A Dictionary for the Shafted: business jargon

At last! The third installment of the Great Dictionary! It’s easy to mock banal business jargon but there are reasons an authoritarian regime will try and manipulate language. A common trick of dictators is to cloak horrible deeds in the most banal language possible. Another trick is to use language to brush over your constant failures…

Outside the box: We spend 99% of our time living in a box. We must spend a lot of time talking about getting outside the box to disguise the fact that our organisation loves the box. Do not mention that we live in a box.

Reach out: Our organisation exists in a weird social bubble that helps us justify (to each other) everything we do. We’ve hit bad luck and now have to talk to and justify our appalling decisions to someone else. Ugh.

Stakeholders: We are going to talk about individuals and large, wealthy organisations as though they are equal. So we must have the same name for them. We must do this because we don’t want to admit that while weighing up the needs of our ‘stakeholders’ we are effectively pitting Manchester United against Ashford Sunday Five-a-Side Team. Manchester United always wins, in case you were in any doubt, but the point is, we give them all a level playing field.

Synergy: We’ve found a new way to be parasitic on someone else’s work. We’ll pretend that they benefit as much as we do.

Added value: We did something that makes a profit. Not for you, pleb.

Game-changer: Someone has been doing something better than us. Quick! Copy it so we can look competitive!

Blue sky thinking: Let’s think ever-so-slightly more imaginatively than before. No, not that imaginatively. Stop it! IT’S ALL GONE TOO BLUE! Quick, do something pointless and call it blue!

Heads up: A bit like ‘alerting’ someone to something, but purposely banal so as to ensure it doesn’t cause anyone to panic and think that (a) we are in the shit and everyone is about to lose their jobs or (b) they’re onto us.

Singing from the same hymn-sheet: We must ensure ideological uniformity is enforced across the organisation. We don’t want our employees to notice how worthless we are so we’d better quash any dissent to our fuck-you business model and ensure that no employees accidentally make us look bad by accidentally doing something. Stay upbeat!

Dialoguing around an issue: You are a problem. We’re going to sack you. Let’s talk about it. That’s enough now.

Pushing the envelope: We’re doing some work for once. As the economic organising unit of capitalism we are supposed to be dynamic and competitive and innovative. But we need a special term for when we actually do this.

10 years, 7 months, 14 days of war – The Armoured Personnel Carrier in the room

Most days if you read the front pages, watch the news, or even go to the FCO or Ministry of Defence website, you would barely notice that the UK is involved in a war that has been going on for over a decade. Even the body bags coming back from Afghanistan don’t seem to have a lot of impact now.

If you read the FCO explanation of the war, it is that we are ensuring that Afghanistan cannot harbour terrorists who might attack the UK or our allies. This has clearly failed, and will likely be a continuing failure whether or not they manage to pull out most troops by 2014 as they promise. Since our own country intermittently harbours terrorists – admittedly uninvited except for the usual heads of state – it hardly seems like a logical explanation for the war.

Meanwhile how much do people in Britain know about the war? None of the participants keep a record of Afghans killed, though we know some small part of it from the MoD’s payments to the families of civilians killed by accident. We don’t get regular updates about where ‘our’ troops are as we would in a war that people cared about. There is no serious discussion of Afghan politics among the press or politicians. How often do you hear the economy of Afghanistan mentioned? Yet doesn’t the end of conflict rely on stable economic systems? The general public does not know where power really lies in Afghanistan or who is doing what in the country, nor is there any discussion of what policies the allies have imposed on the country through their puppets.

The war is barely noticed, in other words. It is barely taken seriously. But the problem is, once you start a war, it’s hard to stop. And once you get into a habit of fighting wars, it’s hard to stop starting them. Britain has never fallen out of the habit since the end of the colonial period, and while it has such a large military it is unlikely to. Sometimes I think people attribute far too much cunning and forethought to our politicians. I think a major reason they start wars is because power feels good. They are human too and if you hand them the command of a reasonably effective fighting force they can’t help using it.

