How did we get here? How did we reach the point where we have one language for work and another for the rest of our lives?
In one we tend to engage with all the unique characteristics and faculties that make us the individuals we are. In the other – only really half a language – we leave a large part of our personalities behind. Cipher is a frightening and demeaning word, but to some extent it’s what modern business-speak makes us.
Fear, of course, has a lot to answer for. Fear of looking stupid or out of touch, fear of being called to account, fear of losing control or authority. The less of ourselves we reveal the more we distance ourselves from the possible consequences of what we say or write.
But how did it come to this? I believe modern business language has been brewing for at least 250 years. It comes to us via the age of reason and early scientific enquiry; the subsequent industrial revolution when new technical processes were the dominant force; the expansion of trade and empire, from which a new vocabulary of commerce emerged; Victorian paternalism and love of litigation, which saw the full flowering of legalese; the periods of austerity following two world wars, and the language of twentieth century military command (in particular from Vietnam, the first televised war) with its talk of campaigns and strategic objectives; the IT revolution with a whole new almost mandatory technological dialect; and the explosive growth of management consultancy and the MBA culture – quasi-academic, pseudo-scientific. Add to all that the most recent and baneful influence, the culture of measure-ment, and the resulting cocktail is scarcely a language at all since it fails to communicate on almost any human level.
A couple of days ago my train came to a halt in the middle of the countryside. After a wait of several minutes a cheery guard came on the tannoy to apologise for the delay, explaining that it was caused by children playing on the line. (‘Of course they are,’ said the elderly woman sitting opposite me, ‘they’ve been cooped up inside all winter.’) Twenty minutes later we stopped at a big station. Apologising for the delay to passengers who had just boarded, a different voice explained that it had been caused by ‘trespassers on railway property’.
Twenty minutes. That’s how long it takes for children to become trespassers, and (to borrow again from Jurgen Habermas) for system world to overtake life world. This is the steady creep of something alarmingly like Orwell’s Newspeak. We may have ideas about how we got here, but do we have any idea where we’re heading?