Mind your language

Mind your language
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First Published: Sun, Apr 19 2009. 10 19 PM IST
Updated: Sun, Apr 19 2009. 10 19 PM IST
The Mint office has several flat-screen televisions perched on our walls. In order to help staff stay on top of latest global developments, these TV sets are tuned to business and general news channels round the clock. And the moment a news story flashes across on any of the screens, watchful editors leap out of their chairs screaming: “Ohmygod! Sehwag just hit ANOTHER six!”
This columnist was walking past one such TV screen earlier this week when he heard a pundit on a business channel say something that almost caused his brain to explode. My exact memory of this incident is hazy, but the young man said something like this:
“We expect range-bound intermediate mid-course upswings that will potentially go through a bear-flag phase before gaining momentum and testing the index’s upper support levels, at which point it will create a massive scalar elementary particle, as predicted by the Standard Model, known as a Higgs boson.”
I will not rule out inaccuracies in my transcription. In any case, I was half-hoping the anchor would break down in giggles and admit it was all a joke. But he did not. He kept going on and on relentlessly like the Liberhan Commission, without stopping to breathe or use punctuation.
That is when I realized how the far-reaching consequences of the economic downturn do not spare even the defenceless English language.
Companies, you must have noticed, are notoriously averse to coming clean about bad news. In good times, they communicate with aplomb. Results are “outstanding”, profits are “unsurpassed”, order books are “full to bursting” and salaries are “best in the industry”. But the mere whiff of dropping stock indices is enough to radically change vocabulary. In come the compound words, Latin expressions and advanced GRE word list. And nowhere is this sudden taste for obfuscation more clear than in the twin fields of employee communication and stock market commentary and analysis.
A reader recently brought to my notice emails from his senior management. A communiqué from the CEO about salary hikes was written in the most ambiguous prose. The 300-word email spoke about how “increasingly compounding market pressures” and “supply-demand mismatches” were leading to a “short to medium-term rethinking of cash-flow prioritization” which could be reflected in the company’s “rewards mechanisms”.
This meant, of course, that all work ground to a halt while employees frantically flipped through dictionaries trying to decode the missive. The productivity loss could have only compounded market pressures.
What the CEO should have emailed instead is this:
“Dear employees,
Reg. salary hikes: ROFLMAO!
We’re broke. Please retweet.
Thanks, CEO”
The subsequent panic would have lasted for a few minutes and then everyone would have returned to work crushed.
So severe has this problem of excessive jargon become that a fortnight ago, the UK’s Local Government Association (LGA) sent all local government bodies a list of words to avoid in their communication to the public.
The list of 200 words included such stunning gems as “contestability”, “coterminosity”, “taxonomy”, “re-baselining” and that old favourite, “thinking outside of the box”.
Margaret Eaton, chairman of the LGA, told the BBC: “Unless information is given to people to explain what help they can get during a recession, then it could well lead to more people ending up homeless or bankrupt.”
Eaton’s words should ring loudly in the ears of executives and pundits. In these times of uncertainty, highfalutin language can only make life harder for employees and investors.
Instead, the industry and the punditry must adopt simple and forthright communication tools. If you are a CEO, tell your employees how bad things really are. Yes, they might panic and think badly of you, your family and combinations thereof. But when you quit with that severance package, they won’t say you weren’t honest. And the same goes for market analysts. Surely, investors dream of the day when an interview on a business TV news channel proceeds as follows:
Anchor: “Welcome. Your stock price has crashed 76%. Explain briefly.”
CEO: “We haven’t sold anything for five months. We have no money.”
A: “Any sign of things improving?”
CEO: “Nah. We have some new product ideas. But they all suck.”
A: “There are rumours of a sell-out.”
CEO: “Not yet. I want more money.”
A: “If you do sell out, what will happen to the employees?”
CEO: “All of them will get fired.”
A: “Pity. And any message to your shareholders?”
CEO: “Sell. All of it. Right now.”
A: “Thank you.”
CEO: “Any time, dude.”
Cubiclenama takes a fortnightly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at cubiclenama@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Apr 19 2009. 10 19 PM IST