On gatekeeping and 'hidden rules' for language

April 25, 2020

The past few days, I’ve been helping $Person (1) write an application for a Leadership Education/Extended Education program. $Person is an objectively impressive person: English is their 3rd written language, 4th or 5th spoken one, and they’re able to navigate multiple languages, cultures, and communities: sometimes simultaneously. They have certifications and work experience in a plethora of different fields.

And yet, they didn’t know how to craft the Right Kind of Narrative around their experiences and package it in a way that “fit” the program quite right. A few things I wanted to call out:

Communicating specific, targeted, and relevant goals

In their first draft $Person basically said: I know a bit, but mostly I want to learn All The Things (™). Now, knowing this person, I know that every word of it is absolutely true. I’m also fairly certain that doesn’t provide a compelling story, or give any reason why This Program in particular should accept them. My approach is often to provide a specific subset of my goals, NOT in the order I care about them, but in a way that makes for a cleaner narrative.

All The Things ™ is not necessarily a helpful thing to write on an application.

Something like: Personal experience X made me care about problem Y. I’d like to contribute by Z.

For example: Spilling hot water while making tea made me care about teapot design. I’d like to improve my product design skills to help solve the hot water spilling problem.

Matching the story to the context is also important. If the program focused on product design in general, this narrative works well. However, I might revise both the goals (and the statements) if the program was for marketing, or another discipline.

The things you think are important or hard are often not the salient ones

Over the years, $Person has been to a series of workshops and certification courses relating to the program topic. However, the amount of brainspace it occupies for them is minimal. In their framing, “it’s mostly a course I slept through; it’s not as important as the practical work I do.” Except that the practical work they do is squishy, rarely documented, and unquantifiable.

I had to cajole and convince them to sit down and list all of the workshops, even though they thought it was a massive pain.

“Even if you don’t think it’s that important, [X] pieces of paper matter a lot to an application like this.”

Things that frustrate me

The ability to tell the “right” story, or focus on the “salient” points is predicated on knowledge of the “in-crowd” language, which often requires:

Already having access to the right people and information is neither: - Equally available to folks - A great measure of whether or not they would be a good fit/contributor to a cohort/job/[insert situation here]

I’m super lucky. I’ve learned to code switch into business-spin-English through some combination of luck, tears, and fantastic mentors. This weekend, I’m reminded of just how powerful (and exclusionary) language is. Even if we’re speaking the “same” language, the hidden rules of cadence, vocabulary, and default narrative structures signal belonging and power, and can either open or close doors.

I wish we talked more about these “hidden” rules; for two reasons. I’d like to make the “hidden rules” more transparent so people who didn’t “magically” have access to them can play the game well. Also, the optimistic side of me hopes that if the “hidden rules” were written down, we might actually question whether or not they should exist.

  1. A person in my life who is a first-generation immigrant to the US