Language barriers

Gloria Monday examines the importance of clear communication

June 5, 2008

I was listening to a discussion about the future of the NHS the other night when the subject of disease-ridden hospitals came up. This topic reflects one of those vast cultural shifts that seems to have suddenly made the earth move under our feet. It is not that long ago that I used to visit relatives in hospital and feel a twinge of envy about the air of disinfected neatness of the wards compared with my own grubby flat where disinfectant is rarer than gin. These days, though, I’m even more afraid of going into hospital than of suffering alone at home, what with all the tales about superbugs such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile and rats running around in broad daylight in the overpriced car parks. So when I heard the radio interviewer ask a supposed expert about hospital cleaning, I turned up the volume, only to hear someone rabbiting on in soundbites, culminating in a meaningless sentence about the use of hydrogen-peroxide sprays to enhance the cleaning operation.

The trouble with being an academic in my discipline is that you are trained to think about what people say and how they are then judged. Sometimes you get it right, more often you get it badly wrong and history judges you accordingly. “Ich bin ein Berliner” won John F. Kennedy a lot of Brownie points, whereas “we are a grandmother” made Margaret Thatcher seem ridiculous. So I tried translating the phrase about enhancing the cleaning operation with fancy-sounding hydrogen peroxide into plain English and realised that what was actually being said was that in some hospitals they were using bleach. What a surprise! What had they been using before, one wonders? Leftover soup? And what an indictment of the whole system if the best proposal a spokesperson can come up with to cut down on the number of deaths in UK hospitals is that it’s a good idea to add some bleach to the water when swilling a floor.

Talking down to people seems to be reaching epidemic proportions. I object to being talked down to by someone using a tone that implies that nobody has ever thought of cleaning a floor with bleach before. As a trend, it’s contagious too. Everyone is at it, not just the NHS. Universities are full of managers and bureaucrats stating the blindingly obvious, usually disguised in some form of newspeak. Times Higher Education carried a story recently about a university that has started calling its managers “process owners” (22 May, page 7). Apparently students down there at the bottom of the pile are “end users” and the senior team are the “process owners”. I hadn’t come across that one before, but it seems it has been around for ages, although thankfully not in my neck of the woods. Given the tendency to think in acronyms among the sort of people who imagine calling anyone a process owner is a good idea, it cannot be long before we have POs all over the place, vaunting the title like an OBE.

Back in the 1860s Lewis Carroll satirised idiotic language in the Alice books, but the drive towards pompous obfuscation continues unchecked today. And it is not only the managers and the quality police who are guilty. Talking in a language that has to be translated into ordinary humanspeak is a talent that many academics prize. The harder you are to understand, the more likely students are to be impressed by your obvious vast store of knowledge, is presumably what goes through the mind of people who pepper their lectures with phrases about eschatological suspension or hypertextual transhistoricism. In my experience, all that happens is that the students switch off and send texts to each other with phrases such as “what the fuck is he on about?”, to which the only sensible answer is “no fucking clue, mate”.

Language and power have always gone hand in hand. Where illiteracy prevails, those who can write have the upper hand. In countries such as Burma, where the opposition leader is confined to her house and not allowed to speak, the power and the words all belong to the reigning junta. But in a supposedly advanced Western society such as ours, with equality and diversity policies around every corner, the problem of powerful people misusing language, although on a different scale, still comes from the same source. Some people neither say what they mean, nor mean what they say, and the words they choose are intended to confuse or mislead. Either that, or they are so full of themselves that they do not realise they are not communicating. Which, in the case of the worst academic offenders, is probably the most likely explanation. I’d send them off to be trained in text-messaging. That should bring even the most pompous multisyllabist down to earth.

Gloria Monday is a mid-career historian employed in one of the many universities with aspirations to international greatness.

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