In “Death Sentences: How Cliches, Weasel Words and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language,” Don Watson shows how business BS-speak is invading everything from public schools to churches. An article in Newsweek magazine called “Attack of the Weasel Words,” includes and interview with the author. In it, Watson says:
“We are all customers. Even the CIA talks about having internal clients. I’m quite sure that in another iteration, the Army will talk about enemy clients. Once they decide we’re all customers then the consequences for basic relationships in civil society are not good. I think the old civilities will do, and I don’t know why we all have to be customers, let alone valued customers. It’s even gotten into religion. St. Martin-in-the-Fields [the Anglican church] in London now has a two-point mission statement out front on the wall. Their first point is the duty to God and Christian charity and the second is to provide excellence in hospitality. For [centuries] they’ve been doing charity and now it’s “excellence in hospitality.”
Watson believes people have decided to live in an economy, not a society, and this vague, overblown language has become so commonplace in people’s professional lives they bring it home with them too.
Jargon is addictive. It’s also useful and harmless in its place. That place is among people who share a defined skill or expertise. Within skilled or professional groupings from doctors to plumbers, jargon is a sensible way to discuss things that apply to their sphere of knowledge. Where you can’t explain what you mean succinctly in ordinary language, a special term everyone within that grouping understands becomes essential. As far back as Biblical shepherds and beyond, special terms like “wethers” (castrated male sheep) have been used and accepted. If a doctor speaks to another medic about vasodilation, both know exactly what’s meant.
The problem we suffer from today, in business and elsewhere, is the use of jargon and consulting BS by people who neither know what they mean precisely, nor expect those they’re speaking to understand them. Indeed, that’s often the point: to use language that you hope makes you sound like an expert before a non-expert audience. It’s become associated with business consultants because so many of that breed pretend to knowledge they don’t have. It’s known as “keeping one step ahead of the client.” As long as you know a fraction more than your client, you’re the expert.
Politics, with its “spin doctors” and PR spokespeople, is another prime source of the spreading tendency to use language to disguise or confuse. So is the need for politicians to hide lazy thinking or addiction to special interests. Since the media are drenched in pundits pretending to knowledge and politicians trying to sound good, while saying nothing dangerous, it’s hardly surprising business-speak and consulting BS is spreading like a pandemic.
The answer lies in your hands and mine. If we refuse to accept weasel words from others and insist on saying what we mean in plain terms, even marketers (some of the worst offenders) will stop drenching us in BS. It’s because they think consumers are taken in by meaningless claims to be “customer-centric” or “quality driven” that they use these terms. Talk is cheaper than doing anything to improve quality or service. It’s time we made it clear that we’re expensive, and the currency they must use to buy our attention isn’t management-speak or BS. It’s honest, understandable language backed up by clear action.
Adrian Savage is an Englishman and a retired business executive who lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his thoughts most days at The Coyote Within and Slow Leadership, the site for anyone who wants to bring back the fun and satisfaction to management work.
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