An empty language for empty-headed executives

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Most bullshit is simply to fill space, written by word processor, read by nobody, this material is generally innocuous. The worst abuses of the language now come from business people and management gurus. If bullshit tells you nothing else, it tells you something about the organisation that excretes it.

When George Orwell wrote his magisterial essay on Politics and the English Language in 1946, public bullshit was political bullshit. There is still a lot of that about. Election campaigns in Britain, constitutional arguments in Europe, and global summits in Scotland have produced political bullshit in quantity.

But the worst abuses of the language now come from business people and management gurus. In the last year, books by the Australian writer, Don Watson, the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s, and my colleague Lucy Kellaway have attempted, in very different ways, to dissect this phenomenon.

Lies and spin communicate, but what they communicate is false. The defining characteristic of bullshit is that it does not attempt to communicate at all. Bullshit has the vocabulary and syntax of ordinary language, but not the meaning. The metaphor is not apt. What we describe as bullshit is more like candy floss – when you bite into it, there is nothing there.

The symptoms of bullshit are familiar. The repetition of stock phrases which can be parroted without thought – change drivers, organisational transformation. Words are given meanings different from their ordinary sense – government spending is called investment. Bullshit creates new words – empowerment, creovation™ – but these do not define original ideas, but describe concepts too nebulous to be expressed by terms with known meaning. Bullshit is characterised by prolixity – “serving customers better” becomes “striving for continuous improvement in the customer relationship management space”.

Why do people talk or write when they have nothing to say? Sometimes there are good reasons. When the Queen pays a royal visit, her remarks tell people nothing other than that she is present, but that purpose is important. Some of what senior executives do has this symbolic role. Such speeches are properly short, and banalities suffice.

These representative occasions are sometimes used to good effect, by orators who connect with the emotions of their audiences. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is still inspirational, and Ken Livingstone’s words on the London bombings last week showed some of the same gift for language. But people who lack poetic skill are wise to stick to tested clichés.

So most bullshit is simply to fill space. Sometimes people do not want to speak but are required to. The growing culture of audit and accountability has stimulated such obligatory communication – read any corporate risk assessment or statement of auditors’ responsibilities. Written by word processor, read by nobody, this material is generally innocuous.

But the purpose of bullshit is often deceptive. The squirming politician, forbidden to lie but unable to tell the truth, must bullshit. And so must Martin Lukes. He cannot describe what he and co-colleagues are doing because they are not doing anything: their time is spent in office politics and in diverting the resources of the company to their own interests. The popularity of the joke reveals that most employees of large organisations recognise some reality in this account. Less venally, a senior executive is unwilling to talk substantively about corporate strategy but too vain to remain silent. And so he rambles on, repeating long words and exhausted phrases.

‘Why don’t they get up and walk out?’ asked a distinguished academic, sitting next to me as we waited our turn to speak at a corporate event: layer of bullshit was piled on accumulated layer. They didn’t get up and walk out partly because the conventions of the corporate world differ from those of universities. But not all the audience had noticed that the words they heard meant nothing. If you are asked to report on implementation milestones towards key performance indicators, you are obliged to reply in the same language. Before long you speak this way yourself.

Proper academic training, which emphasises substance over form, is an antidote, and many universities still provide it: business schools, where both faculty and students must disguise how little they know, sometimes do the opposite. The most powerful enemy of bullshit is ridicule, and the most powerful ally of bullshit is the corporate conformity that makes such ridicule impossible. The more authoritarian the culture, the more bullshit. If bullshit tells you nothing else, it tells you something about the organisation that excretes it.

Lucy Kellaway: Martin Lukes: Who Moved My Blackberry?

Don Watson: Gobbledygook

Harry G. Frankfurt: On Bullshit

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