March 8, 2014
I am fortunate to live in the woods where wildlife wanders by. It’s one reason I am well-acquainted with the sounds of turkeys. The other is that I spent part of my career in government.
This is not the slam you were expecting; without fail, I worked with smart, dedicated public servants. But each day, we all had to wade through a squalid swamp of acronyms, legalese and jargon. If you care about good, clear communication, spending a day deciphering or listening to this kind of drivel is like getting poked in the brain with a plastic fork. Repeatedly.
This unpleasant experience is not confined to the public sector. Bureaucratese is the official language of many corporate offices as well. Some might argue “bureaucratese” is a kind of jargon too, so let’s use a term everyone understands: gobbledygook. This helpful phrase was:
“…coined by Texas Congressman Maury Maverick ‘thinking of the old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas, who was always gobbledy-gobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity. At the end of this gobble there was a sort of gook.’ In other words, gobbledygook is the mouthing of a turkey.” (Forbidden Words, by Keith Allen and Kate Burridge, 2006, Cambridge Press, p. 65.)
To his credit, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton has decided to de-gobbledy the gook of his executive branch. He signed a Plain Language Executive Order, directing all state agencies “to use commonly used language, write in clear and concise sentences, and reduce the use of jargon and acronyms that make state government nearly impossible to understand.” The plain language standard is one all communicators should strive for: the audience must be able to understand it the first time they read or hear it. Amen! The order even comes with a handy addendum ofexamples.
The Plain Language Standard: The audience must be able to understand it the first time they read or hear it.
Minnesota’s efforts appear to be modeled after a national movement to promote plain language and a 2010 executive order signed by President Obama suggesting federal agencies do likewise. Unfortunately, this is the kind of verbiage one finds immediately after the federal order’s plain language requirement:
“…This order is supplemental to and reaffirms the principles, structures, and definitions governing contemporary regulatory review that were established in Executive Order 12866 of September 30, 1993. As stated in that Executive Order and to the extent permitted by law, each agency must, among other things…”
If you have ever wondered why we feel compelled to mimic the gibberish of large, wattled birds, researchers Allen and Burridge offer possible motivations:
“…The matters with which bureaucrats deal are mostly mundane and can be fully described and discussed in sixth-grade English. In order to augment their self-image, therefore, bureaucrats create synonyms for existing vocabulary using a Graeco-Latinate lexicon, seeking to obfuscate the commonplace and endow it with gravity… While jargons facilitate communication among in-groupers on the one hand, on the other, they erect communication barriers that keep out-groupers out.”
Sadly, we may unconsciously encourage the use of unclear and exclusionary communication. One study found that people were more likely to seek counseling from a professional who was introduced with abstract psychological jargon than one who was introduced with plain language.
When people rattle off things we don’t yet understand, we assume they know something we don’t. A little part of our brain says, “Oooo! They’re smart!” and a little part of the speaker’s brain recognizes this, causing the fluffing of tail feathers and a bit of strutting around.
Dayton’s and Obama’s plain language orders do not apply to the judicial or legislative branches, but I wish the rest of government would follow suit. Lawyers, in particular, tend to squawk in indignation at this suggestion. We need to write and talk this way! It’s based on hundreds of years of tradition and we went to law school to learn it!
Turkey teeth, says none other than the editor of Black’s Law and author of Legal Writing in Plain English, Bryan Garner:
“…The world is complex and so is the law. You might think that good legal writing is necessarily complex. You might even be tempted to make your writing more complex than necessary just to impress. But… if you want to write well, you’ll have to resist sounding like a machine.”
The key to avoiding “oceans of linguistic dreck,” Garner says, isclear thinking.
Garner hits on the heart of the matter. Opaque, incomprehensible language—in the private and public sector — is often the result of thoughtful people trying hard to appease multiple interests. It is much more difficult to bushwhack through layers of dense, tangled interests in pursuit of a clear thought than it is to cobble something together that might make sense to a few people in the know.
Since I am not without sin, I have no sharp stones at the ready. I have authored my share of brain-poking blather. I use acronyms in meetings since, well, they take a lot less time to say. I learn the jargon of my clients’ industries. Yet if the editor of Black’s Law believes clearer thinking and communicating is possible in one the world’s most complicated institutions, we can all probably take it up a notch, can’t we?
Here is a great place to start.