The short period of my life when I felt at my most wanted came down to a week in early 1988 in the Czech town of Liberec, which once termed itself ‘the Manchester of Bohemia’ on account of its textile industry. I was there to visit crystal factories.
Because I had recently been a British soldier, and because the Czech embassy in London, where I had to get my visa, acted as a front for the far more bugged Soviet one, I had been accorded a tail. It came in the shape of a lugubrious and sallow middle-aged man in an ill-fitting polyester suit and appalling teeth. The Soviets obviously had a greater respect for the depth of my military knowledge than my previous employers did, and I was rather flattered with the attention from the start. He sat out side my room in the Cerveny LevHotel when I was in it, and walked a few ill-disguised paces behind me when I wasn’t. After a couple of days, we had established a nodding relationship and by the evening of the third day, we even exchanged smiles outside the restaurant where my supplier had just entertained me. On the final afternoon, when I had been asked to play tennis at the local club and the fourth player hadn’t showed up, we invited the tail to join us. He was profusely grateful, but didn’t have the footwear, and so declined.
At one point, I had mentioned his omnipresence to the hotel manager. He assured me in a way that told me that my problem didn’t even register on his top 500 issues of the day, that my tail certainly wasn’t interested in me and that, if he was, it was only to look after me.
Most people have now forgotten that, when they weren’t killing or torturing their own citizens and creating worldwide mistrust and mayhem, the old Soviet bloc was largely comically incompetent. Deprived of any incentive beyond basic fear to be anything other than crap at whatever they did, they buggered up almost everything they laid their pudgy little hands on.
And, in an Orwellian sense, nothing was ever what it seemed to be, and no word was ever used that actually came close to the one that was needed. It was a world of verbal shadows.
At a recent conference, I sleepily amused myself by drawing mental parallels between modern day business language, let’s call it HR-speak, and people like my old friend in Liberec.
Both overlook that underquoted bit of Orwell that says ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’ Both started with the best of intentions, before both drowned in a sea of not being able to use words that actually said what they meant.
We live in a world where the ambition of a surprising number of us is to have been seen retrospectively to have followed process to its logical conclusion, no matter how pitifully little ever got achieved. HR, data protection, liability, health and safety: they are all predicated on the idea that the biggest risk to an employer is not to have been found to have done something daft, careless or malicious, but not to have followed due process through to the letter, and to have recorded it. Once, when we got burgled, the police spent three times as long (no exaggeration) filling in a form as to our level of satisfaction at the process than they did investigating the crime. ‘You’ll never get that stuff back,’ they said, ‘but how did you really feel at the way we tried to help you?’ ‘It was largely shit,’ we wanted to reply, ‘but we’ll get over it.’
So, in HR-speak, people don’t die, they ‘pass away’, or even just ‘pass’. Because the idea of actually articulating the word ‘death’ implies a truth that we are hideously uncomfortable to deploy, as if by talking about ‘passing’, we can suspend the notion that someone is dead, cold and gone, and replace it with the merest suggestion that they have just wandered off to another room. Which of course would then mean that we didn’t have to be big and brave and actually talk about what had happened. Because, if they had wandered off to the other room, they just might still be alive, mightn’t they? Which would obviously mean not having to deal with it.
We don’t contact people any more, but we ‘reach out’ to them, with all the faux-niceness that implies; we ‘network’ rather than talk, and bang on about ‘diversity policies’ as a substitute for just having plain old good manners. People make ‘lifestyle choices’ instead of doing drugs, students have ‘safe spaces’ from things that they would rather not hear, whilst sportsmen commit ‘professional fouls’ rather than cheat. Body positivity, plus size, gender reassignment, alternative facts, the list is endless, each one saying a potentially tricky thing in a way that we like to think removes the immediate sting. And everyone in public life who sees a slip of an opportunity for virtue signalling brings out that tried and trusted ‘passionate’ word, until everyone who hears it wants to scream.
We have a language with 500,000 red hot, beautiful, precise words in it (more than twice the next one), in which to find the exact term we want, time after time, and yet we constantly invent new ones to avoid the risk of doing so. We refer to people exceptionally as ‘plain speakers’ as if the label denotes a slight but attractive personality defect, rather than what we should all be striving to do, all of the time. Like the government minister who recently described yet another ministerial cock-up as being ‘sub optimal’, we have elected to live in a world of verbal saccharine treats, unaware that we will end up rotting our teeth once we have gorged on them for long enough.
There is a however.
My son works for a company that has as its guiding policy in its staff handbook a simple four-word phrase: ‘Don’t be a dick’.
In thirty years, I have never come across a phrase that more excellently sums up how employees actually should be, whether to their customers, their suppliers or their colleagues. It is at once almost insultingly simple but exquisitely subtle. It is an anthem for how all of us should be all the time, way beyond work. It should be on the door of every CEO, university professor, doctor, train driver, council worker and journalist. It should be in the job description of every teacher, waiter, politician, programmer, truck driver and astronaut. It should be tattooed across the foreheads of anyone in a position of any sort of power, and inserted in every cereal packet ever sold so that we are reminded at breakfast each day. For all the pious and perfumed words that go up on the Corporate Social Responsibility sections of the annual reports of the mega companies around us, I have never seen another phrase that made me more want to go and work for someone than this did. For free, if necessary.
And it is a grown-up company that does a grown-up job. It is run by a 26 year old, and the average age of the dozen or so staff is well below thirty.
Maybe the peak of the storm is past, and there is hope for us after all.
The fine art of not being a dick.