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Plain Gobbledegook

Not so long ago, I was sitting on a train back from Manchester in a half full (or, if you're that kind of person, half empty) train carriage. Coach B of the Transport for Wales Express: a two-carriage number that grinds its way from Manchester all the way down to Carmarthen.

As is the way in this country, there was an instant (and literally unspoken) agreement amongst all the travellers in Coach B of the TfW express that there would be no talking. Accordingly, after the train guard had done his announcements, the carriage fell into silence and we were together alone in our moving metal carapace.

`Travel silence' is something that we do very well in this country. If you sit on a train in Spain, Italy, India or the US, for example, it's a-buzz with chat and noise. In England, there is a strict and unspoken traveller's code: only mad people, drunks and foreigners speak on English trains.

So it was that a culturally-binding silence settled over Carriage B. At each stop this hush was briefly perforated by the incomprehensible, tinny announcements from our train guard; white noise that barely roused us from our private inner worlds.

Then - a phone rang. A few of us scrabbled about to check if it was our phone. (Everyone over the age of 40 seems to have the same ring tone these days.) Anyway, the silence was then broken for several minutes as the recipient of the call conducted a lengthy business conversation.

Well, you all listen in, don't you? It's impossible not to. Unless you're plugged in, you can't help but overhear. We all tend to speak-shout into our phones when we're on a train and it's a small carriage.

It was, in all honesty, not a very interesting conversation. A business call. In fact, it was such a dull conversation that it somehow travelled through the spectrum of dull and came out the other side, transformed into something genuinely engrossing. It seemed that things were at a critical point in the negotiations to land a big contract.

The phone call was punctuated by a mesmerising range of professional jargon, management and business speak. A multitude of technical expressions and organisational clichés reverberated around the carriage, soaking the captive travelling audience in a sound-world of industry chat.

The high - or was it low? - point of the phone call was the closing sentence.

"Going forward, I think we need to think outside the box; let's touch base later."

And with that the call was over.

Now, I find that sentence quite hard to interpret, to decode. A recent survey by Institute of Leadership & Management revealed that management speak is used in almost two-thirds (64%) of offices, with nearly a quarter of people surveyed considering it to be a pointless irritation. The top three most annoying and over-used bits of business jargon were: "touch base" (39%); "going forward" (55%); and top of the pops was: "thinking outside the box" (57%). My carriage-mate had managed to squeeze all three into the same sentence!

Now, let's remind ourselves that I'm being a nosey-parker, eavesdropping on one side of a private conversation. You might also say that if you make a call in a train carriage, you deserve what's coming to you.

All this enforced overhearing prompted me to think about two things. Firstly, about the value of plain speaking - that is, speaking clearly and free of unnecessary jargon. Secondly, about the value of speaking as a person, an individual; rather than sounding like a manual.

You can tell when someone is saying things in her or his own individual voice. The person comes through the language. The danger of management-speak, jargon, slogans, cliché is that they diminish and muffle our original voice; these over-used expressions standardise us.

Words can be beautiful, powerful things: a means of conveying such a range of sense and feeling; such diverse ideas and observations. We can use them to create fresh possibilities; we can use them to numb; we can use them to agitate; we can use them to soothe.

Most human activities - such as sports, the arts, careers -have their special languages. Think of sport, for example. These are sometimes called 'language games'. In these games, esoteric terms and expressions resonate with the initiated; by those who understand and are part of the club.

And so it is with education. We bat around all kinds of special language; educational acronyms and shorthand abound. Schools are wonderful generators of idiosyncratic terms. The idea that we should meet in Grot and then do our Top Schools after having tea in KH only makes sense in our small part of the world.

I'm not objecting to specialised language. I'm objecting to dull and lazy language.

What became the Plain English Campaign was started by the redoubtable Chrissie Maher OBE in 1979. She fixed her aim on various uses of language which she felt were deliberately obscure. It was a campaign against gobbledegook, jargon and misleading public information.

... more to follow ...

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