Monday, December 10, 2007

When it comes to this stuff, I think my parameters have been exceeded.

So I'm watching this Lifetime* movie on Friday, Eye of the Stalker, wherein a coed is being harassed by a professor. The girl complains to her mother, who happens to be a judge. And the mother sits the girl down at a table, stares her straight in the eye and tells her, "You need to establish parameters and empower yourself."

With luck, I may stop laughing any day now.

The more serious point here is that we're rapidly devolving into a culture of jargon. SHAM and its wider social consequences are seldom mentioned in lamentations on political correctness, speech codes and the like, but the movement bears no small part of the blame. I refer you to Chapter 1 of my book for a discussion of self-help's formative role in a brand of sanitized, "enlightened" speaking that—it was hoped—would empower everyone and offend no one. It was SHAM that really brought to full flower the maddening linguistic trends that former newsman Edwin Newman wrote about with devastating hilarity in such latter-day classics as Strictly Speaking, A Civil Tongue and I Must Say. Notwithstanding the title of that last book, Newman's basic argument was that nobody just says anything anymore: First we have to process it, mill it, refine it and, ultimately, denature it. In the end, though the micromanaged language we like to use masquerades as conveying great meaning and even profundity, in many cases it actually says and means nothing. Nothing of any consequence, anyway. Like the quote from Friday's movie.

Today, I guess, everybody is either empowered or en route there. If you've caught news coverage of Oprah's appearances on behalf of Sen. Obama—another topic I plan to revisit soon—you've heard the E word mentioned, or the concept alluded to, literally dozens of times.

Understand that these catch-phrases do not really represent a change of heart or that vaunted "new attitude" Dr. Laura forever touts in her radio theme; they're just meant to mimic one. We like to pretend (some may even believe) that learning to speak in this new voice in itself transforms us into a new person, with new traits and abilities that leave us vastly improved over what we were before. (And wouldn't that be nice? No further need for therapists, Lexapro or any of it! No need for prisons, either! Just declare yourself "changed" and empowered! Then begin talking like Oprah!) This is the great appeal of so much of self-help, and is in fact the explicit pitch of Tony Robbins and his proprietary twist on neurolinguistic programming (NLP): Changing the way you think and express yourself supposedly changes the way in which you live your life and the success you'll enjoy at same. As it happens, there is some truth to that, in some settings, so we don't want to overstate in our skepticism. But it's hardly a push-button thing or the blanket prescription for success its apostles would have you believe. For one thing, there are so many variables that are beyond our control (no matter what Rhonda or Joe tell you). As one of our regulars mentioned to me over the weekend in an off-blog conversation, "If Tony Robbins was at Pearl Harbor back in 1941, it wouldn't matter if he found a better way of describing the experience. There would still be bombs falling and people being blown apart all around him."

Still, the fight may have already been lost. The "jargon thing" has become a secret handshake in all walks of life: We trust people who talk back to us in the same authorized lingo we use. That shows that they've been properly schooled and conditioned, that the individuality and rebellion have been bleached (or beaten) out of them by total immersion in The System.

Yesterday I was on a government web site attempting to apply for a job that someone alerted me to; it was a very high-paying job that is, in many senses, ideal for me, not least because it wouldn't even demand my full-time attention. But this is where we come back to the attempting, above. Within 15 minutes of beginning the application procedure I found that I had to get up, throw my hands in the air and primal-scream (it was either that or throw the computer against the wall). I just couldn't stand it anymore. I was that sick of trying to phrase my responses in the Dilbertian gibberish that they clearly wanted from me; it was like some nightmarish, federalized version of Jabberwocky. In particular, I had run up against the government's fondness for so-called "KSAs": reckonings of job-worthiness that call for a candidate to render a highly formatted and hysterically stilted assessment of his "knowledge, skills and abilities" in various areas of job function. Chief among those skills and abilities, evidently, is a knack for expressing yourself like a good little bureaucrat/sheep.

