The sad truth is that words matter to only a few of us
Even among civil service mandarins, addiction to bad language starts at the very top
Even sticklers end up buying toasters that abuse language, because a) there aren’t any that don’t, and b) the quality of the toast trumps the words that pop up alongside
Two bad things can happen when you get back to work after a holiday: one small and the other big. The small thing is that your computer password has expired; the big one is that your job has expired too.
Both happened to me last week on my return from a week away. The first was predictable, though still a mild downer as it involved dreaming up a string of new passwords all of which were rejected by the computer as insufficiently unmemorable.
The expiry of my job wasn’t predictable at all. As the management bullshit correspondent, I always thought I had the most stable position in journalism. The bullshit market, as I’ve often pointed out, has only one phase – the bull phase – so there is never a shortage of things to write about.
Yet in the space of one short week two disruptive things happened. First was the news that UK civil servants have been banned from using 30 ugly words. There will be no more “delivering” – unless pizzas are involved; no more “empowerment” or “facilitation”, and nothing will ever be “key” again, apart from things that fit in locks. “Going forward” – another banned phrase – there will be no more “fostering” without children and no more “driving” without steering wheels.
A couple of days later Harvard Business Review published a blog with the title “Your Company is Only as Good as Your Writing”. Kyle Wiens, chief executive of iFixit, argued that good writing makes the difference between a good business and a bad business – a sale or no sale. From the rapturous response, his readers seemed to agree.
While my back was turned, there has been a pincer movement from either side of the Atlantic. On this side, the weapon is compulsion, while on the US side it is an appeal to sense; either way, for a bullshit correspondent it is worrying news.
Wondering what to do with the rest of my life, I started mournfully sifting through my emails, but almost at once came on something cheering. Howard Schultz had been asked if Starbucks planned any more acquisitions, to which he replied: “I would say that we have enough to digest in the near-term, and there’s nothing candidly in our sightline that would suggest that we’re involved in engaging anything that we’re going to acquire.”
This is diabolical. It is 34 words, where one would do. It is self-important, horribly waffly, and makes a queasy nod towards honesty that makes one suspect the reverse.
It should be taken seriously, not just as a reminder of how business people are addicted to abusing meaning, syntax and metaphor, but to show that Mr Wiens is wrong: there is no link between business success and talking like a regular human being. The company that launched the Caramel Frappuccino has no problem selling things. Mr Wiens supplies no proof that bad words mean bad business. Instead, the blog itself undermines the theory. Despairingly, he quotes his toaster manual, which calls the button that pops up the toast the “extra-lift carriage control lever”. And yet it is his toaster: however much he deplores the language, it didn’t stop him buying the machine.
The sad truth is that words matter to only a few of us, and we get unreasonably agitated when people use them badly. But even sticklers end up buying toasters that abuse language, because a) there aren’t any that don’t, and b) the quality of the toast trumps the words that pop up alongside.
If there is no business link between language and sales, there is no point in exhortation – which means the only way to improve matters is by following the civil service route and outlawing the worst phases. Yet history tells us that banning things people are hooked on does not work. Even among civil service mandarins, addiction to bad language starts at the very top. In the blogs by Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service, there are orgies of delivery in every entry. He “delivers” results, budget cuts and services with equal aplomb. Only in the last post – two days after the ban – does Sir Bob go cold turkey on delivering, though I see he couldn’t resist a “key” or two.
He begins this last post: “Having benefited from investment in my personal development over the years, I am passionately committed to the civil service being a learning organisation.” The civil service might be a learning organisation (whatever that is). But learning how not to talk flatulently about passionate commitment is going to be very hard indeed.
What is my key takeaway from all this going forward? I would say there is nothing candidly in my sightline that would suggest that my job has expired at all. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013