Career Watch: Combatting doublespeak

Q&A: William Lutz

The Rutgers emeritus English professor and former editor of the Quarterly Review of Doublespeak wants language accountability.

What are some of the most egregious examples of doublespeak you have encountered in the business world lately? There are many. For example, a pharmaceutical company used the term "emotional liability" to describe a side effect of a new antidepressant. The emotional liability in question? Some patients using the drug had attempted suicide. But there are many other examples. [See table.]

Why does this kind of language so often creep into business? The basis of all management is language. Effective managers are experts at using language to get their message through. The great danger is working in a closed environment, such as IT, where there's the erroneous assumption that everyone understands everyone else's vocabulary. Good managers never assume that everyone understands what's being said. Good managers avoid jargon [and] pompous or inflated language, and understand that the function of language is not to impress but to express, not to hide or evade but to reveal and confront. Good managers focus on simple, clear, direct language to get the job done.

What are people doing when they speak deceptively? People use such language for a variety of reasons. They may want to hide what's really happening ("negative profits") or make something appear more important than it is ("global leader in interior experience"). As George Orwell wrote, "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity," which occurs "when there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims."

Do you have ideas about how people can be weaned off that kind of language and be more direct? People will use this language as long as they can get away with it. So, let's call them on it when they use it. Let's point out how ridiculous it is; let's laugh at them for using it; let's demand language accountability.

Translating Doublespeak

NASA once issued a stricture against astronauts sharing "undue preferential treatment." What does that mean? "No sex allowed on the space station," says doublespeak expert William Lutz. Here are some other examples he has culled, mostly from the world of business:

Doublespeak Plain English
negative debt cash
negative growth loss
negative deficit profit
thermal management systems and components thermostats
a global leader in interior experience we sell a lot of thermostats
thermal event fire
state-of-the-art sound-processing tool earphones
bus maintenance technician bus mechanic
optical illuminator enhancer window cleaner
director of first impressions receptionist
pretailored to your measurements ready to wear
house manager butler
sparkling beverage soda
pretexting lying
wage management initiatives layoffs
pre-retirement activities work
using an expedited, court-supervised process to accelerate the reinvention of our company filing for bankruptcy

A Back Channel for Employer Info

One frustrating aspect of job hunting (though not as frustrating as those times when you aren't getting any responses to your résumé) is the difficulty of gauging a prospective employer's work environment. Interviewers try to make the job as appealing as possible, so they're apt to put a positive spin on all of their answers.

Into this breach rides, with a new section of its website called Company Q&A. The point of Company Q&A is to provide a forum where employees from every imaginable company, large or small, can be anonymously queried about the real skinny on various aspects of their work environment. You can ask about a company's culture, salaries, work/life balance or anything else that you want to understand better.

But couldn't such an anonymous forum be co-opted by HR people or others who have an interest in painting a rosy picture? CareerBliss says it vets participants through verified employment information that remains confidential.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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