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What Are You Talking About?
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 09/28/2015

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The following is an installment in "The Bouchard 101", a series featuring "Ice Breaker's" designed to promote training awareness and capabilities in the corrections industry.

Our inability to understand transforms us into helpless actors on the stage, unable to read the cue cards. When we hear words and do not understand them, our audience is aware of this. That dilutes our effectiveness and lessens our professional credibility.

The slang that one hears in a correctional facility can be very vexing and confusing at times. This is true even for seasoned corrections professionals. The argot is dynamic, fluid, and decentralized. These are colloquialisms that are often morphed by intentional masking. (Do you know what this jargon says?)

Time does not stand still in language. What you learned in slang when you started may have become as dated as the more public terms such as “sweet” or “sick” or their older siblings “cool” and “groovy”.

No matter how tenuous or daunting this may be, we need to get a handle on the inside language. We need to realize the slippery and fleeting nature of slang words. What better way is there to accomplish this than through an icebreaking exercise?

This is what you’ll need – markers and a board or a flip chart. This can also be created on a slide show format projected on a screen. Of course, the flip chart works and is also a good platform for “What are you talking about?” It is adaptable and easily translated for any classroom or trainer inclination.

This is how it works. The class is split into two teams. The instructor may make a sub game out of this by appointing leaders to select their team members. The interesting part comes when the facilitator directs the team leaders to change teams when all players are in place. This builds an interesting competitive spirit. Another tactic to build friendly competition is to have teams choose their team names. The names that teams select can be very surprising.

The facilitator preselects twenty slang terms spoken currently or historically by inmates. The first term is displayed. And each team is given a chance to define the word. When both teams have guessed, the definition is displayed. The first team to correctly define the term scores a point.

There are many texts, articles, and internet sources that feature prison argot. Finding them will be easy. The difficulties may be in assessing the sources for timeliness and choosing just twenty terms.

Of course, the old stand-by for trainers is the trumped up prize with very little value. Part of the fun in distributing candy bars or inexpensive gag gifts is the reactions from participants.

“What are you talking about?” works well with corrections students at the college level. We can use words that most corrections staff know for the college student versions.

It works well with corrections professionals. It is as simple as employing more obscure words in the presentation. Since the novice/college student version would be too easy for a group of corrections professionals, some of the common slang words can be substituted with less obvious selections. There is even an opportunity to review historical words for a bonus round.

There is no doubt that slang, like graffiti, is difficult to understand. Its fluidity will ensure that. However, corrections trainers do our profession a favor by featuring this sort of training. And pre-professionals benefit by having a little more understanding of the language before they enter into service for the public.

Joe Bouchard is a Librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections and a collaborator with The International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP). He is also the author of “IACTP’s Corrections Icebreakers: The Bouchard 101, 2014”. The installments in this series include his opinions. The agency for which he works is not in any way responsible for the content or accuracy of this material, and the views are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the agency. While some material is influenced by other works, all of the icebreakers have been developed by Joe Bouchard.

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

Other articles by Bouchard:


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