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Speaking in Tongues
Esther Eidenow

The Salisbury Review — Winter 2004


Evaluating the nature and functions of innovative and rapidly dynamic communications conducive to information sharing in the context of contemporary and participative organisational structures', or 'Speaking in Tongues'.

Across the corporate world, from personalised workstations to plush executive suites, something terrible is happening to the English language. This is not a new lament — Orwell was railing elegantly on this subject in Politics and the English Language in 1946, pleading that we be on our guard against the invasion of our minds by ready-made phrases, worn-out metaphors and long passages of writing 'which are almost completely lacking in meaning'. And yet, wrestling with the demands of work, most of us spend far too little time thinking about what we are writing or reading. We should remember Orwell's warning:

'[Language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts. As we forget how to write, we forget how to think. Were Orwell writing his essay now, he might observe how some corporations deploy language to impress, seduce and conceal the truth. Not only does this apply to their commercial activities, it also describes their insidious use of language to wheedle and deceive their employees. 

You, too, can write like a business executive!
Examine this list of nouns and verbs, commonly used in business literature. Nouns: Interactive engagement session; Replication and implementation of initiatives; International commitment; Mental models of business decisions; A wider range of appropriate issues and critical learning; Strategic thinking; Risk management; Positive outcomes; Work/life balance; Relevant insight; Think piece; Strategic relevance; Empowerment; Self-development; Principal source of competitive advantage; Pro-active safety action plan; Integrated change management approach; Core competence; Excellence work-streams; High-performance work place; Appropriate self-initiative; Accountable environment; Challenge and opportunity; Participatory communication; Issues (wide-ranging, or a number of...)

Verbs: operationalise, facilitate, task (as a verb), action, impact, surface (ditto), monitor, remain vigilant, optimise, implement, capture, leverage, innovate (the more frequently used the better), embed, manage, enable, inspire. Make a selection, jumble them up and turn them into a sentence.

Now mix them up again and start again... You might produce: Surface the relevant insights through actioning an integrated change management approach, remaining vigilant to the challenges and opportunities of a pro-active safety action plan in an accountable environment. I call this the 'business fridge magnet game', because it resembles the kits of magnetic words and phrases that people sometimes stick to the surface of their refrigerators and play with when they should be doing something more productive: just move the verbs and nouns together to make phrases and build sentences.

At one level this is intended as a joke. But read a lot of business literature — each ponderous and impenetrable sentence stuffed with syllable-bristling words — and you may begin to think that people are actually playing this game. However, it takes itself very seriously: there is a curious formality to business prose. The effect is easily achieved with a few simple tricks. For example, always replace simple conjunctions with much more elaborate phrases — with regard to, in the interests of, vis-a-vis (a particular favourite). Why say 'stop' when you can 'discontinue'? Or 'show', when you can 'demonstrate'? Those extra syllables can help to pad prose out like the Michelin man, providing a reassuring rotundity — and complexity — of language.

A sense of urgency is then easily achieved by using nouns as verbs ('tasking' people with an assignment; handing, over responsibility to 'action' a particular piece of work) — remarkably ugly formulations ('operationalise') probably win points for impact (another favourite business word — though usually featuring as a verb). And yet — what do all these words mean? Spend very little time in their company and it's swiftly apparent that behind all this weight is an almost complete lack of meaning. 'Process', 'initiative', 'innovation', 'approach' — all examples of popular business nouns that seem at first sight to promise specificity, but are totally uninformative. They may catch the eye, or seem to sparkle with the promise of dynamic action — but they are little more than ornamental.

Another example, 'Excellence', identified as the goal of many a department's mission statement— but what does it tell us? Next to nothing: after all, would any organisation admit to working towards anything else? Such imprecise language provides the perfect camouflage for more serious matters. Thus, the specific details of a problem often slip by under cover of 'challenge and opportunity'. The even fuzzier term 'issues' is also favoured.

Shell's press release dated 18/03/04 provides a range of examples: 'A number of issues have been identified to date, leading to the recategorisation of a further 250 million barrels of oil...' and 'The review to date has not identified any further major or widespread concerns. However, a number of issues were identified with specific fields...' And, finally, surely meant to reassure: 'Guidelines... will include clearer guidance on technical and commercial issues.' Something of the same evasive quality lurks around the frequent use of the impersonal voice and passive tenses. From the dreaded 'be advised that' to more elaborate circumlocutions, individuals or groups are rarely found as the subject of a verb in a piece of corporate writing. Shell's press release again: 'Approximately 95% of the volumes impacted by these reductions were previously booked as proved undeveloped reserves...' or 'there is no change expected in the amount, timing or cost of production from any of these fields.'

The impersonal formulation suggests that these conclusions have been reached with objectivity, an almost scientific neutrality. Indirectly, they inform the reader no fallible individual is responsible for proving anything, no one actually holds these expectations — there are no vested interests here!

'If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thoughts'
Why do we care? Is it likely that anyone is even reading this material? A frequently heard lament of those who produce corporate documents longer than a page is that no one reads them anyway — not even if the information is liberally spattered with that visual equivalent of the sound-bite, the dreaded bullet-point. With the advent of electronic information, employees

have an enormous amount to read. Madeline Bunting, in Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruining Our Lives, quotes, as representative, a software manager who reports how 'the most apt metaphor to sum up the experience [of receiving email] is to imagine yourself standing at the backend of a dumper truck full of gravel. It slowly tips, covering you. You dig frantically to stop being buried but the gravel keeps on coming and never ceases. If you stop digging, you'll die.' If the inadequacies of the prose are lost in a sea of exhausted employees and endless electronic communication, how can it matter? Why should we care if business language — the stringing together of trite, hackneyed and meaningless words and phrases — clearly shows that writers and readers are no longer thinking for themselves? Such an argument is often used by those that believe that language must be allowed to develop naturally and not be interfered with. But, as Orwell observed: we must remember that language is 'an instrument which we shape for our own purposes'. Peering into their computer screens, many employees have not yet realised just how insidiously language is being shaped by and within their organisations.

