Broken words and why they matter

We are digging ourselves a hole....

We are digging ourselves a hole.

In a complicated world communication is everything. Much of this complication is caused by our own laziness and carelessness with language – we appropriate and borrow words without ever taking the time to work out what they really mean.

In our yearning to make ourselves understood we dilute our unique message – we surrender to the dilemma between using enough of the known words to show that you know what you are talking about but doing it in such a way as to show your unique view of the matter in hand. How do you demonstrate your relevance without compromising meaning? The real dilemma is how to use these words without breaking them.

Here’s how it goes. A small group of people who think differently start to use a term. Lets call it Bob. They develop ideas about Bob and talk about how Bob needs to be more mainstream. They are probably right – Bob is brilliant! Huge potential and world changing possibilities.

Other people who don’t really understand Bob in the same way start to talk about Bob. They start to develop ideas around Bob and stretch the definition to fit their own framing and context. At some point someone will point out that Bob is nothing new and attempts will be made to normalise Bob – its just a fancy new word for oldBob. Bob as a term changes and morphs into something less specialist and more mainstream. It is diluted but still has effect. Such is the network reach of these different groups that suddenly it seems that everyone is talking about Bob but no-one is talking about the same thing.

The first group of people respond by talking about BobSpecial – the Real Bob that everyone else doesn’t really understand. At this point we have probably broken the word Bob.

Meantimes the marketing folks and all of the other people in the support machine are faithfully slapping the word ‘Bob’ onto the front of everything, out of context and without meaning. Things get complicated.

What have we broken?

Digital – as a word – is broken. We have slapped it onto the front of two many old world applications in an attempt to normalise and ‘make safe’ new concepts that at this point saying something is digital is a bit like saying water is wet. Digital and networked technologies reach so far into our lives that when people talk about digital they are very rarely talking about bits and bytes – they are talking about a substantial and material change in their organisation which is enabled by technology. This is more than simply new tools – its new models of behaviour and organisation. The folks with the old models feel safer with the new stuff contained within the digital space – but its not going to stay there much longer.

Transformation – is not exactly broken but it is damaged. As organisations try and increase their pace of change in order to respond to a very different world transformation programmes are increasingly central to Getting This Done. However without sufficient focus on actually making things different transformation becomes yet another opportunity to normalise – an opportunity to row the boat faster rather than concentrating on how to build a better boat.

In the public sector I worry that we have broken the word governance and turned into in a passive aggressive state of blame hunting rather than a proactive means to make better decisions in the future by learning in the past. Good governance becomes code for finding someone to point the finger at and a reason why other people need to take responsibility.

The list could go on.

Broken words are not the same as the meaningless osbfucations we use to make unpalatable truths more palatable (there are very few ways to conceal the fact that savings usually mean job losses). Lucy Kellaway wrote a brilliant column on this; “How I lost my 25-year battle against corporate claptrap” . But corporate bollux is not the same as broken words which are about the diffusion of meaning and the normalisation of disruptive ideas.

How do we fix it?
By listening better. When the Bob folks turn up and start telling you about Bob you need to listen. It doesn’t meant that they are right but you need to hear them out. The Bob folks need to listen too – when someone tells you that this is just like ‘this thing which has been around forever’ it probably is – unless you can explain what is unique about Bob then you either don’t understand it or it really is just a regurgitation of old ideas with some shiny new words on the front.

We will fix words by making sure that we spend the time to develop a shared meaning for them – for taking more time to understand and less time to normalise and reframe in our own terms – to stretch the way in which we think in order to understand someone else perspective. Communicating our unique view must encompass being able to think about it from someone else point of view. Its a complicated world – make it simpler by taking the time to listen.


One comment
  1. Aidan Ward

    April 24, 2018 at 7:04 am

    There is an old old question about change and continuity. I think Gregory Bateson wrestled with it in the field of biological evolution, part of the legacy of his dad, William. There are things that needs to be preserved through time and there are things that must change. The distinction between them in the moment is tough, questions about the nature of identity. When language will not support new thought, new language will break through. The new language will be thought to be largely meaningless by people who do not see the need for new thought.
    Having said which you are spot on about the increasingly rapid destruction of serviceable words by the need to appear to be on a bandwagon. Thank you.


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