Thursday, June 23, 2011

Fear of meaning

I've all done it; maybe you have too, and usually with our loved ones. Talking for the sake of saying something; talking out of the fear of silence; talking to let someone know you care while not saying anything to upset them further. I do it on the phone a lot, trying to use words as a verbal hug.

Businesses do it all the time, and a prime example is the following piece of gobbledygook from Clare Lynch's Doris & Bertie, which is just about the best blog on language I've read.

Leverage analytics to drive prediction
Use predictive analytics as a decision support tool to drive a forward-looking analysis of scenarios, response effectiveness, and critical correlations that can complicate or escalate events. Better understanding of the drivers of extreme events, whether external developments or internal process interactions, can help build a robust, flexible and dynamic crisis management program. The objective for enhanced analytics is not to predict events, but to help companies develop more meaningful warning indicators, and an increased awareness of their leverage in preventing or managing ‘runaway’ crises.

In her post, she pulls it apart and then does the seemingly impossible: she turns it into a (shorter) piece that actually means something. Even better, she explains why her version works and why the original fails.

In commenting on her post, I realised that there's another angle to this. Far from being a failure, the original is in some ways a stunning success. If you forget the unimaginative, hidebound views of stuffy old traditionalists who insist that language exists solely to communicate ideas, you'll realise that there are other processes at work here. This sort of writing falls into the category I alluded to above: verbal hugs.

We usually think of words as windows through we shine light on each other’s thoughts. Paragraphs such as the one above are in fact big, fluffy double duvets (and about as transparent). Their purpose is not to enlighten the reader but wrap him and the writer together in a warm, unthreatening snugness. The only message is: “I am like you. I think like you. I talk like you. When we meet we will be wearing similar suits and complementary ties. When we do businesses together you will look good but I will reinforce, not threaten, your complacency.”

The writer here is not trying to convey any information. He is not seeking to enlighten his reader. He is striving to fit in. He is wearing a linguistic uniform. This is very important in business, but it also matters elsewhere. Who doesn't remember trying to fit in with the right crowd at school and adopting their mannerisms, clothes and above all their way of speaking?

If any actual meaning should creep into what is written, it is entirely accidental. Think of the sounds a parent makes when rubbing Bonjela on the gums of a teething baby. Like many parents, I used to say, "There, there, there." What does that mean? Nothing, and it's not supposed to. In a similar vein, I have said before that the most meaningful lyrics in the history of rock are "Awopbopaloomop awopbamboom".

There might be another purpose here: to make the simple seem complicated. If all you need to do is "analyse what’s happened in the past to help you predict what might happen in the future" … well, anyone can do that. However, if you need to "use predictive analytics as a decision support tool", then it's best to call in an expert.

Now go away and read Clare's blog. You can thank me later.
Moral: Writing sometimes exists not to express your thoughts but to hide their absence.

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