Futures Ramblings # 67
THE POWER OF WORDS
Lance Armstrong told Oprah: “I looked up the definition of cheating and the definition is ‘to gain an advantage on a rival or foe’. I did not view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.” Well that is one creative interpretation of the word! Perhaps during Lance’s exploratory foray into the dictionary he should have continued on further to the letter D to investigate the meaning of delusional, or backtracked to B’s to peruse the definition of bully.
Back home in Australia the former NSW Resources Minister Ian Macdonald was called a crook at a corruption hearing investigating his granting coal exploration licenses to Labor Party mates. In exchange Macdonald luxuriated at their ski resort in Perisher. Words were exchanged at the hearing with Macdonald’s political career hanging on the description of “very confidential” versus “not entirely confidential”. The argument enraged the hearing commissioner so much he was forced to tell Macdonald to stop his shilly shally.
This all pales in comparison to the confusing answer US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton provided Senator Ron Johnson when he and others gave her a grilling regarding the death of four American diplomats in Bengazi. People thought she said:
“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d they go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”
What she really said was “get off my back you ignorant republican ninny.” You would have known that if you heard her tone of voice and could speak American like me, one never forget their native language. That being said, it has been nearly a decade since I lived in the US and my ability to translate may be a bit rusty. The word ninny is quite easy to confuse with the slang word for male genitalia.
Words are powerful, inspiring and easily misinterpreted. One obvious reason is misuse, we often use the wrong words and sometimes people make up words like shilly shally or argie bargie, particularly if they’re in politics. Exacerbating the challenge is the evolution in the meaning of words over time. Compare the description of the phrase far out or sick with someone over 50 to that of a 19 year old.
The words we use in business have evolved as well; new buzzwords enter and depart the business lexicon reflecting the social trends and sentiments of the times. Recently two articles came across my inbox highlighting this evolution. In the first the author suggests words to avoid, particularly when describing ourselves. They rightly point out word choice is critical and makes a first impression; therefore, to avoid being seen as a complete tosser they recommend removing the following words, listed with the author’s rational, from our vocabularies:
Innovative – if you are innovative don’t say it prove it.
World Class – who defines world class, if it is just you don’t use it.
Authority – if you have to say you are, then you aren’t.
Global Provider – only to be used by those selling goods and services worldwide.
Motivated – never take credit for things you are supposed to be, or supposed to do.
Creative – everyone uses this word to describe themselves, it has lost its impact.
Dynamic – it means vigorously active and forceful is that what you really are?
Guru – self proclamation means you are trying too hard to impress others.
Curator – libraries have them, tweeting things to people does not make you a curator.
Passionate – too over the top, use focus, concentration or specialisation instead.
Unique – you are unique, but your business probably isn’t.
Incredibly – if you must use over the top adjectives spare further modification
Serial entrepreneur – be proud if your just an entrepreneur
Strategist – most strategists are coaches, specialists or consultants. Do you make something new?
Collaborative – okay to use as long as you’re not really forcing others to do something they don’t want
Last week I went to a pitch along with several of my esteemed colleagues and we used most, if not all, of these words with the exception of serial entrepreneur and curator. We may have even used some twice. Perhaps it was a fluke that we were able to convince the potential client we were a world class organisation with global reach, comprised of motivated people who in their own right are gurus, clear authorities known for their creativity, innovation and unique dynamic passion.
The language we use and words we choose influences how we think, feel, act. This is the thesis of the second article “Why Tweaking Your Career Vocabulary Can Radically Improve Your Life”. In this missive we are told to eliminate the word YES and only use it when it reflects our true desire. Use the word WORK to describe our individual contribution rather than what we do from 9 to 5. Additional new meanings are defined for: boredom, anxiety, conflict, failure, success and procrastination.
Call me a cynic, but I have difficulty in seeing how redefining a conflict as an opportunity for vulnerability or success as a way of being, living, feeling and achieving that is defined by you could radically improve my life. That does not mean to imply choice of words isn’t important and potentially detrimental to one’s wellbeing. For instance using the word bomb at luggage screening in the airport, or saying just about anything about the Prophet Muhammad could be quite damaging.
There are several words that really annoy me bantered around in the design world that I wish we could get rid of for once and all.
The first is guess. Not a bad word on its own but when used in the context of explaining a design or process to a client it is woefully inappropriate. The definition is to form an opinion of from little or no evidence. Telling your client you “guess” or “suppose” your solution is appropriate does little to instil confidence in our abilities to advise them. If the pilot on your next Qantas flight said “I guess we are going to Perth”, you would run not walk to Virgin.
The second word that aggravates me is aspiration. It’s meaning a strong desire to achieve something high or great in itself isn’t offensive, it is in fact quite uplifting. However, in the context of describing a workplace an individual’s desire, hopes and dreams regarding the workplace are too shallow and in the land of rainbows and unicorns for me. A workplace needs to be described in a business context, what it needs to survive not what its occupants aspire to. Once a foundation is set other more ethereal ideas, which are also important, can be incorporated. They are not a starting point.
Finally can we all stop saying actually, this adverb means in act or in fact. When we use the word it is generally in the right context, it is simply tragically overused. Many designers use the word actually with the same frequency in a sentence as a bogan using expletives. “The design is actually a reflection of the actual way we actually work today. We actually spend very little time at our desk and actually practice highly mobile working styles.” Seriously, we actually do that?
When I hear designers talk that way, I actually tune out and find myself actually making ticks on my notepad to actually keep count of how many l times the designer says actually. I guess that sound mean and I suppose it is actually highly unproductive, but I guess you could say I was doing research. I suppose my aspiration was to one day write a Futures Rambling on the topic.
Haden, Jeff; Stop Using These 16 Terms to Describe Yourself; LinkedIn, January 17, 2013
Parker, Kathleen; Hillary Clinton and the Ghosts of Benghazi; Washington Post, February 08, 2012
Rae, Amber; Why Tweaking Your Career Vocabulary Can Radically Improve Your Life; Fast Company; January 30, 2013
Salusinszky, Imre and Shanahan, Leo; Gloves Come Off at ICAC: Macdonald, You’re a Crook; The Australian; February 13, 2013