Most people who’ve started as engineers (or are still engineers) tend to eschew bullshit. In fact, it takes a long time – or an MBA – to turn a person who sees life as black, white and grey, into a person who sees nothing and makes a big production out of it.
I’m sure that this statement is going to draw a lot of flak, but I’ve seen and heard too many people – wannabe executives, pseudo managers and the like – spouting boatloads of words, phrases and cliches that make me go “huh?” and wonder if I’m on the same planet as they are. Sometimes my head hurts, just trying to decipher the gibberish that emanates from people who’d use 10 words when 1 would do.
My idol, and Nobel prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman, in his book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character described it best in his inimitable way:
“There was a sociologist who had written a paper for us all to read–something he had written ahead of time. I started to read the damn thing, and my eyes were coming out: I couldn’t make head nor tail of it! I figured it was because I hadn’t read any of the books on that list. I had this uneasy feeling of “I’m not adequate,” until finally I said to myself, “I’m gonna stop, and read one sentence slowly, so I can figure out what the hell it means.”
So I stopped–at random–and read the next sentence very carefully. I can’t remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: “The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.” I went back and forth over it, and translated. You know what it means? “People read.”
Then I went over the next sentence, and I realized that I could translate that one also. Then it became a kind of empty business: “Sometimes people read; sometimes people listen to the radio,” and so on, but written in such a fancy way that I couldn’t understand it at first, and when I finally deciphered it, there was nothing to it.”
I’d say that in about half of my business conversations, I have almost no idea what other people are saying to me. The language of internet business models has made the problem even worse. When I was younger, if I didn’t understand what people were saying, I thought I was stupid. Now I realize that if it’s to people’s benefit that I understand them but I don’t, then they’re the ones who are stupid.
There are at least five strains of this epidemic.
We have forgotten how to use the real names of real things. Like doorknobs. Instead, people talk about the idea of doorknobs, without actually using the word “doorknob.” So a new idea for a doorknob becomes “an innovation in residential access.” Expose yourself repeatedly to the extrapolation of this practice to things more complicated than a doorknob and you really just need to carry Excedrin around with you all day.
This is a disease of epic proportions in the world of charity. I was at a meeting just two days ago at which several well-meaning staff members of a charity were presenting to their board, and the meat of their discussion revolved around the acronyms SCEA and some other one that began with “R” that I can’t recall. In the span of three minutes these acronyms must have been used eight times each. They were central to any understanding of the topic at hand, but they were never defined. So I had not the vaguest idea what the presenters were talking about. None. Could have been talking about how to make a beurre-blanc sauce for all I know.
Valley Girl 2.0
My partner and I were at a restaurant in the San Fernando Valley five years ago, and a real-live Valley girl was sitting in the booth behind us talking on her cell phone. We couldn’t stop listening to her. She had a world-class ability to string together half-sentences devoid of any substance whatsoever. And yet you felt as if something important were being discussed! “And she was like, ummm, and I was just like, you know, umm, no way, really, like, yeah, and when she was like that, I was just like..umm….” She could go on in this way for extended periods of time without mentioning any actual people, actions, or thoughts. There’s a business version of this illness. It involves the use of words such as “space,” “around,” “synergy,” and “value-add” with a healthy dose of equivocators like “sort of” and “kind of” to ensure that there is no commitment to anything being said: “I’m in the sort of sustainability space around kind of bringing synergistic value-add to other people’s work around this kind of space.” Oh, OK, that explains it.
I wrote about the phrase “thinking outside the box” recently and how overused and utterly misunderstood the expression is. There are many more. Another term that has lost its meaning is “Let’s exceed the customer’s expectations.” Employees who hear it just leave the pep rally, inhabit some kind of temporary dazed intensity, and then go back to doing things exactly the way they did before the speech. Customers almost universally never experience their expectations being met, much less exceeded. How can you exceed the customer’s expectations if you have no idea what those expectations are? I was at a Hilton a few weeks ago. They had taken this absurdity to its logical end. There was a huge sign in the lobby that said, “Our goal is to exceed the customer’s expectation.” The best way to start would be to take down that bullshit sign that just reminds me, as a customer, how cosmic the gap is between what businesses say and what they do. My expectation is not to have signs around that tell me you want to exceed my expectations.
Abstract Valley Girl 2.0 Acronymitis Using Meaningless Expressions
This is when you combine the four diseases above. So you get phrases like, “You should meet this guy with the SIO. He’s sort of this kind of social entrepreneur thinking outside of the box in the sustainability space and working on these ideas around sort of web-based social media, and he’s in a round two capital raise in the VP space with the people at SVNP.” How many times have you heard what you now recall to be precisely this sentence?
This would all be funny if it weren’t true. People just don’t make sense anymore. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble if you internalize this. Observe it, deconstruct it, and appreciate just how ridiculous most business conversation has become.
You will gain tremendous credibility, become much more productive, make those around you much more productive, and experience a great deal more joy in your working life if you look someone in the eye after hearing one of these verbal brain jammers and tell the person, “I don’t have any idea what you just said to me.”
So what do you think? Too avant garde? Or par for the course?