It occurred to me that the KSA process had been designed to help normal people translate ordinary, straightforward English into redundant bureaucratic b.s. that, once again, says nothing and means nothing. "I interacted with peers and supervisors in order to facilitate the effective and efficient formalization of division procedures and protocols…" That is an actual example of a good response supplied on one of the KSA coaching pages, which I can't link here; you have to register for the site and post a resume in order to reach this interior page. The KSA phenomenon is evidence of what happens when you turn over the human-resources system to PhDs and other highly credentialed managerial types** who feel required to justify their existence as well as the string of honorifics that follow their name.

It is not high-level thought to write sentences like "I interacted with peers and supervisors in order to facilitate the effective and efficient formalization of division procedures and protocols …" It is the absence of thought. Yes, even though the government sites have tutorials on "proper" KSA-writing. For the life of me, I can't imagine why people would sit there and willingly learn how to twist their legitimate thoughts into such a bizarre, empty-headed format. Of course, that may be the whole point of the exercise, for all I know: to weed out people of independent mind.

After all, what place would such folks have in government?

* Regulars know that I have an abiding soft spot for Lifetime movies, perhaps because the highlight of my writing career consisted of a TV movie, Bed of Lies, that could easily run on Lifetime (and, in fact, has). It's a perfect fit with the Lifetime genre, which goes basically as follows:
1. Unhappy Woman coming out of Bad Relationship meets Debonair Mr. Wonderful.
2. By the second commercial break, Unhappy Woman begins to notice little indications that Debonair Mr. Wonderful is in reality the kind of guy who pulls the wings off baby birds.
3. Debonair Mr. Wonderful turns up dead, and Unhappy Woman is charged with the crime.
4. Disheveled, Unremarkable-Looking Male Defense Attorney takes her case (pro bono).
5. Unhappy Woman gets acquitted.
6. As they descend the courthouse steps, Disheveled, Unremarkable-Looking Male Defense Attorney asks her out for coffee...they smile...and we...fade out....sigh.
** I.e., paid administrators and HR "specialists" brought in from outside, as opposed to those brought up through the ranks. This is the same reason why major hospital systems, during the 1990s, fell into such disarray and became so widely maligned for their declining levels of TLC: The reins of control were turned over from doctors to MBAs.


Cosmic Connie said...

Another excellent post, Steve, and one that hits on what has always bugged me the most about SHAM/New-Wage culture: its steady and insidious corruption of our language. But as you noted, bidness and government aren't any better in this regard. (BTW, I've long been a fan of Edwin Newman.)

To me the word "empower" has always been particularly irksome. I first heard it used in the New-Wagey/SHAM sense many years ago -- not surprisingly, during one of those est-inspired personal-growth weekends. Oh, how the "trainers" LOVED the word "empower." ("Our job here is to EMPOWER you.") I shrugged it off as a fad that wouldn't last. I guess I was wrong about that.

And please do re-visit the "Big O's" (Oprah and Obama) soon. Those two are REALLY starting to annoy me.

SpacePastry said...

This is one of those posts that speak to my heart and, more importantly, my mind.

The world of work, government or otherwise, does not want people of independent mind. As long as I've been "in," I've never been able to spit out phrases like the one you describe. When I use my own words, people seem to be confused (and how is it that I end up feeling like a dumbarse?). Sometimes I speak French, to amuse myself. Then I know they don't understand.

Unfortunately, the time may come when I might have to look for another job and fill out another ridiculous profile or litter my one-page maximum resume with more ridiculous phrases. Corporate America is my bread and butter (but if I take one of Tony's courses, and just believe in myself, I can change all that).

No, I can't. I tried. Maybe I did not spend enough money. Maybe I did not say the right phrases. Maybe it's my "energy." You're right, it's not that simple. It irks me that so many people think it is, and if you don't agree, you've got issues for choosing not to believe.

Steve Salerno said...

Do you realize that an amalgam of your two names might produce something like "Cosmic Pastry"? (I know, "Space Pastry" is pretty close to that as-is...still, I kinda like the new blend. Wonder if it would be good with Earthly Apple-Butter?)

