The BBC today is running a great magazine article on the most loathed office-speak phrases. The interesting question is why such verbal nonsense emerges in the first place. The consensus seems to be that it comes from minds which are operating almost exclusively within a work environment which is demanding (or even threatening) but also which is intellectually unchallenging and infertile. The world of the middle-manager is betwixt and between: it is pressurized, but ultimately not to do with life-and-death issues (as is, say, the world of medicine). It is routine, dealing with things which are ultimately banal, but where strong demands are placed on the manager which don’t bear on those lower down the pecking-order of the workplace. It is far removed from the innovative, intellectually challenging and creative environment of the research scientist or the focussed thinking of the academy.
The middle-manager, in order not to go insane, has to invent a kind of linguistic universe where the excitement of other worlds inhabits his or her own. This results in the large-scale importing of metaphors from other contexts which then are over-used, largely because they make the banality seem somehow more imaginative and glamorous. The world of office-speak is, therefore, a game of the imagination which prevents the middle-manager from going crazy with the cumulative effect of pressure and boredom: it’s a survival mechanism buried deep within their brains to prevent them from becoming cleaver-wielding lunatics. For them, the alternative is horrendous. Put yourself in their shoes (you may indeed be in those shoes): you are handed a set of figures which have emerged from a spreadsheet. They indicate an arithmetic difference between profits achieved in the year to date and the profits which should have been achieved in the year to date. This is the result of a simple subtraction, but the implications are that if that difference isn’t closed, either the expectations of shareholders will not be fulfilled, or some people are going to lose their jobs, or someone higher-up the the hierarchy is going to have their over-optimistic assessment of the profitability of the company significantly undermined by facts.
The middle-manager is then placed under pressure. What can he or she do to survive? You can’t simply wave the two figures at the team and tell everyone that they’ve got to work harder to close the gap. The banality and boredom of the situation conspires with the facts to produce demoralisation and further loss of performance. Enter the imaginative metaphor! The middle-manager remembers the phrase from a recent seminar they attended: we’ve got to ‘up our game’ he or she says. Suddenly, the dreary office disappears in the corporate cranium, and everyone is dressed in American Football kit – the crowds are in the stadium all around and just down the field are the ugly-faced opposition. The middle-manager is suddenly transformed into Bull Durham and the adrenaline starts to pump. Imagination turns that little subtraction sum from the spreadsheet into a drama. [Oops, wrong game! see Paul Davison’s comment below!]
The last thing everyone needs is some linguistic pedant who punctures the metaphor with reality. The problem is that the work environment remains as dull as it ever was, which deadens the ability of the middle-manager to dream up endless imaginative metaphors. Eventually, the metaphors become routine, then they replicate and replicate until they take over the entire linguistic field. Eventually, nobody can understand what anyone else is saying because of this verbal fecundity. The whole office is drunk on metaphoric euphoria – until everyone is living in a parallel universe of disconnected imaginative images which have some vague connection to what they’re supposed to be doing. The whole office is on linguistic LSD, just about keeping things going in the real world, but in fact, off somewhere with the fairies.
The problem for English is that so much routine, boring commercial work is conducted in this language that there is a real danger that what started as an attempt at psychological survival has now attained the capacity to alter the language to the extent that it could become a meaningless stream of verbal dope. English could become the ultimate language of meaninglessness.
What is more worrying for me is that most of this is being reflected in church circles as well. The rich theological concept of ‘mission’ was, long ago, imported into management contexts, semi-digested by the behemoth of middle-management culture, then re-ingested by Christian leaders. These leaders have an impoverished view of mission which sees it purely in terms of the statistically quantifiable, where the spreadsheet is Lord. This theologically-starved view of mission debases Christian leadership from the truly apostolic into the managerial. As a result, we start to hear Christian leaders using management cliches, rather than biblical metaphors. So when you next hear your priest, pastor or minister talk about the Church needing to ‘up its game’, you know he or she has finally lost the theological plot. The answer is a sabbatical on a desert island with just the Bible to read. They may come back speaking in tongues, but they might also come back speaking plainly in English. For the mission of God takes place in the real world, not a fantasy one. And true mission involves true words, which call things what they are, and trustworthy language which opens people’s eyes to see what is really in front of them: that which the original Word brought forth and became flesh in order to redeem.