Monday, May 7, 2012

Meaningless Language

"I don't understand what anyone is saying anymore," writes Dan Pallotta in the Harvard Business Review. He describes business conversations in which he has very little idea of what people are saying to him.

Is he hard of hearing? No. Stupid? No. The people who talk to him in generalities and cliches are the ones he calls stupid. He is tired of meaningless cliches like "think outside the box" as well as filling sentences with buzz words, acronyms, and abstractions that make no logical sense.

Another writer in the same journal, psychologist Art Markam of the University of Texas (May 3), talks about corporate board members talking on and on about streamlining without anybody having a clear idea of what it means. Yet those at the table nod in agreement, even when the speaker cannot define exactly how to streamline the company in question.

We don't know as much as we think, writes Markam. It's what psychologists call "the illustion of explanatory depth." We think we understand how something works when we don't and cover up our ignorance with jargon and buzz words.

Is it any wonder that the AIG crisis and what followed took place? Language is consciously used to mislead or confuse, as it sometimes is in politics. No one has analyzed this issue more astutely than George Orwell in "Politics and the English Language," a 1946 essay that seems dated now in its examples drawn from the era of fascism. But his central point is important.

When writers and speakers fail to think clearly and choose words that reflect their thought and instead rely on ready-made phrases, Orwell wrote, they end up deceiving not only their readers but themselves. Their reliance on cliches obscures the very purpose of writing.

With this in mind, I was surprised to read in the New York Times last month a piece by John McWhorter, a noted linguist, asserting that both text messages and emails are equally valid forms of written conversation as opposed to the old, more formal writing, which he strangely illustates with 18th and 19th century examples. I was surprised that McWhorter does not consider emails in business and in other contexts in which concise information is conveyed that is often important--a far cry from the semi-coherent babble of much texting.

Overhearing a cell phone conversation recently, I heard a string of half-sentences strung together with "like" and "you know" and "mmm," saying nothing much, making the ramblings of Sarah Palin sound almost articulate. If this is the essence of the brave new world of written conversation and if this--the democratic innovation of our times--is one of the two types of writing now available to us, as McWhorter seems to suggest, I say we should re-read what Orwell has to say on the subject.

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