The oddest thing about business-speak, the kind Steven Poole wrote about, is that everyone’s in on the self-sabotage. I’ve shared countless private guffaws with people shortly after they’ve dropped a clanger like ‘on boarding key stakeholders’ where they too can’t believe what they’ve just said.
Yet come our next meeting, it happens all over again. Corporate cliches persist, despite our open ridicule and distaste for it. As Steven Poole mentions:
“its own users sometimes admit that this lexicon is unnecessary”
It’s like we’re all party to some strange bullshit arms-race where we’re too scared to back down for fear of losing face. The result is that dehumanising language has become scarily normalised in the workplace, so our decisions and actions become one step removed from their real-world consequences.
So not only are we misleading each other in the conference room, we’re cheating everyone else down the chain too. That’s quite a scary thought.
Indulge me for a moment and I’ll explain…
Here comes the PC brigade
Consider political correctness – chief weapon of the thought police, if popular tabloids are to be believed (I’m not convinced such a thing exists – our laws on free speech are actually very liberal, it’s actions that count, as you’ll see).
Being PC has the premise that certain kinds of language – usually racial slurs or labelling, should be challenged. And rightly so, because if overtly accepted and used in mainstream conversation, they normalise discrimination. What logically follows then is the practical application of that prejudice, like segregation, which typically culminates in violence.
So the transition goes like this: thought, language, action.
Thoughts are thoughts – often random and subject to all our shortcomings as sentient animals, like inherent bias and instinct. No one’s saying thought should be controlled (least of all me with my tendency for dark pessimism). What’s more important is whether you act on such impulses. That’s what makes us human – freewill coupled with the capacity to rationalise action and consequence.
Yet the all-important safety buffer between thought and deed is language. It’s the glue that spreads sticky ideas amongst people.
So what people disparagingly call PC is actually what prevents our ancient prejudices running away with us. In essence, we’re evolving (hopefully in the right way) to be more compassionate, accepting human beings.
Now, let’s return to that murky side of business-speak again
Consider dehumanising language. People say ‘scaling back’ to mean severing livelihoods in pursuit of profit. People say they don’t have enough ‘bandwidth’ when their mental health is being sacrificed because of overwork. People regret not getting enough ‘facetime’ because they’re tucked behind isolating screens, rather than engaging with one other to solve common problems.
This sort of language is normalising unhelpful, polluting attitudes, which ultimately manifest as real-world behaviour, and their corresponding problems.
Now you see the parallel, right?
I honestly believe this sort of unhelpful language is running amok, unchecked and unchallenged in the business community. And that’s where decent freelance copywriters come in.
While I don’t advocate some sort of nightmarish Orwellian thought-police for bullshitters (like dog whistlers in the media call ‘the PC brigade’). What I do recommend is the most effective response when we come across everyday prejudice, racial or otherwise: challenge it.
A copywriter asks Is there a better, clearer, more honest way to say this? and if so, Why aren’t we saying it that way?’. These might be seemingly obvious questions, but it’s what they unearth that’s important. Thus we eventually move on to the question ‘so what are you really trying to say?’. Dig deeper still and you arrive at the underlying attitudes and beliefs of your business.
This analytical process exposes your very core values to the light of day – even calling them into question, helping you improve or reconnect with what it is you stand for, and why you do what you do – a crucial core element in any genuine strategy to find common ground with likeminded people – marketing or otherwise.