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    Stylish Writing

    Thursday, May 26, 2011

    In the 1946 film O.S.S., an American spy is caught and executed in Nazi-held France after eating with his fork in the wrong hand. Europeans tend to hold the fork with the left, tines pointed downward, leaving the right free to ply the knife. In the US, of course, we hold the fork in the right hand, tines up, and swap briefly when we need the knife for cutting. The spy's faux pas gives him away.

    My daughter who has been an exchange student in Germany and Belgium says that a more modern signal of American background is wearing white cotton socks. Apparently Europeans just don't wear white cotton socks, even with sneakers and jeans. As someone who pretty much hates wearing any socks but white cotton, I'm saddened to hear this. Then again, I've never understood the injunction in our own country to avoid wearing white shoes between Labor Day and Easter.

    We each develop our personal style within the larger context of our culture. Nowadays I wield a fork like a European, because it makes more sense to me. But I wear white socks because they're comfortable, and choose shoes to match (or half boots to cover them when dressing up). I tie my bathrobe belt like Tony Randall, after seeing him do it on an episode of The Odd Couple. Although most of my cursive letters come from grade school training, I later abandoned the ugly uppercase T's and F's and adopted those of a favorite middle school teacher. I've learned to print my lowercase f's from the bottom up, because they're illegible otherwise. While no one would mistake me for anything other than American, the sum total of these individual habits makes me unique.

    Business writing is a similar negotiation of cultural context and personal style. Certain forms (reports, proposals, and instructions, for instance) assume a particular format. E-mail and other correspondence allows more leeway but is still most effective when using a standard approach (SEA, BEBE, or AIDA) and format (full block, for instance). By the same token, conventional spelling, grammar, and word usage are essential. These things are the cultural context of business writing.

    Within that context, however, lies room for individual style: the cast of a sentence, the freshness of an expression, the particular voice of who we each are. Without that voice, language has no life. And without life, it loses a reader's interest.

    Voice is a difficult thing to define. But I encourage you to explore the idea. As a start, you might revisit Joyce Lee's blog entry about "Making Unemployment Work for You" and compare it to this present essay. Both of us are writing in businesslike 21st-century Standard English, but I think you'll find the voice of each piece distinctive. We'd love to hear your writing voice as well, in an e-mail or as a comment below.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by UggBoy♥UggGirl