I’d like to think that I have always fought the good fight when it comes to “corporatese”, the disease that makes managers think using complicated language and a sterile style is necessary in order to be viewed as professional. But to me it has merely been a fight about making one’s writing style a little less annoying. Recently I read a great article called Crusader for Syntactic Disambiguity Exprobates Bank’s Labored Locutions, about a woman named Chrissie Maher who founded the Plain English Campaign, and who argues that the issue has far greater impact than just keeping our feathers unruffled. Undecipherable corporatese in the banking and financial sectors has actually contributed to our current economic woes, she says. If people understood what a “collateralized debt obligation” was, better choices might have been made.
Examples of corporatese abound, especially in government documents. “Unless otherwise specified, the following specifications and standards of the issue listed in that issue of the Department of Defense Index of Specifications and Standards (DoDISS) specified in the solicitation, form a part of this specification to the extent specified herein.” Excuse me?
Psychologists and linguists have been studying and testing the concept that language shapes our thought for many years. Sharon Begley, in a recent Newsweek column, gives many great examples from the body of research on this. For example, in English we say “she broke the bowl” even if it was accidental. In Spanish and Japanese, the language translates “the bowl broke itself”. When people are shown the same video, English speakers remember who was to blame even if it was an accident, and Spanish and Japanese speakers don’t always remember unless it was intentional. So can we infer that using incomprehensible language may actually lead to confused thinking and thus poor decision-making?
Perhaps an even more important consequence of using simple language concerns the impact on trust and workplace culture. Where are employees more likely to trust their employers and enjoy their work; in the organization where the employee handbook is understandable and managers use simple language to explain their decisions? Or in the organization where the conversation seems a little over everyone’s head, as if not being a manager means you’re not smart enough to “get” what’s going on?
The problem is how to convince managers that simplifying their language is OK. According to William K. Zinsser, in On Writing Well, “Executives at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind.” We have to teach people that corporatese is bad; after many years of conditioning to the contrary, your average manager is not going to come to that conclusion out of common sense. A good business communication class, whether focused on written or oral communication, should teach the importance of plain English.
Do you have an example of a time when corporatese negatively impacted workplace culture?
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