I have a little reputation for speaking directly. I try not be rude, but sometimes politeness just gets in the way of what I really want to say. So I often have to throw off the shackles of tactfulness in favour of communication that has far less room for interpretation. As Gregory Rabassa, a famous literary translator said;
“Every act of communication is an act of translation.”
Now think about the profundity of that statement. Think of how language is laden with homonyms, synonyms, creoles, cases, how words change their meaning over time, how new words are added to language, and then consider the fact that of the estimated 170,000+ words in the English language, experts believe that a mere 1,000 words are used in about 90% of everyday situations. That’s about 0.6% utilisation. To me this is the equivalent of trying to cool down your entire house by leaving the fridge door open!
It stands to reason, therefore, that the 1,000 or so words that we do tend to use act more like a mixer/blender/juicer/mincer, all in one food processor rather than a precision instrument like a knife (to belabour the kitchen metaphor). And that does not even take into consideration the murkiness of voice tonality and body language, which supposedly account for the majority of meaning conveyed in a conversation.
One of my pet frustrations of the corporate world is what I like to call scaredy-cat language, which I can best describe as tip-toeing around what really needs to be said. Often approximating terms such as “not really”, “perhaps”, “in the future”, “moving forward”, “maybe”, “might”, “a little” and “could” – to name a few, are used by people who do not have the guts to say what is really bothering them. For example, I have once seen a manager tell an underling that “maybe in the future [he] could double check if there were any bugs in the code” in response to a developer bringing down a website for the second time in as many days! Hearing feedback delivered in such a wussy way almost makes me sick. I would have delivered feedback like this: “[Name] your code crashed the website for two hours. This cannot happen again because this incident cost us [$x] in lost revenue, [$y] in wasted advertising spend and thousands of disappointed customers who could not access the site. What I need you to do is [things to prevent this from happening in the future]”.
Yes, my version of feedback contains a lot more imperatives which probably has something to do with the fact that Russian (my mother tongue) is a far more direct language. This often makes Russian speakers sound rude when they formulate sentences in English. Compare this with Victorian stoicism which would see people masquerade their true intentions with layers upon layers of politeness.
Another phenomenon that I see aplenty is the hesitation to deliver negative facts and feedback. This is understandable in the short term, where one can save themselves the heartache of coming off as a bastard. However, in the long term, I have seen this backfire time and time again. For example, when deadlines need to be set, it does not help at all to have a people pleaser setting them. Why? Because they will inevitably try and please you now by providing an estimation that falls short of reality. Instead, I would much more prefer a pessimistic pragmatist deliver the bad news right up front, rather than having my expectations be reset. It’s like opting to receive a Huntington’s diagnosis early in life rather than waiting for spontaneous onset of symptoms (I always opt to know early in these hypothetical scenarios).
No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, but when it comes to delivering performance feedback, it helps no one by being overly polite. In fact, if after a performance review meeting both parties leave feeling good, you can be sure that very little truth was spoken in that meeting. It surprises me when people are surprised to learn that they have been under-performing for the first time right at the end of their tenure. In my experience, receiving/giving feedback is like any muscle. At first, it is weak, but then, after some practice it becomes adept at this particular exercise. There is definitely an art to it, that I do not claim to have mastered, but I can appreciate it when I see it.
Bullshit bingo is a game I like to play sometimes when some of my “favourite” meaningless words are thrown around. These include “back-end”, “seamless” (note how everything is always striving to be seamless – what’s wrong with seams?), “learnings” and “capacity” to name several. The narrative/plot free movie Gerry with Matt Damon best encapsulates what it’s like to sit in meetings where these words are “Gerried” around (if you haven’t seen the movie, it is worthwhile, if only to understand this reference). These words are so devoid of specificity that you can substitute any of them for “broom” and not lose a step. Not to mention the fact, that in most instances the people who use these words do not even know exactly what those words represent. “That needs to be fixed from the back-end” sounds like advice handed out by a proctologist rather than middle management. Yes, there are instances where there are two distinctive systems being used; a front-end and a back-end, but it quickly becomes nonsensical when a back-end has a back-end of its own, or when “back-end” comes to mean “login”.
Finally, it upsets me to no end when people are too afraid to make executive decisions. In cases like this, deferral and mitigating language starts to be used. “we’ll have to see”, “send me an email about that” and references to committees of any sort are all ways of saying “no”. But, in my experience “no” or the equivalent thereof is hardly ever said. So many hopes could be dashed at their infantile stages rather than raising them up, cultivating possibilities and tickling fancies, if meetings where proposals are presented could end with a simple “no”. Instead, the eating ice-cream in-front of a diabetic approach is preferred by most corporates. This strikes me as unusually cruel and wasteful.
In addition to saying “no”, it would also be really helpful if two conflicting perspectives where not put forward. “Having said that” is artfully used in conjunction with hurdles to tantalise and titillate. “We cannot invest in a project like this right now. Having said that, if you could do the work anyway, and make it profitable, we would definitely like to look at it again next year.” It is unfair and unethical in my opinion to purport intention, when none exists.
It may sound naive, but surely language exists for the purpose of facilitating and progressing communication, rather than obscuring it. Yes, there is a strong tradition of politeness within our culture. But when it that bleeds and warps the English language into non-offensive fecklessness, then it undermines the very progress humanity has made, from cave dwelling hominids, to the keyboard typing office workers we have come to be.