The elephant in the room is not just the war in Afghanistan, it is the fact that ‘we’ are constantly getting involved in wars, and none of them for the last sixty years have been at all related to self-defence. We need to stop being used to being in wars. The best way to do this practically speaking is to drastically downsize the army so that the temptation to politicians is removed. When was the last time you heard anyone in the mainstream suggest that, or point out that our army is not used for self-defence? You’re as likely to hear it as you are a discussion about the US military payments to the Taliban for the protection of their supplies as they travel around the country. In other words, as likely to hear it as any serious discussion of the war and its problems at all.

A post all about our individuality. Sorry, YOUR individuality.

I didn't have a relevant photo for this post but I love Balinese temples.

It hardly makes sense to collectively describe individualism does it? Except that it is one of the problems of living in a society where people obsess about their individuality that the social constraints upon us are less transparent than in other times and places. These social constraints always exist, always place pressure on us, always influence our decisions, but because we are all pretending that we are heroic individuals we have to kind of blank out all this social influence in case we realise how little our choices have to do with ourselves.

As well as constantly talking of ourselves as atomistic individuals another weird way we use language is to refer to our ‘social lives’ and ‘work lives’ as different things. I know that by ‘social life’ people often mean what they do to relax with other people, but the distinction obscures something that would be obvious to an anthropologist or a native of a Brazilian basin tribe: that a work environment is a strongly social environment.

It follows then that a lot of the social constraints and pressures on us originate not from friends we chose, or from family or even the work colleagues we ‘socialise’ with, but from the constant social interaction in the working environment in which we spend 8-10 hours a day (less if you’re one of the new army of part-timers who can’t get more hours – this post should make you feel better).

But let’s think about what this working environment is: a top-down, internally authoritarian structure, often with a deliberately created organisational ‘culture’. It also has specific aims, and in the private sector and much of the targetted and monitored public sector, the aims are around constant efficiency calculations, constant cost-benefit analyses, and assumptions such as individuals needing to suffer for the sake of the organisation.

In conclusion, not only are we not as individualistic as we like to claim, but a lot of the influence on us comes from an essentially authoritarian environment that mandates particular ways of thinking and working. You can leave the organisation any time of course. But since most organisations – from charities through the public sector to academia – have deliberately adoped business methods in recent years, there aren’t many places to run to that would actually offer something different.

The point of this is not that we should all be more individualistic, simply that the hypocrisy involved in pretending to be individualistic while living most of your day in an authoritarian culture is enough to make anyone turn to working with trees.

Simple things made complex: You have to decide where you stand

Careful what company you keep....

This is a series of posts in which I talk about simple things but extend my commentary on the simple things to several paragraphs, thus making them more complex.

These are trying times for politicians and for those being screwed by them. Crises are happening. Decisions MUST be made. Those of us not willing to have everything good and lovely stolen from us by powerful people who don’t even know our names feel we must take a stand. We must take a POSITION.

And sometimes it seems like project management, but with less appalling jargon. We must make a series of decisions that will take us where we want to go. We must follow the decision tree. But without calling it such a wanky name. Should we vote? Y/N. Should we confront? Y/N

It seems obvious we have to take a position in politics, but there is a problem. As individuals our decisions are usually almost imperceptible, and to the degree that the world at large does notice them, they (people, organisations) will decode our decisions as they feel like. And politics should not be about being sure of our rightness in our own heads, it should be about relating well and getting good things to happen. Meanwhile our decisions being decoded by others may have – for all we know – been caused by someone asking us the wrong question, or phrasing the question in a way that created an artificial dichotomy.

Not making decisions one way or the other can cause tensions inside us, but the world is full of tensions anyway. Tensions between different positions will only be resolved by death, and if you’re a Catholic, not even then.

In a way we do have to take a position in this world, or rather, we find ourselves in a position. I’m not sure it’s our decisions that get us there. We are not as rational as we pretend. We choose sides according to…what we feel like. That’s fine, and we can even dream up rationalisations for it if we are that way inclined, but that’s no reason to go resolving all the tensions.

Should we vote or not vote?

Should we confront or nudge?

Should we work from inside or outside institutions?

Should we aim for revolution or reform?

Do both. Together. Consecutively. Alternately. Do whatever seems appropriate with those around you at that particular time. It may seem strange to choose a life with more tension, but it also means choosing a life less defined by the questions people choose to ask you and more defined by your relationships and making stuff happen.