How we talk

Alex Kjerulf tweeted a link to Ted Dziuba’s post: Stop Using the Word ‘We’. Ted’s been carrying out an experiment:

Yesterday, I spearheaded a new movement at the office. I stopped using the word “we”, and started to say what I really meant to say. For example, instead of “We should fix that bug”, I say, “You should fix that bug”, and good God is it satisfying.

It’s an excellent rant about how people in organisations end up using euphemistic language that in the end disempowers them.

Not that always being direct and blunt is going to be a perfect solution either. But I am very interested in how we use language. Sometimes we use it to raise our status, but in doing so cut ourselves off from reality – and thus lose our power.

The other day on the bus, a passenger was carrying on a loud conversation with a client. She was discussing the morals of some candidates she’d been interviewing, which I thought was a little rich coming from someone with a fairly diminished sense of confidentiality. Perhaps this biassed me against her. Later in the call she was discussing some other HR issue and promised her client that she would talk to various employees. “Don’t worry, I’ll manage their expectations,” she said. I realise that’s a very common phrase in business but that morning it stuck out like a sore thumb, and made me wonder: what kind of world do we end up in when we frame our experience in such a way? Do we really believe that we understand other people’s inner worlds so well that we can seriously “manage” their expectations with any certainty?

I might be over-reacting. But I’ve been thinking a lot about how people often talk as if they are in control of more things than anyone, in all truth, really could be. And then not talking about stuff where they do have some authority. So it’s easy to make abstract criticisms of systems: “I think this process should be changed”. And hard to say stuff that has less status but has more emotional truth, like “I’m bored and frustrated”.

Thus there are a lot of conversations about how to change the world but maybe not so many about the humbler challenge of truly experiencing our own little piece of it. Which I think relates in some way to what Euan is saying here.

6 thoughts on “How we talk

  1. Brad Trnavsky

    Wow! one of the best blog posts I have read in a while. You really got me thinking about what I mean vs. what I say. I’d love to have you as a guest on my management podcast. shoot me a e-mail and we can hook it up if you are interested.

  2. Gregg Meiklejohn

    you make a good point. A big part of this me thinks is so many people are reacting to whats been foisted upon them. The lady on the bus possibly was being buffeted around by externals such as keeping a client and had lost what was improtant ot her personally.

    My business partner have a motto that we tell the truth no matter what. This sounds crazy unless you understand the workings of the marketing business…cheers

    Gregg Meiklejohn

  3. Stuart Reid

    “So it’s easy to make abstract criticisms of systems: “I think this process should be changed”. And hard to say stuff that has less status but has more emotional truth, like “I’m bored and frustrated”.”

    These two sentences just leapt out at me; I really like the link you made between high status talk and low levels of emotional truth. I hadn’t seen it that way before.

    So sometimes the reason I don’t name how I’m feeling – particularly negative feelings – is because I would lose a status game? Does that link to gender I wonder? You’ve really got me thinking. Cheers.


  4. Antony Mayfield

    So so so true – and slippery, de-humanising, de-personalised language combined with group emails is one thing I find horrible.

    “Can someone…”, “we need to take action” and a bunch of other ways of throwing an issue into festering limbo…

    You are not over-reacting. Language matters hugely. *I* need to watch how I use it, and call out myself and anyone else who starts twisting the meaning and the responsibility out of the things we say to one another in business.

    Thank you for keeping me thinking honestly and critically about these things, Johnnie.

  5. Ian Glendinning

    Great post and a great linked rant too.

    As you say, you cannot be so blunt in any situation, but it important that people recognize the “management hypocrisies” in linguitsic and other “games” that keep the day-job wheels turning

    It is empowering when, in a given work situation, you get to a point where you have managed to break through one of these unnecessary levels of hypocrisy. But to throw all such social conventions away, would be …. “autistic”.


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