Yesterday I received a letter from Bendigo Bank in which the sender signed off with the phrase, ‘Remember, at the Bendigo it starts with U.’ The letter, (no pun intended) sent my eyes rolling. What a corporate thing to do: mangle our language in an effort to be different. It evoked memories of dull workstations where, as a project manager and business employee, I saw our language being pillaged daily. Whether deliberate manipulations, accidental misspellings, flatulent sentences, grammar errors or even contradictory rhetoric: language-abuse is as common in the corporate world as conversations by the water cooler.
Words are key tools in business: they sell ideas and products, form contracts and proposals, and are applied in negotiations. They shape rally-cries, mantras and fill pages of a multimillion-dollar business book industry. Words comprise the famous fine print. Yet words in the corporate world are entirely disrespected.
Just today, I saw a company tweet (an official communiqué), that failed to apply the correct they’re/there/their. A senior staffer once wrote to a client, ‘Please bare with me.’ A regular email from a business associate always starts with, ‘I hope your well.’ Of course, I appreciate the sentiments. For the record, I’m not a grammarian. But I’m infuriated by the lackadaisical regard to language in an environment where language is central.
Editorial issues are just one file in my cabinet of offences. More disquieting is the daily practice of tweaking language to suit ones needs. I’ve seen dozens of sole-traders for example, (one-person companies) describing their services in the context of a team. ‘Our team delivers …’. No one illustrates more sharply the difference a few words can make than the character, Gareth Keenan in The Office, who introduces himself as the Assistant Manager. ‘Assistant to the Manager,’ his boss, David Brent would assert.
In her book Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the Corporate Dream, Barbara Ehrenreich highlights how language is indentured even further in the corporate context. She sits the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (a psychometric questionnaire that is popular for categorising people in the office). She is flummoxed because her sensitivity to the meaning of words makes yes/no answers near impossible. ‘Do you usually get along better with (A) imaginative people, or (B) realistic people?’ ‘Do you usually show feelings freely or keep them to yourself?’ As Ehrenreich states, the true response is one of degree and context, rather than yes or no. Myers-Briggs is among the most popular and enduring tests of its kind. How is it that such anemic sentences can be so highly regarded?
These indicator-type tests are aimed at developing teams: a popular word in the corporate lexicon. After grueling, confusing and competitive days in my office with my own team, I would go home to watch The West Wing. There I would pine for the respect, efficiency and professional engagement of those fictional administrators (not to mention, their respect for language). I wanted the permission to be direct without being disrespectful. I wanted to be able to resolve issues with a quick te ta tet and eliminate lip service. I wanted to use language to communicate productively and effectively. But in the risk-averse office, that’s impossible.
‘There’s no I in team,’ is a central motif of corporate rhetoric (at least they got that spelling right). Yet perversely the opposite is also phrased as true. Dr Spencer Johnson’s book Who Moved my Cheese? is riotously popular among managers. It’s about responding to change and puts responsibility squarely on individuals rather than teams (or managers). ‘The biggest inhibitor to change lies within yourself, and … nothing gets better until you change,’ our protagonist tells us. This celebration of contradictory rhetoric is another hallmark of corporate communications. Individuals or teams? Black or white?
As far as the corporate world goes, the rules of language will always be open for negotiation. Fine print indeed – it’s no surprise that so many offices are grey.
Pepi Ronalds is a Killings columnist. She has been published in Meanjin, Open Manifesto, A List Apart and more. Her blog, Future of Long Form was an Emerging Blog for the 2012 Melbourne Writers Festival. She’s on Twitter and Facebook, and has a website: pepironalds.com.