What I Learned About Communication from My Blue-collar Family

blue-collar workers

I didn’t have to wait until I started going to school to learn how to communicate effectively. That started from the day I was born, trying to make myself heard in a big Irish Catholic, blue-collar family in Pittsburgh. If you had something to say, no one was politely waiting for you to say it. You just had to say it, quick, sometimes loud, simply and clearly.

When I did start school, from kindergarten on, I was surrounded by other kids from big families and the rules were the same. The main thing the schools provided was the actual education on how to write and speak.

All of this prepared me for journalism school, where I learned to put it all together to make sure that when I wrote or spoke, it was not only something I wanted to say, but something someone else wanted to read or hear.

Still, my blue-collar background didn’t fail me. I was in the first generation of my family to go to college. I knew more card-carrying union members than white collar workers before I entered the work force. What all of this taught me was how to penetrate the noise, to create messages that speak to the lowest common denominator, regardless of how complex the topic.

With that in mind, here is a quick summary of some of those lessons:

Don’t try to fake it – Give it to them straight. Don’t even try to fake it or presume that the right combination of words, or even facts, can be used to trick others into seeing things in a way that might not be completely honest with them. People in blue-collar jobs aren’t in those jobs because they’re any less smart or perceptive than you. They’re pretty sharp and deserve every bit the respect you’d give a CEO.

Don’t waste space or time – No one is waiting for your communication. Don’t waste their time. Get to the point and don’t waste any words. As William Strunk said in Elements of Style, “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

Use simple language – One-syllable words are best. Two syllables are fine. Three is starting to push it. The simpler the language, the easier it is to understand for everybody, and that’s your goal.

Put yourself in their shoes – I once talked to a family member of mine who was a waitress who had just worked a banquet that was attended by other servers. She said it was the best night of tips she ever had. Keep in mind, these weren’t rich people. Quite the opposite, but they were generous with their tips. Why? Because they knew how important those tips were to their servers, and they appreciated the importance of recognizing good service. If you want to be understood and appreciated, make sure to put yourself in the shoes of those you are trying to reach.

Do the work – Communication, even if you’re not getting paid for it, takes work. You have to learn as much as possible at every level about the people you are trying to reach. You have to research your topic. You have to understand what will matter to other people and what will resonate with them. Only then can you craft the messages or create the pictures and sounds that will be used to make a connection. Do the work.

Don’t be afraid to be challenged – Growing up in a blue-collar family, you get used to confrontation. You also learn to feed off of it and even thrive because of it. If your thoughts or ideas can’t stand up to tough scrutiny, maybe they aren’t all that great. I learned to put my ideas and arguments to the test long before they were ready for prime time. That’s part of the process. Be ready and willing to be challenged, and make sure to challenge yourself.

What kind of communication lessons did you receive growing up? I’d love to hear. Just let me know.

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