FOURTEEN WEEKS ago, for the first time in a long time, perhaps ever, I had to really reflect on my own Jewish identity and what it meant to me. The occasion — expressing the importance of the circumcision of my unborn son to his father, who, not being Jewish, wasn’t convinced of the need to (in his words) cut off a bit of his son’s penis. We had reached a bit of a stalemate, so one evening, I had to describe, and in the process articulate for the first time, what being Jewish means to me and why it matters that my son is Jewish.
That process demanded all my communication skills, as I listened to my son’s father, gave space to his views, and then shared my own.
The stakes were high. As I saw it, my son’s future identity as a Jewish man was at risk. But it wasn’t just the content of our conversation that mattered to me. As an expert in speech and communication, it was just as important to reflect on how I put my views across.
I was brought up in North London and at a young age was aware different people had different ways of speaking and that, as a young Jewish person in north London, I had a typical accent, known as a twang, that was perhaps inevitable.
However, instead of staying in London, I was sent away to boarding school, where I was one of only two or three Jewish pupils, and had elocution lessons there, and was encouraged to speak in what is officially called Received Pronunciation. Some years later, I became aware of the impact of that, and its particular relevance in my life. Rather than my accent placing me in north London, people instead asked if I was from the Home Counties.
I often reflect on the strange story of how I, with my north London Jewish roots, came to build a business based on what used to be called “elocution”. When I founded the London Speech Workshop many of our initial clients were non-native English speakers coming to us because they wanted to soften their accents in some way.
As I built my career and business — at least in part from the way I spoke — I often thought about how complexities of how accents affect us, and how they hold so much of our identity and cultural makeup. They represent not just who we are but also who we want to be.
Our coaches give clients guidance to help them feel more fully themselves while speaking in English, so the language could reflect who they were rather than in some way shut them out. We were helping them assimilate in the place they had chosen to call home. This is, at its heart, a migrant issue, one that would have been so relevant to my great grandparents.
Accents are tribal. They tell people Baby talk: Emma Serlin and son Leo where we belong. And so to have an accent is both a badge of identity and something that can shut the door in other areas.
For so many immigrants, Jewish and non-Jewish, their accents have been both a blessing and a curse, claiming where they belong and also challenging their assimilation. For my Masters degree in psychology I studied the relationship that one’s accent has with one’s identity and the tension between the desire to assimilate and the need to be loyal to one’s roots.
These tribal badges are so much a part of being Jewish. We are so good at assimilation and yet the power of Judaism is the tribe, the loyalty to the tribe; the closeness of our families and the power of our traditions. Perhaps it’s inevitable that my work gives people the tools to assimilate, while being sensitive to the conflict inherent in that.
But this kind of training is part of something larger and more exciting, because really effective communication is much more than elocution.
Unlocking the power of your voice is only part of the story. People need to understand the very best way to get their message across.
Why is it that some people, like Michelle Obama or Angelina Jolie, communicate with such grace, charm and charisma, while others — Hillary Clinton being an example — tragically fail?
The Communication Equation, as I call it, involves two parts — authenticity plus connection. And in pinning down what authenticity really means, perhaps it was my Jewish roots again that led me to psychology. So, effective communication means understanding the values that underpin your message, your unique point of view and, especially for many women, appreciating your right to speak and make your voice heard.
I find Victor Frankl’s philosophy particularly inspiring. Frankl believed humans are motivated by an inner pull to find meaning in their lives. If we can find this meaning, we can find our contentment with it.
If people connect with their values when they speak, what they really care about, what matters to them, then it can’t help but be authentic and compelling.
And what’s the second part of the equation? That’s the connection — and that’s where my other love, drama, kicks in. I worked in theatre, film and TV before finding my vocation as a communication guru, and I found that using techniques derived from acting can open people’s eyes to an entirely new way of communicating.
Combining psychology and theatre can create results that are, well, dramatic.
It’s become my mission to improve the way we communicate — at work, as well as at home and in our personal lives.
And although I’m not a religious Jew I certainly find my cultural background playing out in my work, in my love of language, of psychology, and a bit of an entrepreneurial streak, too.
At my son’s circumcision ceremony back in December, I was able to celebrate my own Jewishness with a new appreciation.
With my Jewish family on one side, and his father’s Italian family on the other, uniting over this rite of passage, we had a very special and beautiful event for our son.
Emma Serlin’s book ‘The Communication Equation’ is available on Amazon