Transforming the Meaning of Work
'First, scientific management sought to capture the body, then human relations sought to capture the heart, now consultants want to tap into the soul. What they offer is therapy and spirituality' (J. Ciulla, The Working Life).

A quick skim through the shelves of business literature in any bookshop suggests that this is not an exaggeration: Leading Organisations Through Transition by Deetz, Tracy and Simpson, begins by arguing that 'To succeed today requires less surveillance and supervision of employee behaviour and more managing of hearts, minds and souls — in short, managing culture.' Meanwhile, the business gurus are finding the language that will do just that: Gary Hamel has imprisoned the language of 1960's protest into the strait-jacket of corporate management, talking of business activism, and encouraging eager middle managers to join the revolution. Art Kleiner's Age of Heretics describes how the 'heroes, outlaws and forerunners of corporate change' were on a quest, smashing the constraints of traditional business practices. Tom Peters emphasises goals and values, the pursuit of excellence (as if one would pursue anything else?); while Stephen Covey emphasises profound personal growth in order to achieve maximum efficiency.

If this language is to be believed, then we are no longer just going to work. We are involved in a great social movement, a sweeping force for change: we, the employees, can make a difference in the world. Moreover, the language of business suggests work can make a difference to us. Within the workplace the language of counselling has spread like a warm, reassuring blanket. Managing employees means looking after their personal development, empowerment, ownership... Actions are judged 'appropriate'; individuals are 'enabled'; management now sponsors personal growth, providing coaching and mentoring, helping employees to participate in the organisational culture. As we spend more and more of our time at work, we are encouraged to bring more of our personal life into the office. The boundaries between private and professional have melted under the blandishments of corporations, who seem to promise to satisfy our search for meaning and for self-development. Borrowed from a therapeutic discourse, this new business language seems so well meaning, so caring. It is easy to forget the crucial differences.

Take for example, the language of 'commitment', which is increasingly being used to describe the nature of the emotional relationship that corporations want from their employees. The ability to provide a commitment is, in our society, usually judged to be a positive trait. It is used to describe a mutual relationship between two equal, mature, competent adults.

However, in the world of work commitment occurs within a completely different context. Despite the language of emotional care, the relationship between employee and employer can scarcely be described as equal. Showing an emotional commitment to a job cannot provide the employee with the experience of a similar profound emotional bond in return. Indeed, even as this language has spread in the US, increasing numbers of people have 'been downsized'; while, in the UK, surveys suggest that people feel remarkable job insecurity. In the same way, on examination, the language of teamwork, personal development, work/ life balance is failing to deliver what it promises. Quite the contrary: between 1990 and 2001-2, the prevalence of self-reported stress caused or made worse by work more than doubled, from 207,000 to 563,000. Many of us are afraid of losing our jobs, and work far too hard to make up for it. The 2002 labour force survey found that 30% of professionals were working more than 50 hours a week, while Management Today reported that DTI work-life balance campaign found that one in six (a fifth of 30-39 year olds) are working over 60 hours a week. In 2003, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reported that only 44% of workers take all the holiday to which they are entitled — most people because they have too much work; others because they were afraid they might lose their job.

Increasingly, work invades every aspect of our lives — it dictates how we spend our time; it bounds our aspirations and expectations. It shapes our communities, our family life; it helps structure our landscapes, it fundamentally shapes our nation. But far from enabling personal growth, the demands of jobs, legitimised by the new language of business care, is overwhelming us. When we lack the time we need to think and express ourselves clearly, we cannot question, challenge, organise. We cannot hear the voice of our own reason or conscience, or look further than the next task, the next e-mail. When we lose the time we need to nurture our relationships or take care of our own physical, emotional or intellectual needs, we cannot develop interests or seek out other forms of meaning. A vicious spiral develops: the more time we spend at work, the more we become dependent on our workplace to provide for our social, emotional and even spiritual needs — so the more time we devote to it. And language is a powerful ally in prolonging this pattern.

The careful use of particular words and phrases controls and changes the meaning of work. Corporations need to attract us as consumers, but they also need our time, our passion and our heart-felt belief as employees. Drawing on spiritual and therapeutic discourses, their language seems to promise each of us so much — just so long as no one examines it too closely. In fighting the abuse of language, Orwell recommended the use of irony or satire. I think this advice can best be followed by quoting examples from the business literature itself. I will end with a chilling example:

From Reworking Authority: Leading and Following in the Post-Modern Organisation, by Larry Hirschorn: the loss of jobs, the destruction of career ladders and the obsolescence of skills undermine the ability and the willingness of individuals to collaborate with one another and with the executives who employ them...

However, 'such a climate of fear does not quash new working relationships completely. Instead it creates a "force field" in which the constraining forces of fear and dislocation are intertwined dynamically with the enabling forces of shared decision-making and the authorisation of people at all levels of the hierarchy. This is the new dialect of the transition to post-industrialism.'

Esther Eidenow 's book Risk and the Greeks will be published by Oxford University Press.


The Salisbury Review — Winter 2004