Dear Lauren,

I find myself speaking in a way that makes me sound dumber than I really am. I know I’m doing it to fit in with the other guys in my class, but my parents don’t like it. What should I do?

“Eloquent” means “speaks beautifully.” I now dub you “Eloquent” and I release you from excessive worrying about what your peers think of you, and I give you the freedom to stand tall in your own truth.

Don’t worry so much about what other people think of you. Just be you. Figure out what and who you really are, and confidently be that. Don’t try to be something you’re not, just to fit in. You’ll feel better about yourself, and even your peers will probably like you more, if you are just authentically you.

That means: if you’re intelligent, feel free to act like an intelligent individual. If you love flowers, be confident in your love of flowers, even if you are of the male persuasion and other guys don’t go for that stuff. If you love to read or act or sing or fence or even row crew, be confident in your feelings for those activities. Whatever activities you enjoy, be confident about your passion and love for those activities. (Unless, of course, they’re illegal, dangerous, or otherwise bad or wrongful pursuits! I do not endorse murder, torture, pushing over old ladies–you get the gist.)

Don’t deny who you are in order to buy love from other people.

And if you’re able to speak with proper pronunciation and using higher-level vocabulary words, be confident in your talents in that area, too. Remember always that God made you, with your proclivities and interests. Don’t deny who you are in order to buy love from other people. Losing yourself in order to be liked leaves no one “home” to receive that love.

Regarding how you speak: it reminds me of the rather extensive research I did on African American youth in poor areas. African American kids who live in poor urban areas and who do really well in school are able to advance themselves and rise out of poverty and create a better life for themselves, away from the gang wars and the drug-induced violence. However, those African American kids who do well in school suffer for their good grades: other Black kids make fun of them, tease them, and taunt them, “Why you tryin’ to ‘act White?’ You tryin’ to be better than us? You think you’s White?” (Those are real quotes from the research.) The research I did showed, again and again, that the other Black kids would try to keep the smart ones “down.” Any kid who wanted to better himself or his situation would have to fight against a current of “Who do you think you are, acting better than us?”

Even if you feel your “friends” might have the attitude, “Who do you think you are? You think you’re better than we are?” you have to be strong and stand in your own truth and be everything you’re capable of being. You owe that to yourself.

Be strong and stand in your own truth.

The reason your parents don’t like your speaking in a way which makes you sound less intelligent than you are is because language is how we present ourselves to the world. If you speak like a smart young man, people will perceive you as someone who has something intelligent to contribute, and they will offer you opportunities to contribute your knowledge, skills, opinions, and talent to the world. If you speak like a lowly dude on the street, people will perceive you as such, and treat you as such. I’m sure your parents want you to realize your full capabilities in this life, and that is why they don’t like your presenting yourself as less intelligent and less capable than you actually are.

If you speak well and eloquently (instead of mumbling and grunting), and still speak in a friendly, fun, warm, welcoming way to the kids your age, they probably will then: (a) like you; and (b) respect your command of the English language. The key is to be yourself, and to be warm and friendly towards your peers at the same time. It’s true that if you act like an arrogant professor, your peers will feel that you’re trying to show you’re better than they are. But if you’re just your authentic, intelligent, well-spoken self with a generous spirit and a friendly air about you, your peers will feel welcomed by you, they will probably respect you and your wisdom, and they will probably feel honored to be in the presence of someone as real, as wise, as friendly, and as confident as you are.

One more point. Yesterday I had the most extraordinary experience. From the time I was 8 until I was 13 years old, I was a consistently first-place participant in competitive gymnastics. (Oh, man, my aching bones, that was a long time ago!) Yesterday, while dancing to music (my favorite way to exercise each day), an impulse randomly popped into my brain: “Hey! Why don’t you dance your 1982 gymnastics floor routine?” Laughing at my silly idea, I figured I’d try to remember the routine, but doubted I’d really recall all of the many steps. To my absolute amazement, I was able to perform the entire routine flawlessly. (Sans the cartwheels, flips, and back handsprings, of course. 1982 was a loooong time ago!)

It made me realize the enormous power of practice. The more we practice something–anything–the more deeply etched into our brain that behavioral pattern or that thought pattern will be. The more I yell at my family, the more likely it will be that I will automatically fall into yelling at them when my switch is flipped. And, alternatively, if I practice and practice kindness, compassion, and patience, those will become my automatic, knee-jerk, default modes. The more you speak properly, the more naturally it will come to you. Conversely, if you act dumb around your peers, you really might lose a modicum of your eloquence.

What we practice stays with us forever. What do you want to practice?