For various reasons, I’ve been working from cafes a lot recently. People who have lengthy work conversations on the phone in public usually piss me off, but inevitably I’ve had to do one or two. So now I’m that guy.
Even worse, I’ve done Skype conferences. I feel self conscious adopting meeting-room jargon in front of a room full of people that didn’t want to hear it while having a coffee. A question occurs: Am I talking Internet bullshit? If they pay any attention at all, what do other cappuccino-quaffers think of type of conversation I’m having?
There is a whole vocabulary of businessese that requires special interpretation. This peculiar semantic field is at its most fertile in the meeting room, but it can be heard in all parts of the workplace ecology.
Sometimes, words that started off having a meaning become filler words buying their user an extra moment of thought: “going forward” and “in reality” for example. Though we might disapprove of these phrases as inarticulate, it seems unfair to hold people in a meeting to any higher standard than everyday conversation, which is riddled with “like” and (my own personal crutch) “to be honest”.
In the first place though, I suspect “going forward” did have a meaning, to suggest a change in future behaviour. Perhaps not a paradigm of clarity, nonetheless it reinforces the idea of a new procedure. In a household circumstance you might say “in the future, don’t leave your shoes on the stairs”, in a meeting you might say “going forward, we should flag up issues around untidiness”. This points to a possible motivation for workplace jargon – to distance what is said at work from sniping at one another.
Some phrases are more prone to being usurped than others – “granularity”, “bandwidth”, “ring fence”, “visibility” spring to mind – this is not to say that they do not, in some circumstances, denote useful concepts.
Then there are expressions which I think really are pure bullshit. Phrases such as “let’s press fire on [x project]”, “…blowing smoke up [x]’s arse” (I have observed this one, but only occasionally), and a personal favourite of mine, the only-observed-once “co-evaluate” (surely compare?). These phrases usually designed to make us think of the person who says them in a particular way. I also think they are designed to couch the inherently un-masculine work of organising, persuading and explaining in violent, aggressive or explicit language.
This brings us to what bullshit actually is. Harry G Frankfurt’s short essay “On Bullshit” argues that the defining feature of bullshit is that it “is not concerned with the enterprise of accurately describing reality”. Instead it is designed to make people think of the speaker in a particular way. His (very American) example is that of a 4th July orator who refers to the country as chosen by God and destined for greatness. The point Frankfurt makes is that orator is not trying to convince us that America is great, nor chosen by God. We would think it strange if he started producing evidence that the country was chosen by God. This is because what he is really doing is projecting his patriotism. The words do not contain truths, or even lies. Their relation to the truth is irrelevant, what they actually assert is “I am a patriot!” and nothing more; just as “co-evaluating” is uttered primarily to insinuate “I am a sophisticated business thinker”, as opposed to telling you something else.
This is a useful distinction, but it practice it’s harder to tell. What are the speakers intentions? Are they “blowing smoke up your arse”? Or you up theirs?
In our context, the question is: does the use of specialist language about the Internet / business / marketing indicate that someone is trying to look like an expert, or that it’s the easiest way to express a complex idea? No one would argue that doctors are bullshitters for adopting specialist terms for parts of the body. Human anatomy is a complicated thing, everyday words might easily lead to the wrong bit being amputated, irrigated or irradiated.
The same cannot be said for lawyers, who are often thought, even from within their profession, to adopt jargon that precludes non-experts from understanding what they are saying. Some people even think they do this with a view to building up the importance and complexity of their own jobs to enhancing their earnings. If you subscribe to such a view, you are accusing them, more or less, of being bullshitters.
Did bullshit contaminate the lattes of those unfortunate enough to have sat within earshot of me in the coffee shop? Perhaps I’m not the best person to judge, but there are, I think, real reasons to adopt a lexicon which sounds to the casual earwigger quite similar to bullshit – especially when talking about a (how to call it?) web product.
Lots of things connected with the Internet either don’t have a proper name, or have a really wanky name. In this way a useful designation comes to sound like bullshit. There are good reasons to refer to design as UX – you might not agree with them, but it’s not bullshit. If a comensual customer heard that I was choosing to use the word UX to describe a role very similar to that of designer they might think their worst suspicions confirmed.
Moreover, when everyone is in the right, er, headspace, very often you start to use “in-words” – that is, words that have an adopted meaning within the group. This is positive, it’s indicative of progress, and of thinking a lot about a particular project. In several projects I’ve worked on the conceptual landscape has been clarified by writing dictionary of “in-words” – that is, words that have an adopted meaning within the group. The process sometimes illuminates an unnoticed similarity or opposition between concepts. It’s very handy, if you get stuck with a project I can recommend writing that dictionary. And if you don’t have any in-words, then perhaps you haven’t talked about the problem enough.
So I’m going to be charitable to myself and say that it’s at least possible, perhaps even probable, that having a meeting about web page (or is it an app?) will make you sound as though you are talking bullshit – even if you, on this occasion, aren’t.
What’s the take home, I hear you ask? What are the actions, going forward? I think It’s important to flag up real bullshit in a profession littered with pretend bullshit – not tar everyone with the same guff brush. To be honest.Google+