Anyway, yes, I agree with both of you that the calculated corruption of language has definitely had an effect on people--though it's an effect that's quite the ironic counterpoint to what the fathers (and mothers) of this movement originally thought: It makes people stupid and weak. It makes people into herds of sheep who "go with the program" instead of thinking for themselves. (As Orwell, among others, foresaw.) And in the end, it leaves them anything but empowered. Especially in gov't work.

acd said...

Depending where you're applying for a job, you're better off just writing your resume in Zulu. Diversity trumps a white male with proper jargon any day.

a/good/lysstener said...

I was just going to write a comment of my own when I noticed acd's. I don't like the jargonizing of the culture anymore than anyone else does. First of all, I encounter it all the time in English classes, where some of our profs seem determined to get us to write in the most unnatural and synthetic-sounding voice possible. (They want everything to sound like you wrote it for one of their academic journals.) Still I don't see the reason for jumping from this to the race card acd plays here. I really don't understand where that came from, unless maybe somebody just lost out on a job to a "diverse" candidate? With all due respect it just sounds like a poor excuse to get a cheap racial shot in.

Anonymous said...

It's probbaly very un PC for me to say this, but you hit the nail right on the head acd. Diversity is where it's at in Federal hiring now.

Steve Salerno said...

I feel the need here to distance myself a wee bit from the direction in which this thread appears headed. I'm not sure that the "racist" interpretation of acd's comment is the only one; though I won't presume to speak for her, I believe it's possible that her primary intent is to make a dramatic point about the reverse-racism built into the hiring system in many "official" realms today--and there is merit in that observation. On the other hand, I concede that the use of Zulu seems unambiguous and could be inflammatory. With that, I leave the floor open...

Mary Anne said...

Spacepastry wrote:

"No, I can't. I tried. Maybe I did not spend enough money. Maybe I did not say the right phrases. Maybe it's my 'energy.' You're right, it's not that simple. It irks me that so many people think it is, and if you don't agree, you've got issues for choosing not to believe."

It comes down to making people uncomfortable. People who ask questions and think differently make others feel uncomfortable. Feeling uncomfortable or being questioned seems to be the biggest offense in corporate and government life, yet that is the way one learns. I believe we have become a society of style over substance and are living in an education/information dark age. We want to "appear" to be intelligent and knowledgable, but many will not take the steps to learn about the subject they are discussing. All this "jargon" is really a means to "look" unbiased and intelligent, but in reality it makes us just that. If you ask questions, or actually have information, you are considered a threat to the establishment. You will be labeled MANY things to be discredited. You can be called "negative," a "troublemaker," a "rebel," or (my favorite) a "cynic." I have learned that if a person "labels" me, it just means I have hit on something that person does not want to face and that's not my problem, but theirs. One just has to look at history to see what happens to TRUE original thinkers, such as Socrates, Seneca, Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X, Virginia Woolf, and you get the picture. Who REALLY has the balls to be a TRUE original?

acd said...

Carl indirectly made my point as to why my comment is relevant. Because of political correctness, these topics are off limits. We can't question the system without being labeled a racist or a sexist or anything else that implies that our opinions are based on superficial judgments. If so-called minorities don't want to be discriminated against, then stop discriminating only when it suits your needs. True equality and fair employment depends on everyone putting away the "race card" all the time. Right now, we're expected to be respectful of alleged minorities purely because of their race or gender, so they can take advantage of that at their own convenience. Now that's racism.

Steve Salerno said...

I basically agree with acd's clarification here. I do think it's unfortunate that certain words and phrases--like the Zulu reference above--are freighted with connotations that can obscure the legitimacy of an idea that would otherwise stands on its merit. However, again, I am open to dissenting opinions from all sides.

Mary Anne said...

acd said, "Because of political correctness, these topics are off limits. We can't question the system without being labeled a racist or a sexist or anything else that implies that our opinions are based on superficial judgments."

