Mbabane, Swaziland | 3 September 2014
Last week on this page I recall writing something about a former manager of mine. Mr J was his name. Or, when you really wanted to brush his ego, you’d refer to him by his full title – The Right Honourable Mr Jargon.
I mentioned Mr J’s love of fancy words. You know, the big ones: Strategise; Framework; Systemise. The list could go on but we’d be here all day.
Don’t get me wrong, Mr J was a good bloke. To clarify that in more diplomatic terms: You wouldn’t have a beer with him, but he was good bloke.
Pleasantries aside, Mr J’s command of modern jargon was simply exceptional. By “modern jargon” I mean that species of English invented by First World management consultants in the 1980s in order to confuse us while enriching themselves. A species of English, full of phrases like moving forward and innovative dialogue, that has bred its way into many spheres of life; most notably into the office. This was never clearer to me than when listening to Mr J.
Whether he was talking in a meeting or in the tearoom, he had the ability to confuse all around him.
In another life, if Mr J had have been the office cleaner, for instance, one might have had the guts to tell him that he was making no sense. In fact, that is unfair to office cleaners. In my experience, they tend to speak with more clarity than their more qualified superiors. That may be because office cleaners generally don’t try to sound smarter than they are.
(Now there’s a book waiting to be written, it would be called, I Know What’s In the Rubbish Bin: The Wisdom of the Office Cleaner.)
But, as it was, because of Mr J’s status as Communications Line Manager, no one would dare criticise him (to his face).
The interesting thing, however, was that despite The Honourable Mr J speaking in this fancy way in the office – or at one of the many conferences and workshops that seemed to dot his calendar – as soon as he left the office he would begin to speak like a human.
Somehow the jargon fell away when his work hat was taken off. If I bumped into Mr J as I was walking to the bus stop – he was on his way to the underground carpark – we’d normally have a nice conversation. His language became colourful and full of detail and description; all the things that modern jargon, with its abstract outcomes and inputs, has trouble expressing.
I would walk away after these comprehendible conversations and think to myself, Why can’t Mr J talk like that in the office? I would surely get a lot more work done if he issued instructions in a way others can at least understand.
It got me thinking that all this office lingo – the big words in the rarely implemented Strategic Plans and Partnership Consortiums – is just a game. A game, that is, with very real consequences.
One day I woke up and decided I would no longer mimic Mr J, as had become my custom. I was tired. I decided to eliminate strategise and framework and all the others from my office vocabulary.
Of course this set me on a collision course with Mr J. We would argue over petty things like whether to say use or utilise. It was like a marriage, without the perks.
So, just like that, after too many petty disputes, Mr J fired me. Of course it hurt, it’s never nice knowing your not wanted. But, looking back, I am grateful to Mr J. He set me free.
This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland on 3 September 2014