Styrofoam language

What is wrong with all the rubbish, empty language we find all around us? Of course, much as I hate it, it’s not entirely empty. To say “we should leverage our brand equity with customers early in the pipeline to drive conversions” means something. Like most bad things, it is just lame. It is bad because it lacks what’s good. It comes from a place – a mind – that has a shrunken, little perspective on the world, like a raisin’s view of the world from out of the opening of its small packet. This language gives away this origin because it is made out of building blocks which were themselves constructed by defensive, self-important people – the kind of people it would be very annoying to meet. Who invented the term ‘brand equity’? Probably some very annoying person, who felt too dumb writing in a straightforward way. So instead of saying in a sentence “whether people like our brand or not” or “the popularity of the brand” he felt he had to invent a new concept, which lots of people like him who wanted to sound smart and cover their dumbness copied. Then it got to the point of becoming a habit, and now lots of nice people say ‘brand equity’, often to other nice people who don’t really understand what they mean.

There is a place for unusual words and expressions, as long as they carry important but unusual concepts. ‘Eudaimonia’ is a good Greek word, and it’s sometimes useful to use it and point out its difference from our ideas around ‘happiness’. ‘Reticent’ is another nice word, somewhere between reluctant and hesitant. (Yes, I was once told off for using the word ‘reticent’ by my manager. He said we don’t use those kinds of words in business communications.) But I think the most important thing in language is the feeling and thought (the motive) behind the words, and the directness of the connection between the motive and the words. If the motive is secretly ‘let’s say something clever’ then the words become like a play with a very boring ending: I am clever. The two biggest problems with language are: (1) We are defensive: we don’t let ourselves say things that other people might mock us for, around our most painful vulnerability – appearing dumb, being ignored, appearing weak. (2) We don’t allow ourselves to admit things we are actually feeling, so our world becomes narrowed to a little stereotyped world shaped by the equally people around us equally out of touch with what is going on inside them. If I say ‘I feel a bit sad’ in contexts when I’m not supposed to be sad, most people won’t know what to do with this and it will come off badly for me. If I say to my boss ‘work is frustrating and dull, but it’s ok, I didn’t expect any better’ I may eventually be fired. So we start from a place of having to lie in order to go with the flow, and this is a cause of so much wispy, wafty, bullshit language – the kind of bullshit that’s not fake technical terms, but language floating around unrooted in anything anyone feels or believes, and so ultimately ten times worse than animal noises.

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