Tuesday 13 October 2009

but your boss gets richer off you....

I'm suffering from superlative exhaustion. I spent the day at one of those internal work conference things where you sit at a table with a saucer of sweets, hotel branded notepaper and biros and big glass bottles of mineral water*. We have these every six months or so, and the idea is for our leadership to share their ambitions with their wider management team**. Sounds awful, right? Well, surprisingly they're usually not too bad.

After a few hours though, the thing that really starts to grate is the language. I'm not talking about 'buzzword bingo' here, although you do get the odd "low hanging fruit" or "singing from the same hymn sheet" here and there. It's just the relentless onslaught of superlatives. Why be good when you can be great? Why settle for merely great when you can be legendary? Everything is massively important and vital. It's draining and ultimately it's empty. I understand why we use the language of aspiration - who aims to be "quite good"? It's not exactly a motivational stretch target, is it? But after a while, the real meaning and emphasis of those words is lost. Eventually, I stop hearing those words at all.

I love words and I love the English language. When used well, it can have the most incredible combination of form and function. We may not have as many words for snow as the Eskimos***, but we do have a wonderfully expressive and flexible language. Language is important to me, and I think that it is important to use it properly. At my worst, this manifests itself as the terrible grammar nazi who pulls people up for their misuse of the apostrophe or who chastises people who ignorantly correct my use of "me" instead of "I" (as in "that belongs to C and me"). That said, I also know that one of the best things about the English language is its capacity to absorb new words to continually evolve. What really gets on my nerves though is the casual misuse of language where words are used so much that they become empty. If you're going to fill your sentences with meaningless words like that, then why bother speaking at all?

We have a regular temperature check-type survey in the office. It's called the "Great Place to Work" survey, but I'll let that particular superlative pass as an aspiration. The use of language is sloppy though. When you're asking me to score you on how much I agree with a particular statement, the words that you use are absolutely critical to the way I will answer the question: the words you choose are the only way you have of communicating the question that you want me to answer. They have to be right. If you ask me, as the survey does, do I LOVE being part of my team at work, then I'm going to have to tell you that I don't. I quite like some of the people in my team, but love? No. If someone has to explain to me, before I fill out the survey, what they mean by each question, then something is terribly wrong. How hard would it be to word it right in the first place, without ambiguity? By the same token, why do we have to constantly and brainlessly reach for the biggest superlative we can think of? Do we not have the wit to use the language more creatively than that?

Part of it, I suppose, is that people like to be seen to be doing and saying the right things. In this world, the language of positivity is the same thing as genuinely being positive. This should also be accompanied by the waving of arms, the widening of eyes and, if you think you can pull it off, some actual, honest-to-goodness whooping. Same thing applies to your successes: saying that you have been massively successful and have achieved great things is exactly the same thing as actually achieving great things. In fact, in many ways it's much more important. Looking at some of the people in the room at the conference today, this is an approach that seems to work.

I work hard and I do many of the things that my senior managers were talking about today. My problem, I'm told, is that what I don't do is to work hard enough on telling other people about what I do. Forgive me if I think that the substance of what you do should be more important than what you say.

Mind you, that said, I'm not so lacking in self-awareness as to realise that I sometimes don't exactly help myself: when asked why I thought a "massively important" new project had been codenamed "Darwin", I said that it was because we fundamentally did not believe in intelligent design. Not the answer they were looking for, apparently.....


* As you might expect from an event like this, the bottled water was ethical and each bottle saw a donation made to a charity that installs water pumps into African villages. The name of this water? Sela V. What the hell were they thinking? I know that Perrier ran a successful advertising campaign in the 80s with lots of "eau" puns, but that's just excruciating and more than a touch self-satisfied. Awful... and perhaps entirely audience appropriate.

** Don't be thinking I'm any kind of a big cheese. There are hundreds of us.

*** Urban myth, by the way

As I've talked about grammar here, I'm sure to have made several mistakes. Oh well. Sela V.


  1. I was completing a survey the other day which asked me which of a list of minor celebrities I knew. I ticked the box of the one that I'd once met.

    Was the Darwin thing named after a newly discovered, but ultimately still extinct dinosaur?

  2. magic use of sentence construction. many (many) years ago I was taught French in school by a Frenchwoman who had to teach grammar in English. Therefore one had to learn the "super" "lative" of a new verb.

    PS - surely intelligent design eliminates those less intelligent- or am I missing something??