Let’s Peel That Onion Back

joe —  Tue 19-Jun-18

SmockI am confident that 98% of you are going to disagree with this week’s column. Many of you might even think I’ve lost my marbles as I have typically sided with the opposite position on this topic. In the end, however, pragmatism won out.

I was reading a column by Travis Bradberry where he implored his readers to stop using those ridiculous buzzwords that are regularly attributed to the pointy-hair boss types. Bradberry discusses the cringe that comes over the audience when someone says “low-hanging fruit,” “win-win,” or “bang for your buck.” I think Bradberry’s position says more about us as a receiver than it does the pointy-hair boss, and that’s not good.

A friend of mine and former president of the Society for Technical Communicators, Dr. Mike Hughes, often coached me to not get overly obsessed with grammar perfection. He would remind me that our language was designed for us to communicate a message and if I did that within the parameters of what I was trying to achieve, then I was successful. Mike wasn’t recommending that we go higgedly-piggedly rampaging through Strunk & White, ripping out the pages we didn’t like. He simply suggested to not be disheartened by the grammar nazis. Be pragmatic in your communication and look at what you are trying to achieve with your words, both verbally and emotionally. It’s that pragmatism that made me an Oxford comma supporter for life. It’s also that advice that has made me comfortable with writing The Stranded Starfish despite my complete lack of grammatical skills.

YalldveOur vocabulary at work is different from our vocabulary at home. There are words or phrases we use at work that would elicit a confused look from our friends on Facebook. Often these phrases are acronyms or initialisms. It would get tiring to repeatedly say the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in a presentation when everyone in the room knows what the FDIC is. Thank goodness we no longer have to say self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, anno domini, or radio assisted detection and ranging. We use the shorter words because they are commonly understood abbreviated forms of longer phrases. The abbreviated usage is effective.

I contend that “low-hanging fruit” is a contraction, and a more effective representation of “let’s go after the things that are easiest to accomplish quickly and yet still give us some good results.” Why would I say “I want to choose the project that maximizes the ratio of revenue to cost” when “bang for your buck” is readily understood? “Win-win” expresses a far more complex concept that was popularized by Stephen Covey back in the 80s. Everyone understands what it means, and those that have studied the art of the win-win know how complicated it can be to achieve. Even as much as I detest the phrase “leverage synergies,” I have to admit that it does a remarkable job of conveying the essence of a deeper concept.

BeakerI get the slippery slope of degrading our language. I get the perceived professionalism aspect. I understand that these phrases often feel like a pair of ripped up shorts at a corporate board meeting – but they work. If you hear them often it’s because they were understood and served a useful purpose, useful enough for someone else to repeat.

Above all else, I am a pragmatist and I have to wonder about my earlier disdain. Rolling my eyes when someone else uses one of these phrases, assuming they used it correctly ;), makes me wonder if I am not an elitist. I can picture myself leaning over to whisper to Dr. Hughes, “Can you believe he just said ‘blue-sky thinking’?”. He would reply in his quiet, non-judging voice whisper, “Did you get what he meant?”

It seems odd to me that in a world that is so busy we felt the need to turn “can not” to “can’t” to avoid the heavy burden of a space and two letters, we reject phrases that perform even greater savings.