It's good to talk, says Bob Hoskins in the BT ad which eggs on middle-class university students to call home. But the language of grown-ups alienates other teenagers who live in a culture where it's cool to be silent and surly. Wendy Wallace on how communication skills could empower these disadvantaged young people
Sixteen-year-old Shauna Rose, smart and streetwise with orange tips to her carefully-straightened black hair, was ejected from school and her Year 12 course in health and social care in September last year. It was the second day of term. She is bitter. "I came home from Jamaica just to do it," she says. "I went and bought all my pencils and pens. But they don't listen to you in that school. Once you have a fight, they don't want to know."
Shauna Rose, well-known after five eventful years, was asked to leave because of her attitude to teachers. What did she say, when she was called into the head's office for the interview which resulted in her expulsion? "I didn't say nuttin'. They just want you to hear their side."
Young people, like Shauna Rose, who regularly face tricky, formal encounters - whether with headteachers, probation officers, the police or other officials - are those least likely to have the skills to put their position across, according to a new survey on communication in the teenage years by the Trust for the Study of Adolescence.
With money from BT, researcher Dr Liza Catan and her colleagues mapped the communication patterns of more than 4,000 teenagers around the country. Teachers emerged well: only 11 per cent of the teenagers interviewed rated their communication with teachers as poor.
But while most reported broadly positive feelings about communication in and outside their families, socially or materially disadvantaged teenagers had the highest levels of contact with professionals, particularly those who deal with offending, benefits and social care. One homeless young man, having been given a bureaucratic runaround which would challenge the most articulate and authoritative adult, in the end simply said to the DSS officer "you just take the piss" - and walked out, still hungry and with the benefits claim unresolved.
Dr Catan says the ability to stand back in such situations, to reflect on what is needed to make communication work, and to have the skills to make it work, would empower disadvantaged teen- agers. Arguably, these young people would then be less at risk of finding themselves homeless and friendless.
But for people working with vulnerable teenagers, improving communication is central. Martin Kenward is head of an East Sussex unit for excluded pupils. Part of his job is to go into schools and negotiate on pupils' behalf, where relationships have broken down. "If there is a difficulty," he says, "some teachers find it hard to bring the discussion down to a human being level. A well-educated parent can intervene, but if the child is on his or her own and has weak skills, it's a very big problem." Some pupils in his Eastbourne tutorial unit may appear brashly confident with their friends, but are ill-equipped to deal with the age of multimedia. "They cringe, some of them, if we try to get them to use the telephone," he says, "and when asked to ring up employers they crumple completely. We get them to practise talking to us on the internal phone systems."
But it is not only children in special units who can lack fluency in English as it is spoken in the world of teachers and employers. John Fullman is head of English at Southfields Community College in south London. He says the pupils are mainly from working-class backgrounds and the school culture is one of inarticulacy. "There's a cachet in being inarticulate. In answering uh?, from the back of the throat, to questions," he says. "The kids with received pronunciation accents are sneered at, because you can't be tough and RP. " But Mr Fullman says his pupils are, for the most part, able to fit the mode of communication to the context.
Most could, he believes, summon a more formal and explicit vocabulary when necessary. "The ones who can't adjust for the audience are the ones who aren't going to get on," he says. "The same ones who can never learn French are the ones who can never make the transition from south London to standard English. Even those aren't necessarily bad communicators. Just narrow."
Dr Catan says that teachers need to be mindful of pupils' need to communicate beyond the classroom. "The question is not 'can they communicate?'" she says, "But 'can they communicate in the ways required to get them well educated, trained and, eventually, employed?' Proponents of 'youth culture' do young people from less advantaged backgrounds no favours by leading them to believe they can do fine without learning 'adult' communication rules."
Young women, the researchers note, find talking easier than young men. "Girls were more positive about communication, communicated more often and with a wider range of people than their male peers," says Liza Catan. This gender difference transcends class ones. "Many parents of teenage boys will mention the zombie phase," she says. "I used to tease my own sons when all they did was grunt at each other. Girls often have a kind of chatterbox poise at that stage that boys completely lack."
The teenagers interviewed by the Trust for the Study of Adolescence felt particularly negative about communication with the police. More than half of the minority who had had contact with the police rated it bad. Sixteen-year-old Martin Coa, out of school for the past two years, has had numerous contacts, including being arrested for suspected bank robbery. "I tried once before, " he says, "saying I didn't do it. But they just go into a long procedure. It's easier to say nothing."
Sergeant Bob Gosling of the youth and community section of the Metropolitan Police accepts that street-level contacts between young people and the police are likely to be unsatisfactory. Being warned that anything you say may be used against you is not the ideal way to begin any conversation: "The criminal justice system is steeped in phrases, which can put people's backs up. But officers have to get through that." Interestingly, when the police formally caution young offenders, a significant part of the procedure is forcing the young person to talk through what happened, usually in front of parents. "Initially they tend to shrug their shoulders and lose eye contact," says Sergeant Gosling, "which sends a very negative message that they couldn't care less. Then you keep on questioning and slowly they'll come round. My purpose is to make sure they understand what course of action has led up to them being there. And often the parents have been saying 'Why? Why?' - and not getting any answers."
Tricia Kreitman, psychologist and agony aunt on Mizz magazine, says that not communicating is one of the most powerful statements teenagers have available to them. "A lot of young people feel totally disempowered in schools. Or they have problems at home and feel that the adults there don't listen to them. They can feel talking is pointless, and it gives them great power not to communicate with people who want them to."
Teenagers told the researchers they found it harder to talk to fathers than mothers. Frequency of communication tended to make things easier; the worst communication was between the 23 per cent of fathers absent from the family home and their secondary-schoolaged teenagers. "My dad phones maybe only once a month," said one 15-year-old girl. "I always feel a little sad after talking to him because I miss him and don't get to talk to him all that often."
However, the survey provided little ammunition for any generalised statement that teenagers communicate less well than they used to. "A lot astounded us with the degree of their fluency and articulateness," says Dr Catan. "You can't say that teenagers don't communicate effectively. But important groups don't." Part of the purpose of the re-search is to design interventions to help vulnerable young people communicate better.
But, according to Roz Brody of the trust, it may be as necessary to target those around them. "As I'm talking to young people, I'm getting more concerned about adults' communication," she says. "It seems sometimes as if young people are communicating quite well but adults aren't listening."
* Getting through: Effective Communication in the Teenage Years is available from The BT Forum. Tel: 0800 800 926