I had an experience recently where I spoke with a group of friends and acquaintances about the economy and the existential despair that is all around us. Then, a friend said something that shocked me:
. . . it’s terrible that (company x) went through such a huge delayering
What? “Delayering” as a euphemism for a human losing his or her livelihood — these are people who have spouses, children, a mortgage, dreams — that will be affected. To refer to each of these human beings as a collective “Delayer” felt very wrong.
I challenged her and asked what she meant by “delayer” — through a socratic dialogue, she finally said something that was less jargon-filled:
. . . it’s terrible that so many people lost their jobs
This experience caused me to reflect on Kierkegaard’s poignant question “what does it mean to be a human?”, then on Martin Buber’s explication of the “I/Thou” relationship, then on Martin Luther King Jr.’s notion of “nobodiness” and, more recently, on Josh Bernoff’s invitation for all of us to become more human.
It’s an appropriate invitation and, in this post, wish to contribute a few ideas on how we can become more human with language: our language can convey meaning, an emotion, and a judgment.
Martin Buber provides an appropriate context in his I/Thou description. In plain language, we can respond to other human beings in the following ways:
- We can treat other human beings as objects: things that either help us progress or things that get in our way of progression.
- We can treat other human beings as humans: we can listen, have empathy, and treat each other with kindness despite other differences.
I submit that to be human means to accept Martin Buber’s description #2 above.
A few basic characteristics that will help our understanding:
- Human development involves physical, mental, social, and the emotional. On one aspect, Human Beings are quite complicated and have an inner-life that is rich, deep, private, and sacred to that individual.
- Human Beings also have the faculty of memory, that can be triggered by outside stimuli, color, smell and can further trigger emotions that can sometimes drive behavior or thought.
- Gadamer pointed out correctly that Human Beings are social creatures — sociality requires communication with others and a community is the outcome of our sociality.
All in all, it is important to remember something my mentor taught me a long time ago:
judge slowly. people are hurting & struggling in ways that we cannot see
Having this worldview as a context is helpful — we can now discuss some ideas in how we can treat others.
The above-mentioned example of “delayer” is not sensitive — clearly — but it also points to a cultural challenge in business where we have, for the most part, replaced meaningful conversations with empty jargon. This state-of-affairs results in a community of human beings that speak, but don’t really say anything at all.
Here are some examples of jargon that I hear daily, but lack much meaning (if you are interested, Bob Sutton at Stanford, recently wrote about Jargon Monoxide):
center of excellence, ramp up, upside, collaborate, sustainable, brain storm, mind shower, metrics, multitask, green policy, run the numbers, exposure, real-time, drop the ball, goal oriented, customer oriented, level set, touchpoints, streamline, high-level, mission critical, synergy, reach out, tasked, buzz, action item, service oriented, walk the talk, reinvent the wheel, occupy the field, quick win, bottom up, core competency, circle the wagons, share-of-wallet, non-productive headcount, full-time equivalent, downsizing, redundant employee, position elimination, go to market, BHAG, delayer, organization simplification, agile, etc…
Admittedly, I am guilty of using some of the jargon I mention above. But, my usage doesn’t justify the usage of some of those phrases — some are just cruel, whereas some are devoid of meaning, while some are actually descriptive of the concept.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use any business jargon, but I’m proposing a greater sensitivity toward others and a bias for meaning and humaneness — which might mean that instead of saying “drop the ball”, one might say instead “fail” or instead of saying “core competency”, one might say “what we’re good at”.
Share-of-Wallet or a Customer?
Here’s my point: would you prefer to be called “share-of-wallet” or a “customer”? There is a clear intention in our language: “share-of-wallet” satisfies Buber’s definition of being treated like an object; being referred to as a “customer” is more humane. I prefer to give a larger share of my wallet with businesses that treat me as a human — that is irony.
In sum, a businesses wouldn’t last long if it claimed in some form the following claim:
we are passionate about our share-of-wallet
But, a business can and should say and will likely last long-term if it claimed and behaved like:
we are passionate about our customer’s happiness
Herein lies my point and an irony: I prefer to give a larger share of my wallet with businesses that treat me as a human.
Implications of Language
Our condition as Human Beings requires us to engage in social interactions — to talk with each other; connect with each other; to commune with each other. This means that communing with each other can be done in many types of contexts — including a business context.
Which begs the question:
Why are our interactions at home with our loved-ones more grounded and down-to-earth, but once we enter a business setting, our language and ways of communing with each other and with our customers take on an impotent tone, devoid of life or meaning?
Can you imagine if we were verbally spoken to in the same manner that newspaper print advertisements look: “50% off, buy one, get one free — shop NOW!” We might see that in print and, certainly, on TV and other media. But, if a human said that in-person and verbally to our face, most of us would feel that was strange. Why? Because it’s just not how human beings talk with each other.
We can all stand to be a bit more human — starting today. Are you with me?