Sunday, May 2, 2010

Beware of New Speak

…the dangerous language of corporate America.

The setting is a Mexican restaurant/bar over margaritas. It’s Friday afternoon with colleagues after a hard week. Current events eventually drift into the conversation.

“What do you think about the losses from the recent oil spill?” one colleague asks another who used to work in the energy industry.

He almost jumps to cut her off. “Now let me be clear: there are no losses.” He pauses for emphasis, “We just won’t be able to get as much out of the reserve as we thought we would.”

A beat goes by and the junior associate couldn’t help but chuckle, “Did anyone else just catch that new-speak? ‘We aren’t losing any, we just aren’t getting as much as originally planned’?”

Most in the group ignore or didn’t hear the junior associate and attend to their drinks. Only one disillusioned older colleague smiles and nods in agreement.

New-Speak seems commonplace in our corporate culture. Re-phrasing, branding, imaging, whatever you call it, another universally accepted term is bullshit. In George Orwell's 1984, newspeak was the term for the ever-shrinking "official" vocabulary of the society and was used as a method to control thought. If a word did not exist, the thought could not be expressed.

Growing up means adjusting yourself to values you did not create, but does not mean abandoning your own nor taking all you’re given at face value. We went to college to expand our critical and analytic mind, but the “real world” deprograms us to speak the dangerous language of New-Speak. Being able to say half-truths with a straight-face is an artful skill we are expected to master. This phenomenon was recently put into better focus for me by a book, Bait and Switch, in which Barbara Ehrenreich details her experience with corporate new-speak and the world of white-collar unemployment.

In the particular anecdote above, the older colleague no longer works in the energy industry or a related one. No one at the scene was about to judge him if was critical of the situation, but yet he does not abandon his loyalty to his former industry. I would like to think this form of loyalty is unique to the older generation and as ours grows up we have more realistic view of corporate America and what it can (and can’t) do. A job gets you what you need, a paycheck, a lifestyle, and a future (depending on how you use it). “Yes, sir” is necessary, but with how much submission? Does it deserve our intellectual compromise? Does it deserve us to re-program ourselves to fit the for-profit mold? 

 We don't have a lot of time on this earth. We weren't meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.
- Peter, Office Space
But as we weather this economic downturn and recovery, and as our parents' generation faces layoffs, canceled pensions, and depressed home values, how much can you expect the younger generation to take it with deference?


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  2. Loved this! Check out George Carlin's bit about 'shellshock' becoming 'post traumatic stress disorder.'

  3. I like to think of it as being "diplomatic" instead of "not lieing". Sorry I was late to catch this one. Whoops, there must have been a technical difficulty as my on-time posting did not appear.

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  5. If a word did not exist, the thought could not be expressed.