Plain English

I've just read Lucy Kellaway's column on Management Guff. It's good for a laugh but is also a salutary reminder about the languages people use. Working on the book I'm writing I am constantly flipping between academic language and business language. Yesterday I reading a paper on path dependence and found even the abstract deeply impenetrable. Here's an example of one sentence "Unlike tests for the presence of non-ergodicity, assessments of the economic significance of path dependence are shown to involve difficult issues of counterfactual specification, and the welfare evaluation of alternative dynamic paths rather than terminal states". Fortunately I found another article that was much easier to read. Here's an example sentence: "Path dependence in its loosest sense means that current and future states, actions, or decisions depend upon the path of previous states, actions, or decisions".

What I like about the Management Guff article is the reminder that it is so easy to a) start using jargon, and b) not realize that it is jargon. It becomes easy to use by virtue of being around people who use it. How some of it gets generated in the first instance is a mystery to me. Who first used the phrase 'elephant in the room', for example. In fact, in British Airways, when I was there we didn't have elephants we had 'bleeding heads on the table'. I wonder what that says about the organization?

It also reminded me that the language people use colors how and what they think and the way they are perceived by others. Pursuing both the language issue and the path dependence issue in pursuit of writing the chapter I picked up the book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work. by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey which develops the notion that "the words we use do more than represent feelings and attitudes. The very choice itself of one word or expression over another can determine feelings and attitudes and – most importantly – actions". It has a workbook approach that I find helpful (one of my favorite books several years ago was the Artist's Way at Work by Julia Cameron). So my challenge as I write today is to avoid using any language that smacks of jargon.

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