I TOTAlLY agree with you on this subject. I had a class recently with someone who obviously had not done his work, but was going to hijack the class by intimidating the white teacher. I pay far too much money to put up this and I called him on it. He immediately made racist and sexist comments to me about how "I" was the problem, since I "appear" white and a woman. The fact of the matter is I have Native American blood in me and am technically not white, but he didn't know that and I enlightened him of the fact. Appearances CAN be misleading. The problem was he did not want to do his work for the class, but knew the professor would have to handle him with care or be labeled a "racist." I did not have that problem, since I was a fellow student. I believe this politically correct mandate has actually stifled dialogue and made us regress and given fertile ground to racism.

Roger O'Keeffe of NYC said...

AMEN, acd! I applaud you for having the courage of your convictions, and also for expressing yourself in such a well-spoken way, which only lends further credibility to the authenticity of what you're saying.

Roger O'Keeffe of NYC said...

And a p.s. to agoodlysster, adorable though you may be, I think you missed acd's whole point. As Steve suggested she was using the "Zulu" for clarity and impact, not as an expression of any racism.

Bill D. said...

It has come to my attention by those who articulate things that your words have illustrated a commonality into the hidden world of misunderstanding for the sake of confusion and superiority that might provide clarity unsurpassed in the realm of pronouncements.


Your PR Guy said...

As usual, you make many good points. I fine the same bureaucratic-speak (BS, ironically, if we acronym it) managing communication for three financial companies. (For the record, they are owned by one parent company, for which I’m on the payroll). And I’ve found the same BS ad-nasuem. While I’m in the business of writing compelling marketing copy, which, I admit, does involve emotionally charged language, I try to write with passion and conviction. Show the reader, instead of tell.

But I’ve learned a thing or two from working with businesses. They want me to spew the corporate-speak. So I’m left with a choice. Do I go against the grain and give my CEO what I know is best for his company and his clients? Or do I give him what he wants and continue coaching him in the ways of the Force. Uh, I mean writing. (Sorry about the Star Wars slip.)

The answer is always a simple one for me. Give the CEO what he wants. And continue showing him better ways to do the job. So my marketing copy we send clients os bfull of financial jargon and trite clich├ęs that weaken its power to persuade. But I’m still getting a paycheck. And that’s important.

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar on marketing techniques for financial planning companies. While I added more to the conversation than I took away (I think the presenter was surprised to have someone as savvy as she in the audience) I learned one thing. When it comes to writing, to delivering my service and expertise to my CEO and future client – if I get my biz going soon – come to simply this:

As great as you please, however great.

On the whole think- and speak-change of Robbin’s rhetoric, he misses – as most do, either intentional or otherwise – the do part of life. The final part of that equation is, knowing, that in so changing one’s life, one must be prepared to fail. And, it is in those failures that true learning and change take place.

a/good/lysstener said...

Roger, I hope Steve will let me say this, but you opened the can of worms by your own personal remarks, which I found insulting in the extreme. To make a flattering comment about my appearance at the same time you're disparaging the value of what I actually said is the height of being patronizing. Is it not? You might as well have said "you're an idiot, but you're a cute idiot, so all is not lost."

Thank god I'm not blond, I can only imagine what you would've written then!

Mary Anne said...

Your attempt to be hired by the government shocked me quite a bit. It smacks of the "have it all" philosophy that bothers me. I can understand why someone would want to work for the government. The pay is decent and the benefits better, but do you think you CAN work for the government? You want to have this provactive blog yet you want to have a government job too. The government does their vanilla wording as to NOT offend anyone, because there are so many people to offend. I may not agree with it, but it is THEIR policy. Your quest for a government position reminded me of a friend who just got fired for his blog. This friend was a wealthy banker who did very well and ran a division by day, but by night blogged about religion, politics, and whatever met his fancy. His bosses got word of his blog by a few of their irate customers and fired him. My friend comes to me crying outrage and stifling of freedom of speech, etc. I agreed with his former bosses. No one wants a banker with opinions. I want my banker to give me a good interest rate and do not care about HIS views of the world, unless I ask him for them. My friend wants the corner office and view of San Francisco with a high salary, but he also wants to have the freedom to say what he wants to. He wants it all. Now he has TONS of free time to blog his opinions, because he is blacklisted in his "chosen" field. There are sacrifices to be made for the choices we make, but it would seem no one wants to hear that.

