Thursday, 29 June 2017

Lingo bingo

Judging by both my Twitter and Facebook feeds, everyone's got an opinion on politics at the moment, and to slightly mis-quote Brian Clough, I'm welcome to it. Reason, balance and respect all seem to have temporarily disappeared too, so I'm going to avoid politics for a while.

Instead, I'm going to have a moan about something else that exercises me. I'm a middle-aged man, so lots of things exercise me of course, though one of the joys of middle age is that the grumpiness subsides as quickly as it erupts. This one is to do with language, and the unnecessarily complicated or jargony way of using it that so many people and companies seem to engage in these days. It was a Highways Agency tweet yesterday that set me off.  Two lanes on the M6 had apparently been "compromised" by an accident. They meant two lanes were closed.

I've got plenty of other examples from work and beyond. I could go on about the many times I've been asked to "reach out to" somebody (quite often they're not there). But I think I mean something slightly different, or at least extra, to the usual corporate bullshit. I've just read a very fine book by a neurosurgeon called Henry Marsh called Do No Harm. One of his practices was to have a morning meeting, at which he'd ask a junior member of his team to describe the overnight admissions that might require surgery. On one occasion a junior doctor described a 72 year old woman as "self-caring and self-ambulating". He meant she looked after herself and was able to walk unaided. Marsh took him to task for not saying so - his point being that in this instance that particular use of language de-humanised the patient.

The Highways Agency point is slightly different I think. Corporate jargon exists principally as a parallel language, where by using it, employees are implicitly nodding and winking to each other and saying "I'm in the club, like you". Describing motorway lanes as "compromised" is effectively saying "we've got our own special language because We're Professionals". It's the same when police forces issue statements saying they're taking "a multi-agency approach" to sorting out a particular problem. On the BBC1 programme"The Met: Policing London" a couple of weeks ago, a 50-something copper announced that when he was in a crowd he was "constantly undertaking dynamic risk assessments". He meant he kept his wits about him.

The people who use this type of language may think they're being very grown-up and professional, but actually they're failing in one of the most basic requirements of their job - to communicate simply and effectively. I fear it's also a sign of the de-humanisation of the bureaucrats and corporations that run our lives, but discussion of that is maybe a step too far for now. So a plea to all those who communicate on behalf of their employer, whether that's through press statements, Twitter, or whatever - use the Mum Test, i.e. would you use those phrases, that vocabulary, and so on if you were explaining things to your mum? Would you say the motorway lanes were compromised, or would you say they were closed? Would you ask her to reach out to your dad to ask him what he wanted for his tea? Would you self-ambulate to the shops, or would you just walk there? I think you know the answers. Use the Mum Test, and you'll probably make lots of grumpy middle aged men just a little bit happier.

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