Earlier this week, the BBC News website published a rather interesting story titled “Why do politicians use business jargon?”
As you might expect, many of you readers—and several members of my family—emailed, tweeted and Instagrammed this article to me. Readers do this, I suppose, in order to keep me updated of all quirky developments in the world of business and to seek this column’s opinion on such business-y topics. My family does this because they live in a state of constant terror that I will one day run out of office culture topics to write about, lose my job, be forced to move in with my extended family, and then capsize their carefully laden plans for devious property inheritance.
Thank you all, whatever your respective reasons for forwarding it may be.
The article makes for interesting reading indeed.
It cites a number of recent examples of international political leaders using mysteriously business-like terms.
For instance, it quotes Barack Obama saying this during his recent inaugural address: “For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.”
Also there is Kevin Rudd, the ex Australian premier, who often used terms such as “programmatic specificity”. Ugh.
However, the article, I am afraid, errs in trying to answer the question in its title.
It offers several explanations for this trend. None of which really work for me. I don’t think political leaders use jargon to paper over “this widening gap between the poles of political debate”, to seem ideologically neutral, or in order to seem more prosaic and less pompous.
No, no, no.
I think the real reason is much, much simpler. Political leaders have started using business jargon for the same reason that business leaders always have: plausible deniability.
Think about it. For decades—even centuries—chief executives, managing directors, members of the board and other business mandarins have been able to get away with astonishing levels of hypocrisy, outright chicanery and fraud. They’ve lied to employers, customers, suppliers, shareholders and governments with rare repercussions.
Lie and get away with it? This is what politicians have been trying to perfect since the day the very first caveman-in-chief looked at the very first tender notice for wooden sticks and established a wooden stick company in his wife’s name.
And how do business leaders get away with it? Most of the time...business jargon.
Let me gently remind you of the time your department head promised you a promotion. He invited you into his cubicle and asked you to sit down. He said he was glad to finally get a chance to “touch base” with you. This meeting had been “chalked up” as an “actionable” for weeks. But he’d been working on this huge project that had “gone pear-shaped”. Since then he’d been “boiling the ocean” looking for new projects and “at the end of the day” he simply had no time to “visit the trenches” and “pow-wow with the troops”.
So, he asks, what did you want to talk about?
You tell him that you’d been promised a promotion for two years now. Surely, the time had now come.
He agrees whole-heartedly. This has been a “banner year for Sidin Inc.” and expecting a promotion is a perfect “real-world expectation”.
Look, he says, there is no point in beating around the bush. Frankly, it was time for him to “open the kimono” and for you to “take it on the chin”. He was going to give you the “brasstacks view” and it isn’t going to be pretty. The company is struggling. It just isn’t the ideal business scenario for a promotion.
However, the company is not going to “take this lying down”. As soon as things improve, the “rubber is going to hit the road” on your promotion. He was going to ensure that it gets the “management bandwidth” it deserves. He knows this is disappointing for you, but he also knows that you are more than happy to “take one for the team”.
You go back to your cubicle somewhat deflated but in good spirits, and with a terrible mental picture of your boss in a kimono.
Your boss just used business jargon to blow off your request, give you a wishy-washy assurance and still managed to leave you feeling fine.
Months later, when you bring up this conversation at a meeting, your boss will dismiss it offhand. No promises were made at all. Your “blamestorming” is now getting tiresome.
This is exactly the power politicians crave. The power to say one thing but mean another. Or mean nothing at all. The power to pledge without promising, commit without specifying and encourage without supporting.
This is why they are now gravitating towards business jargon.
Many people think this is a good thing. That this is somehow a sign of a more professional, more modern politician.
Think of the politician you hate the most in the world. Now think of him fully trained in PowerPoint.
Now throw up.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/cubiclenama-