Words and Mimicry

Recently, while tidying up my notes on my phone, I found a list. Here is a snippet of it.

It is a list I created between 2003-2008 and I’ve almost forgotten it. Revisiting this list brought back memories of the time I was newly settled into the UK. The list was part of my continuing love affair with rhetoric and the artistry of the English language in conversation, communication and persuasion.

I’ve long had a fascination for both the written and spoken word. In 1986, fresh out of university with a degree in physics, I worked for a property development company selling posh houses in Singapore. I became fascinated by marketing and spent 3 months at JW Thompson, an advertising agency to get some training as a copy writer. Those 3 months left an indelible mark on everything I wrote since then, whether it was an academic paper, or a blogpost. I learnt that words should not be wasted. Aside from merely being communicative, they could be persuasive, charming and cajoling. There were no neutral words. All words were powerful. As a copywriter, I had to learn to use words that could invoke imagery, fill gaps, trigger imagination and provoke thought.

The spoken word fascinated me too. Returning to that list, if I had to give it a name, it would be my ‘turn of phrase’ list. It was a list of the way the people I encountered used the language in ways that were not just unique to my ear, but absolutely wonderful in how it cleverly communicated both the message and the sentiment. As a new migrant, everyone I encountered was new so there were many of such phrases. It led me to notate them, lest I forget how delightful they were, but more importantly, it helped with a very important skill for a migrant in the UK. Mimicry.

Every migrant knows mimicry, whether they like to acknowledge it or not. It is an attempt to make the person talking to us feel like they are talking to an insider, and not an outsider. A way to make the person whom we are conversing with feel more comfortable. It’s trying to sound ‘native’ in a country that still feels new to us in so many ways. Mimicry comes in so many forms. In a gang, members swear so that they feel they are part of the in-group. Often, it’s a change in the way we talk, perhaps we change our accent, or mimic the local style.

My mimicry skills were deployed in full force between 2003-2009, my first 6 years as a lecturer in the UK when I was in Exeter, and then honed when I moved to Cambridge. Aside from slowing down my speech to half the speed of an average Malaysian (we speak phenomenally fast), I spoke in full sentences (Malaysians rarely finish their sentences), explicitly state (and understate) any emotions (Malaysians tend to exclaim) and learnt to turn the phrase. This list was my handy guide, learning from the best.

My most memorable experience was a faculty board meeting where all the academics around the table were discussing postgraduate programmes. The chair, a female professor, wrapped up the meeting and it was clear she had to remind everyone to take a particular action. She said : “here is the nag. You would all need to …….” Here is the nag? I have never been more gracefully nagged in my life.

Over the years, mimicry became less of a mimicry but more of acculturation. I internalised the phrases and created new ones of my own, and slowly turned native. I haven’t referred to the list in 8 years.

There is a certain poignancy in seeing that list. I realise I meet very few new people nowadays. That everything is now familiar rather than unfamiliar. In applying skills of mimicry, I have successfully turned native and paradoxically, could have lost that skill. Perhaps it’s time to move again?

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