From The Office, to In The Thick of It, 'Biz Speak' is regularly lampooned for its idiocy and pretentiousness. But it's also used as a form of control, a way of obscuring reality, rather than revealing it. Here Karl Coppack explains why the abuse of language is far worse than abusive language.
A friend of mine is going through a hard time at work. She’s had emails from her bosses, HR has been called in and there’s to be a meeting in the next week or so that may end in a written warning.
She hasn’t assaulted a waiter in the canteen or anything so crass. No. This has been ‘escalated’ due to ‘poor performance’. She’s worked there for years and done very well so that’s not the real reason. What they actually mean is ‘the market’s got harder and we’re struggling a bit so…’
However, it’s not that which has led me to a laptop. It’s the aforementioned email and, in particular, one term. Apparently, the poor girl has displayed the wrong ‘interpersonal dynamics.’
'Language is a benign virus'
We have no idea what this means. We’ve sat down, worked our way through a significant amount of tea, and scratched our heads, scratched each other’s heads and come up with a possible meaning. We think it’s something to do with body language, of verbal and non-verbal interaction in an office environment. That’s as close as we can get to it.
I’m fascinated by language. I love how it ebbs and flows and is a largely organic process. It grows and dies with nobody having a certain hold on it. Language, as Laurie Anderson once observed, is a virus – a benign one. But this is not always the case. One of the reasons I love George Orwell’s 1984 is his theory that language can be used a means of social control. If you haven’t read the book, or don’t have the York Notes to hand, here’s a brief overview.
Winston Smith, the doomed hero, lives within a totalitarian state and is oppressed by ‘The Party’. He works in the Ministry of Truth, a propaganda unit, and is an unusual form of editor. Instead of writing the news he is charged with destroying it.
For example, if a war hero has received column inches in the party paper a year ago and has since been shot as a spy, Smith is charged with removing them from the archives completely. It is not news that they have been shot. There is no record of people disappearing as that would not serve the party good. It is that they have never existed. They will never be discussed or their names even mentioned. They have been removed from time. Hence the catechism ‘We are at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia’ – even if Smith remembers otherwise. If the lie is told long enough and forcefully enough it becomes the truth.
Germans have no word for 'fluffy'
I’ll leave it there as regards plot development as Orwell does a far better job than I ever could, but within the book there’s a fascinating discourse about language. While we have a myriad of idioms that belong to different cultures and subcultures, in Winston Smith’s world the party try to destroy language.
That sounds impossible, doesn’t it? How can you destroy words and phrases? Even arcane terms have a habit of coming back for a short while so how can you rid society of them? Well, through the new language that is Newspeak.
Newspeak is a controlled language that does away with terms such as protest, liberty, individuality and even peace. The idea being that if the word for an action or thought does not exist, it cannot be a real thing. Within generations whole concepts will disappear and the opposite will become the norm - subservience, control, collectivism and constant war.
There’s a joke about this in Blackadder Goes Forth when Edmund tells Baldrick that the Germans ‘have no word for ‘fluffy’’. They do, in fact. It is ‘flauschig,’ but this if there was no word for it over time people will forget the whole idea of fluffiness.
Jargon and ego
But back to those interpersonal dynamics. It’s a perfect example of how language is used to denote superiority. As I’ve said, I love language. Absolutely adore it. Language should have you rolling on the floor, begging to have your stomach tickled. Anyone who has read P.G Wodehouse will tell you that the plots, such as they are, are secondary. It is the language that makes them timeless. The same is true with Oscar Wilde. In his latest book, Stephen Fry speaks of how, when aged thirteen, he came across the following passage in The Importance of Earnest that opened up a new world.
"Would you be in any way offended if I said that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection?"
In other words, ‘I like you’ but dressed in such a way to make it hilarious. It’s over-dressed and hilariously unnecessary. This is where language is a blessing. It is open and begs you, implores you to investigate further. ‘Interpersonal dynamics’ does the very opposite. It means to place a barrier between employer and employee. We, the managerial team, speak like this. You do not. It’s an intellectual superiority. If they speak like this, they must be right.
It can often go wrong. I once had a manager who was overly fond of his Gus Hedges talk (if you haven’t already watch the excellent Drop the Dead Donkey and the incredible Gus who would often invite his charges to ‘come for a scuba in my think tank’). He had the power suits, the jargon and the ego. Sadly, he also had appalling English. He liked to misuse ‘may’ and ‘can’. ‘May you bring your presentation to the meeting’ he would ask. Yes, I may. Doesn’t mean I will. ‘Can you?’ offers a different instruction. A rhetorical one for a start.
The cyber palace of bizspeak...
It’s all too easy to criticise office jargon with its ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘helicopter views’ but it’s mostly harmless. (As I write this I’ve just had an email from that cyber palace of bizspeak – Linkedin – advising me to read an article informing us ‘how programmatic is moving towards prime time’).
I worked in sales for twenty years and can cite dozens of terms that have failed to survive the ages but what I'm referring to is something different. Before my own little tete-a-tete with HR and verbal warnings in my last job I noticed that the term ‘the business’ had somehow replaced ‘the company’ by those who in charge. ‘It’s a valuable resource for the business’ instead of ‘it’s good for us’ became the mantra. In some ways it was handy because you could tell one class from the other. Manager from worker drone. I was very much from the latter caste.
Last year I self-published a novel called ‘And What Do You Do?’ and although it would be unseemly for me to advise you to read it and buy copies for all your friends (average review 4.5 stars), I would like to mention one character – Tony – who becomes a colleague of the main character, Mike. He is young, hopeful, ambitious and keen to rocket up the ladder and leave the rest to it. Mike is the opposite and sees him for what he is. It is the Tonys of the world that adopt the business lingo to show the world their superiority. It is the Tonys who talk of ‘moving forward’ instead of ‘next time’ and it is the Tonys who will fix his charges with a haughty stare should their interpersonal dynamics not be up to scratch.
Of course there is a language for other professions and subcultures. A man kindly reminded me of this on Twitter this morning when he stated that law, football and journalism each had their own terms and idioms but they do not speak of an elevated position. They don’t have a secret language. They are a force for good, not of inclusionism.
There’s also none of the cynical abuse of language in my current job, within the charity sector. (Sure, we’re acronym heavy and I’ve found myself wincing at the term ‘tipping out’ -- it means having branches pay their money into the bank -- but I’ve since discovered that Omar from The Wire uses that term for ‘getting out of the car’ so that’s fine with me.)
Language is the only thing that binds us. It’s the only thing we all have access to and it should not be used as a method of control or supremacy. That’s all.
As for my mate, her company are calling meetings with one hour notices, changing her KPIs and withholding bonuses. Proof if needed that no matter how much people dress up their language and invent new terms to make themselves appear better, a hellhound is a hellhound.
By Karl Coppack
Photo: Flickr/Vu Hung
Karl writes for The Anfield Wrap. He is troubled with the modern world, grimaces at ball playing centre halves and frowns at fancy-dan back heels. Apt to talk about the magnificence of Ray Kennedy wherever possible.
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