“Yet more than all this, the really lethal thing about the whole language of business – is that it is so brainlessly upbeat. All the celebrating, the reaching out, the sharing, and the championing in fact grind one down. Several decades too late, it is as if business has caught up with the linguistic spirit of 1968. The hippies got over it, but businessmen are holding tight.”
That’s from Lucy Kellaway on Radio 4’s A Point of View, which I found myself listening to whilst driving to work on Sunday morning. It made me smile and that doesn’t often happen as I drive to work, particularly on a Sunday morning. She delivered a witty, articulate and ever-so-Radio 4-ish rant about meaningless corporate jargon, and seemed to reserve a generous portion of her polite hump of hate for that particularly odious and pernicious phrase, ‘going forward’:
“When someone says ‘going forward’ it assaults the ears just as, when a colleague starts slurping French onion soup at a neighbouring desk, it assaults the nose.”
That sentiment alone made me cackle so hard my tyres scraped a kerb. I imagine it had a similar affect on others unlucky enough to be driving to work on a Sunday morning. It definitely had a similar affect on that that peculiar demographic subset who were not only driving to work on a Sunday morning but were also once inmates at Cannon House. I should explain myself. For the best part of a decade I worked at a stockbroking firm in Birmingham (although to quote Marty DiBergi from This Is Spinal Tap: “Don’t look for it; it’s not there anymore.”). Despite being a bit of a compassionate Leftie with Socialist tendencies (look it up), I became very fond of the place and met some terrific people. But even before the dot-com bubble finally burst – when the company, my department and my job were eventually downsized – there was a sinister downside.
The firm was infected with meaningless corporate jargon.
In episodes of Star Trek you’ll often hear talk of temporal and spatial anomalies. Or so I’ve been told. In any case, somewhere deep within the bowels of Cannon House there was a fully functional semantic anomaly. Within the walls of that building otherwise decent, law-abiding people would find it impossible to construct a meaningful sentence with out shoehorning-in phrases like “thinking outside the envelope”, “blue sky thinking” and “shoehorning-in phrases”.
The most prolific and pernicious by far, though, was that bizspeak couplet that so annoyed Lucy Kellaway, namely: “going forward.”
In her piece, Kellaway said:
“A man from the National Farmers’ Union was talking about matters down on the farm and he uttered three ‘going forwards’ in 28 seconds.
“The previous radio record, by my reckoning, was held by Robert Peston, the BBC’s business editor. He managed three ‘going forwards’ in four minutes on the Today programme…”
Lightweights, I say. If only she’d eavesdropped in on one of my old firm’s management meetings her going forwards-ometer would have gone off the scale.
Back then, every time I heard that phrase a part of me died. It wasn’t so much the words themselves, but it was the fact that bizspeak etiquette dictated that – for full impact – they should be incongruously bolted on to the end of a statement. I could just about handle: “Going forward, we predict an exponential increase in assets in account.” Instead, what I had to endure was: “We predict an exponential increase in assets on account, going forward.”
Now, I’m not as big an idiot as I sometimes make myself out to be. Whenever I hear a phrase like this my first though is always: “Jesus Christ on a Rubber Cross – NLP has a lot to answer for.”
Even if the people who said the phrase in the first place don’t realize it.