Monday, June 8, 2015

Nothing-Speak

I have a language problem. I mean, other than my epic punctuation, spelling and grammar issues, not to mention my perpetual struggle to maintain tense agreement. No, what I mean by a language problem is the growing tendency among business leaders, politicians and ministers to use mountains of words towards the purpose of saying absolutely nothing.

Years ago I was at a company convention at some exotic locale having a fine dinner at an awards banquet. After dinner we were introduced to a guest speaker whose resume was filled with prestigious jobs in government. I had never heard of him, but he looked the part and seemed to have quite the pedigree. He walked to the podium to polite applause and then began speaking. It took about five minutes or so for everyone to realize that he was talking complete nonsense. It was all English, all complete sentences, but the words had no coherent meaning. Slowly, everyone began glancing sideways at each other with perplexed expressions. Suddenly, the entire house realized that he was a comedian. The laughs started coming fast and furious, mostly out of relief that we hadn't lost our minds.

I'm not sure that guy's act would work today. We wouldn't get the joke. We are so conditioned by nothing-speak we wouldn't even notice.

Listen to any politician on the stump and you will hear nothing but an insipid collection of poll-tested jargon and calculated buzzwords. "We face difficult challenges ahead, but the things that unite us are greater than the things that keep us apart." First of all...not true, secondly, that sentence is a blank canvas onto which the listener can paint any interpretation he wishes. Sort of like, "We are the change we have been waiting for." Really? What kind of change? Change from what to what? How long have we been waiting? Who exactly is "we?"

But it's not just politicians, businessmen do it too. Listen to any CEO give his quarterly report and you will hear what sounds like some foreign tongue. " Our revenue projections were negatively impacted by the synergistic effects of a global paradigm shift in the investment culture at major financial centers around the world." Translation? We had a crappy quarter.

Preachers, alas, are not immune from nothing speak. You want to sugar coat a hard sell to your congregation...you tell them that what you are about to say has been the result of a "journey of faith." If you want to cut off any potential opposition, all you have to say is that the thing has been "bathed in prayer" and that God "has been speaking clearly" at every stop along the way of the "journey." Who wants to object to something that has been the subject of such a long and arduous ordeal of faith? Have we been on such a journey? Then who are we to object?

In each example I have given, the politician, the businessman, and the preacher want to minimize opposition, downplay bad news or poor performance, with the added benefit of saying nothing of substance that might get them in trouble later. It's actually a pretty sweet linguistic trick. The problem is that America, the company's shareholders, and our churches are poorly served by this epidemic of empty words. Don't most of us want people to just tell the unvarnished truth? Isn't it exhausting to constantly have to read between the lines in life? Wouldn't all of our lives be less complicated if our leaders were more like George Patton and less like Dwight Eisenhower? 

Maybe leaders today believe that we the people can't handle the truth. Maybe they're right. If so, shame on us. Until we demand plain spoken truth, we will continue to get risk free nothing speak.