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How to notice when words hamper action
May 2013

I recently saw Gill Ereaut give a fantastic CharityComms presentation on Linguistic Landscapes’work with Prostate Cancer UK. Their discourse analysis project had made visible the ‘silent assumptions’ that underpinned the charity’s internal conversations. The idea is that surfacing and tackling this aspect of workplace culture can improve internal and external communications.

(Kudos to Prostate Cancer UK for being brave enough to invite LL to poke around in the charity’s internal language, and for responding in ways that have really strengthened their brand.)

As Gill reminded us, when we are new to an organisation, we are alert to the particular ways that language is used. Not just the endless acronyms and jargon, but also other distinctive turns of phrase. Once we’ve been in the job a while, and adapted our own ways of working and speaking, these peculiarities of language become invisible.

So when a new person points out some of the language that knocks around an organisation, we should listen to them. A director, just weeks into a new job where I worked, decided in a meeting of senior bods and the top boss to (bravely) point out something particular about our language. One turn of phrase had especially struck him. It was just two words: ‘something about’. As in, ‘there’ssomething about how people are responding to our new service’. Or, ‘for me, it’s something aboutvaluing people’. The previous half-hour’s discussion had included no fewer than fifteen ‘something abouts’ (he’d counted). An epidemic of non-specificity. We hadn’t even noticed.

You could almost hear pennies dropping as we reflected on the director’s observation. He was right to point it out. It just wasn’t good enough to say there was ‘something about’ a service or approach – it suggested we weren’t able, or perhaps willing, to define exactly what it was ‘about’ a situation that needed to be acted on. ‘Something about’ can become a way of staying vague, and of staying still: a barrier to taking action. Aiming for more precise – ‘people have said negative things about the new service’, or ‘we have to find a new way to show we value people’ – is a way that we can use language to bring us closer to actually doing  something. And a focus on acting rather than talking may then come across more strongly in our external communications too.

Having realised I’d become a serious and repeat offender on the ‘something about’ front, I became much more vigilant, and would bite my tongue before those two words came out of my mouth again. That moment of truth around the table certainly diminished the use of that phrase around our office, but didn’t eliminate it completely. A few months later, I even heard the new director use it himself – nicely demonstrating Gill’s point that it’s all too inevitable that, without care, all of us succumb to our internal language culture.

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