Steve Salerno said...

You make interesting points, Mary Anne, and I can't/won't deny their merit. I don't normally turn this blog into a discussion of my life, per se, but in this case it's relevant.

A couple points. ONE, at this point in my life, I would take an "inside job" only if I were being hired with an understanding (and a fairly high degree of acceptance) of who I am. If I go to work for the government, it is not something I would do under false pretenses (hence my reservations, as voiced in the post itself, about expressing myself in government-ese. I won't do it because it's not me). You should also understand that in my professional career, when people have asked me for my opinion, I have given it unflinchingly--which helps explain why I've never lasted very long in 9-to-5 environments. (I always assumed that if someone said to me, "Steve, how do you really feel about such-and-such?", they wanted an honest answer. In reality, of course, most bosses want an honest answer only if it happens to coincide with what they wanted to hear.) I'm going to continue to write this blog; I'm going to continue to post sentiments that might be construed as anti-government, and even anti-the agency who hired me. The way I see it, one thing has nothing to do with another. Which brings us to:

TWO, My understanding of American government is such that it's a place that accommodates, or should accommodate, all. It is a free and open setting where no ideas are, or should be, inherently verboten. That is the way I would approach my government job. I do not believe in political correctness, and would not conduct myself accordingly. I taught in colleges at a time when the speech-code movement was at its zenith. I never knuckled under. I made it understood on Day 1 of each of my classes that when they entered that room, they were entering a PC-free zone, and if they didn't have the stomach for it, now would be a good time to drop the class.

If the government wants me--with those caveats--I'd be happy to take federal money, and I know I'd do a magnificent job. If the government doesn't want me under those conditions, so be it.

Mike Cane said...

>>>"I interacted with peers and supervisors in order to facilitate the effective and efficient formalization of division procedures and protocols…"

I would LMAO except this is so true. And I'm so glad someone else sees behind the facade of this emptyheaded BS.

During a point in my life where I had to labor for The Man, I typed presentations in Powerpoint. Ah, The Man do love them words, "implement and "implementation." God forbid they should say "do." (And now that I think of it, you know the one word that was never used? "Accomplish"!)

Keep fighting the sight, Steve. Happy holidays and a great New Year to you and yours.

Mary Anne said...

Steve you contradict yourself here, because you state in your post that you were trying to do the government application in wording that would work for the government. How is that being you? You obviously know on some level that if you write the application in your usual style it will not get you the job or you would have applied for the position in your own language and there would be no need for this post. It would seem the job is not for you if you are already frustrated with the application process. That does not boad well for the job itself.
As for the problems with governmental language, we are all a part of that to some degree. In trying to please everyone, ultimately the government can please no one.

Steve Salerno said...

Mary Anne, with all due respect, I think you're nitpicking me here. Yes, I was trying to complete an "effective and efficient" application, and to a certain degree I was trying to take my cue from their verbiage. But come on... I also state quite clearly--in fact this is the operative part of the paragraph, and its crux--that I ended up throwing my hands in the air in disgust/dismay. How can you just gloss over that part?

I'm not going to lie; I wouldn't mind having the job that was offered. So I went in with a good attitude (dare I say, a positive one), and I tried to go with the flow; I didn't feel, at least in the early going, that I was "selling my soul." And then when the process grew horrible and onerous, I quit. And all this somehow lowers your opinion of me? I don't get it. Am I supposed to join Al Qaeda in order to certify my credentials as an individual and a "maverick"?

Mary Anne said...

Steve said,

" I also state quite clearly--in fact this is the operative part of the paragraph, and its crux--that I ended up throwing my hands in the air in disgust/dismay. How can you just gloss over that part?"

