as what I have come to think of as the Southern pronunciation of "insurance" that once had my common room at Wellesley in stitches -- I dropped it soon after) return to my speech. (My relatives have commented how my sons -- especially the eldest -- sound like "surfer dudes." So much for there being no Northern California accent.)

Protective coloration, or the remnants thereof.

Part of it is having been eighteen and fancying myself a deep thinker, and being brought up short when older students at Wellesley told me how "cute" my accent was.*** (See above re: insurance.) And learning that the deeper the accent, the more people made assumptions about you -- or your family -- that were not necessarily correct.  And that people in the Northeast (at least in that pre-Bill Clinton era) sometimes assumed Southerners were naive, stupid, or corrupt, and that most of us wanted to secretly join either the John Birch Society or the KKK.

When you're eighteen, Southern, and going to college in Massachusetts in the early '80s, you lose the accent fast. Or, as a friend of mine did: exploit it. If people are going to think you're naive anyway, they tend to underestimate you and you can get away with saying outrageous things (often of a sexual nature) and people (or at least the people he hung with, who were mostly New Yorkers) think you don't know what you're saying.  (He got a rude shock when he started dating me and I called him on it.)

In my case, it was also part of a larger issue: I felt myself to unworthy of anyone's time and attention.  So I would act as a mirror for what they wanted to see -- mirroring the accent was merely part of it.  I mirrored body language, speech patterns, sometimes thought patterns.  And all the while, I feared that if anyone knew the real me, they would view me with disdain.  I would not be respected.  I would not be loved.

Many, many years (and much therapy) later, I am better about all of this, although not perfect.  I still worry if my friends really knew me, they wouldn't like me, but usually my attitude is much closer to "to hell with them if they don't. Their loss." (There are a few sections of my life/personality where that fear still holds, but in general, not.) After the age of forty, I decided I no longer had the energy the suffer fools gladly, or to keep hiding.  I became myself, or at least more myself.

And guess what? There are still people who love me.  Who find me intriguing.  And funny. Who think I have interesting things to say about the world.  Who like me for who I am, not for what I can show them about themselves.

Still, habits are habits.  Fortunately, the traits of the chameleon I retain are relatively benign.  It is probably not feasible to regain my Southern accent, but I can resist the siren lure of un-Pat-like punctuation.

So, to my friend... from now on out?  No exclamation points in my return texts.  Really.

*Okay, so I underline a lot of words, which is sort of the intra-sentence equivalent of the exclamation point.  As I said, I really have nothing against exclamation points per se.  And certainly not against the way my friend uses them.

**Except after about four beers, or three pina coladas, or three margaritas....

***For those who have seen Almost Famous (a really awesome movie) it is akin to the scene when Penny Lane tells William how sweet he is and he replies "Sweet? Where do you get off calling me sweet! I'm dark and mysterious and pissed off!"

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