Polite conversation, we can all agree, often involves not calling a spade a spade…the same way you are not supposed to break wind in company. There are modes of obliqueness that keep friendships and relationships going where blunt speaking can very often sunder ties suddenly and violently. People have fragile egos. You have to be careful how frankly you deliver feedback to them. And, in many cultures, an ability to decipher oblique communication is regarded as a mark of high mental rank, even of being well-born. For instance, in my own culture, Yoruba elders say: a well-brought up person only needs half a word; the word becomes whole within him and he acts accordingly.
Not surprisingly, obliqueness is the hallmark of diplomacy. Somebody says something less than intelligent during a meeting and you reply: ‘That’s interesting’ or ‘That’s fascinating’. You don’t commit yourself and, unless they are really paying attention to nuance, they might never know that you don’t think much of the proposal they have just put on the proverbial table. In this regard, I remember that in the course of my legal training, while in the school for barristers and solicitors, we were taught polite ways of disagreeing with a judge without running the risk of ruining your client’s case or ending up in jail because the judge has convicted you of contempt of court.
So, if His Lordship said something stupid, you’d say as gently as possible: ‘My Lord, I am a trifle surprised by what you are saying. I am somewhat baffled.’
And if His Lordship says something utterly daft, you’d say: ‘My Lord, that is a startling proposition.’
Till today, I use versions of these expressions when someone around me is being less than intelligent and I want to avoid utterly ruining the relationship.
Still, not calling a spade by its real name can cause all kinds of problems, quite apart from the danger of wilful deception. I often collect expressions that become fashionable that I don’t find particularly helpful. Some are downright ridiculous. I will write about these from time to time. Today, let’s examine a few.
- ‘conscious uncoupling’: In announcing the recent end of her marriage, the Hollywood star, Gwyneth Paltrow, used the phrase ‘conscious uncoupling’. She did not invent the phrase, but because she used it, it is cropping up all over the place these days. Now, plain speaking would go something like this: ‘My spouse and I can no longer stand each other; we have decided to end our marriage and go our separate ways’, End of story. Now we have ‘conscious uncoupling’. What does that really mean? Is it the opposite of ‘unconscious uncoupling’…that blessed state in which, while comatose or sleepwalking, you end your marriage, pack your bags and leave?
- ‘decelerate meaningfully’: I ran into this the other day in a business newspaper: ‘Sales have decelerated meaningfully’. Now, what does that mean? I suppose it means: ‘A lot of people have stopped buying our widgets, folks; sorry to break it to you’. Why say ‘decelerate meaningfully’ unless you are trying to lie to yourself or to others? And you want to ask: is it at all possible for sales to ‘decelerate meaninglessly’?
- ‘regret minimization framework’: In something that I was reading the other day, someone learned used the example of the famous butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s award-winning novel, The Remains of the Day, (later a movie starring Anthony Hopkins) to make the point that if you don’t want to end up like that old butler and look back on your life full of regret, you need a ‘regret minimization framework’. Now, suppose you really wanted to help people to focus their lives so that their lives would be filled with purpose, meaning and achievement, is a hideous phrase like ‘regret minimization framework’ what you would use? If your friend is dithering her life away, would you say, ‘Hey, Bella, you need a regret minimization framework’?
- ‘policy slippage’: if you work in policy review of any kind this is one that you often see. Now, what does ‘policy slippage’ really mean? Each time that I see that phrase in a document I see this figure, Mr. Policy, drunk, meandering down the street at night and slipping on banana peels riotously. Does ‘policy slippage’ mean the policy failed, or was not implemented as intended or was delayed? When we use these phrases in international development, for instance, are we trying to avoid embarrassing our ‘partner governments’ by using expressions defined by deliberate ambiguity? One more thing: whenever I see ‘policy slippage’ in a document, it reminds me of the proverb ‘There is many a slip between the cup and the lip’. Now, I wonder if the two are connected somehow.
Photograph courtesy of Curt Carnemark via the World Bank Photo Collection, available here