I did not gloss over that part. Actually, that was the point of the post. If you are being frustrated with the application process now, how frustrated will you be in the job? Can you go around speaking in this "jargon"? Maybe this "jargon" is a part of this job? Sure someone might have told you that you can be YOU in this job, but is that ever really the case with ANY job? In some ways there is a level of comformity.
Don't join Al Quaida yet. I'm just pointing out that we (not just you) have this tendecy not to look at how what we want maynot be what we really want. Remember your post about the breastfeeding doctor? She wanted special treatment, because she was breastfeeding. I guess she has never heard of a breast pump, but the crux of the post was about her getting special treatment. In a lot of ways we all want that. We want to be individuals yet we want the job that might need us to conform to some extent. Don't get your boxers in a bunch. My banker didn't like my response to his firing either.

Mike Cane said...

How things all get to be blanded out, American-style.

An instructional (but hilarious) video:

(R-rated language at end)

And BTW, what Steve has brought up was mentioned in Orwell: Newspeak (that's NEW-speak, not NEWS-speak): the narrowing of thought through the use of constrictive language.

Go on, tell me what people said before they started using "empower." Bet you can't!

roger o'keeffe of nyc said...

Agoodlysstener, maybe you are not such a good listener after all. What I find interesting is that you gave a superficial, knee-jerk response to acd's criticism of superficial, knee-jerk responses. You reacted to a word in isolation rather than thinking beyond that word and examining the concept acd was bringing to the fore. To me this looks like a clear case of "if the shoe fits... "

Your PR Guy said...

Mike Canes has a point. I've spent the last 15 weeks reading about 200,000 pages and 60,000 research articles comprising well over 1 bizillion words of the finest academic(ese) on persuasion.

And I'm convince that not all the scholars in there pomp and circumstance could have been as ever so brief as Canes.

I say that because you summed the last 15 weeks of my life into one phrase: "narrowing of thought through the use of constrictive language."

So, Canes, what did we used before empower?

The Crack Emcee said...


I agree: You brought this on yourself.

Mary Anne,

If I was your friend, I'd sue. What does a blog, that he (hopefully) did on his own time, have to do with his job? Sounds like a clear case to me.


Yea, I want to know too: What was before "empower"?

Mary Anne said...

Crack MC asked
"If I was your friend, I'd sue. What does a blog, that he (hopefully) did on his own time, have to do with his job? Sounds like a clear case to me."

My friend can't sue, because it is in his contract not to sue. He was paid to go away and asked to resign. "Technically" he was not fired. His blog affected his job due to the fact his company lost business and that is grounds for dismissal. That is why I do not have much sympathy for him. If one swims with sharks, one should not be shocked if one is bitten. He knew he was playing a dangerous game by blogging his "views" with his real name evident.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how anyone managed to tack a S onto my name, but so be it...

-- Steve will kvell over the box notation (scroll down).

Pre-empower?! Really, you got me. Thinking back to my days before that buzzword existed, the closest I can think of is "independence," which is really a quite different -- but actually better -- notion.

Who is someone else to "empower" me? I just want to be independent. (Which is precisely what the SHAMmers *don't* want people to be.)

Anonymous said...

Following up, I've dredged my mind some more.

What people used to use pre-empower was "capable."

"We want people to be capable of doing..."

See the shift? It's really gone from having a *skill* (capability of some sort) to a nebulous *attitude* ("empowered" -- in what way? Always really undefined).

If someone is capable of doing something, they have their own "empowerment" and don't need someone else to grant it to them.

Anonymous said...

Go on, parse out this bit:

>>>"We are transforming Palm to exploit the market opportunity and instilling operational rigor throughout the organization. We've taken actions to align our expenses to the current operating environment and are focusing on core initiatives that will have the greatest impact on achieving our long-term success," said Ed Colligan, Palm president and chief executive officer.

Hint: There's no there, there.

Anonymous said...

If I can follow up again. I'm reading "The Price of Loyalty" and came across this marvelous gem.

A New York Times profile of then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill noted that he "violate[d] the central tenet of Washington financial life: never use the English language to convey meaning."