I must have been seven or eight years old.
When I moved from the West of the Netherlands (that’s where you’ll find Amsterdam), to the North, I was in for a culture shock no one had prepared me for.
I will never forget the first day at my new school. Kids surrounded me as if I was some kind of novelty, and they started making fun of me for the way I spoke.
“You talk funny,” they yelled. “Your Dutch sounds so proper.” They said it as if this was not a good thing.
I had no idea what they were referring to. I didn’t do anything special. I just spoke the way I always spoke; the way I was taught to speak.
I had no clue that the town in the West of the Netherlands I had moved from (Santpoort), was known for being at the heart of where ABN (Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands) was spoken.
So, ABN literally means Common Civilized Dutch, implying that those with a different way of speaking were uncivilized. How stupid!
The people in the West (the part of Holland that was dominant in an economical sense) enunciate very clearly, making many sounds in the front of the mouth.
The Northerners (living in a poorer part of the country) often seem to mumble their words, making many sounds in the back of their mouth.
All my life I had been praised for my clear diction, but in my new school (in the town of Roden, Drenthe), kids were mocking me because of my posh accent. They called me a “show-off,” “the teacher’s pet,” or “the professor.”
Fast forward ten years.
At the age of seventeen, I had moved from the North to a central part of the Netherlands (Utrecht), and I found myself applying for an internship at one of Holland’s public radio stations to make youth radio programs.
You should know that living in the North had not changed my Dutch accent very much. To me, the way I spoke was like a warm, familiar blanket. I had learned to live with kids making fun of me, and I never felt the need to blend in. I still don’t.
At this radio station, part of the application process was a job interview with the head of the station. I introduced myself, and his eyes immediately lit up. The first thing he said was:
“I just LOVE the way you speak. I could listen to you for hours. It’s perfect for radio!”
Again, the way I talked was totally normal to me, but he thought there was something special to it.
Not to show off, but he hired me on the spot, and it was the beginning of a 25-year career in broadcasting, which eventually led to me doing voice overs.
MEANING AND CONTEXT
Coming back to last week’s story about branding, always remember that you don’t see or hear yourself the way other people see or hear you. And the way other people perceive you, tells you a lot about them. I certainly learned a lot about my mocking classmates from the North.
The meaning of things is always determined by the context, that is, the setting and the circumstances that determine the interpretation and understanding of what’s happening.
For instance, a bunch of people sitting stark naked in a small room, is totally inappropriate if this were to take place during an American voice over conference. But in a Finnish sauna, it would be inappropriate for the same people to wear any clothes.
Same behavior. Different context. Different meaning.
Running a red light is usually a dumb and dangerous thing to do, but running the light because your wife is about to give birth and you need to get to the hospital, is a different matter. You get the picture.
LISTEN TO LISA
I remember voice talent Lisa Biggs telling me how kids at school made fun of her childlike voice. It affected her self-esteem, until – one day – she discovered that there was a need for more mature voice actors who could sound like children. Think Bart Simpson.
Her high-pitched, squeaky voice that was often ridiculed, turned out to be quite the money maker! These days, Lisa is a powerhouse in voice over land. She offers trainings and coaching, and she’s hired by the biggest brands and the best animation studios. If your kids have any speaking toys at home, chances are you’ve heard Lisa’s happy voice.
Again, for Lisa, special was normal. After she had done a talk, a professor once told her:
“Your presentation was great, but if anyone is ever going to take you seriously in the real world, you’re going to have to do something about your voice”.
What in one context was seen as an impediment, turned out to be a big asset in another context. Normal was special, and these days people are taking Lisa’s talent very seriously.
So, here’s this week’s takeaway:
If you ever feel less than positive about something that makes you stand out, please ask yourself: in which context could this actually be an asset?
And remember: your “normal” could be pretty special to the rest of the world.
You might even make a career out of it!