When I came across “in my neck of the woods” in Richard Brautigan's The Revenge of the Lawn, I was intrigued. Do woods have necks? I filed the expression right next to “being on top of things.” This evoked images of a person sitting on the very top of a pile of stuff.
At the time, I was working as simultaneous interpreter and translator for a center that focused on neurological and early child development. And completing my degree at the University of Bologna from the U.S. Not an easy commute.
Professors almost never approved translations as theses. They made an exception based on my thousands of hours of experience. The book was likely a challenge issued by the America Literature chair. A collection of short stories by an author who used slang.
Too little space to have context. Much experimenting going on in his original text already. I spent most of my time testing expressions on American colleagues. Playing with some to see how far they stretched to different contexts. Then I would pick the most appropriate for the story to make his intended sense in Italian.
The most adaptable people in companies do something similar. They spend time exploring the language and context of different groups. So they can translate their work into what makes the most sense to the business.
But what is most valuable has changed. Is your company exploring what that is? Are people writing and communicating to transfer that value?
The good the bad and the judgy
NPR has an article on the differences in mindset between natives and nonnative English speakers. It reminded me of the foundational work I did then. The center had built international collaborations. From the partnerships with Brazil and Mexico to Japan and the European satellite I helped inaugurate, staff, run, and establish in the heart of Tuscany.
Put a group of non native speakers in the same place, and you spice up the conversation. Everyone defers to English. I find this amazing. Chinese doctors, Japanese researchers, Spanish therapists, Portuguese medical staff, Polish, German, Italians—all speaking fluently.
It was second nature to translate from Japanese-English to Spanish-English or French-English and vice versa. A task that was noticeably more difficult for native speakers. They had a hard time. Even harder to go the other way. Lack of practice.
It's easy to scoff at this. But would you be curious enough to explore and learn if you didn't have to? We're inherently lazy creatures. However, we cross a line when we judge someone for an accent, or the improper use of a word.
Transfer this concept to business language. In many companies, the “unconscious use of esoteric idioms and unnecessarily confusing vocabulary that makes language less accessible.” Marketers are especially guilty of this.
A common language is key to creating the environment that delivers consistent experiences
Translated into economic terms
In economic terms, it's incredible how everyone now speaks business. Every group and team in a company is fairly fluent and as learned to translate what it does into business jargon. ROI, “cutting-edge,” “leveling up,” “1000%,” “actionable,” “bandwidth,” “deep dive,” “food chain,” “move the needle,” “raise the bar,” “straw man,” “touch base,” “peel the onion,” and much more.
It's enough to make you cry, for real. In some companies the bar is so high you can't even see it. Mixed metaphors. And a pervasive sense of insecurity. Language is so powerful, use appropriately.
Why can't you initiate something instead of “pulling the trigger”? Too much accountability? “Let's be honest,” who'd want to buy from you otherwise? As for “drilling down” and “doing deep dives” how about exploring, doing some research and analysis, maybe with a specific focus.
Shift the language from exploitative to explorative and you open opportunity. Every group has taken on this jargon and learned to use it to please the business side. But it's still much harder for the business to go the other way. Company- or group-specific jargon is just as bad, if more familiar.
Commerce and business are not synonyms
Try taking the TOEFL. I once studied for the TOEFL test, and I can attest: it's no walk in the park. Many English-natives would flunk it. It's irrelevant to doing good work that transfers value. Learning for it only teaches you to survive through it. See the parallels with business?
How does “touching base on improving synergy with your teammates” improve commerce? A long tradition going back centuries. Commerce was born in bordering places. Between states, cities, and territories. People understood that if they need to trade to survive.
Those spaces in the middle were areas of truce. People spoke the common language of bartering, selling, exploring, exchanging, and trading. This went on for centuries. It continued in many communities around the world even after the introduction of coins.
In Italy, it was the invention of the letter of credit to get around usury that helped finance the Renaissance. That was a good thing. But it encouraged the further flourishing of a class of intermediaries that entrenched bureaucracy. Ornate jargon opens the door to ornate process.
Business has adopted jargon with gusto. Perhaps a way to hedge on the side of following procedure. The two are connected, if mostly through perception. Contracts used to be more unbreakable when sealed through a hand shake. Honor and morals being part of it.
Examine the terms and conditions and policies of any company, and you'll see plenty of weasel words. A mix of “hand holding” and “magic bullet” where you can infer “a lot of moving parts.” But no clarity in sight. That's a “new normal,” if I ever saw one.
You can dress up business in the complex language of jargon. But it won't make it a commercial success. Instead, it's like “putting lipstick on a pig.”
Brautigan's The Revenge of the Lawn is a funny, sad, beautiful, highly visual work. Each of his stories is like a haiku. You've got to read it and ponder it. Then you see what it shows. Take the Gathering of a Californian:
“Like most Californians, I come from someplace else and was gathered to the purpose of California like a metal-eating flower gathers the sunshine, the rain, and then to the freeway beckons its petals and lets the cars drive in, millions of cars into but a single flower, the scent choked with congestion and room for millions more.”
Or Ernest Hemingway's Typist:
“You just hand her the copy and like a miracle you have attractive, correct spelling and punctuation that is so beautiful that it brings tears to your eyes and paragraphs that look like Greek temples and she even finishes sentences for you.”
What is human life?
“There were children playing a game with bubbles at the place I had chosen to leave the park. They had a jar of magic bubble stuff and little rods with metal rings to cast the bubbles away with, to join them with the air.
Instead of leaving the park, I stood and watched the bubbles leave the park. They had a very high mortality pulse. I saw them again and again suddenly die above the sidewalk and the street: their rainbow profiles ceasing to exist.
I wondered what was happening and then looked closer to see that they were colliding with insects in the air. What a lovely idea! and then one of the bubbles was hit by the Number 30 Stockton bus.
Wham! like the collision between an inspired trumpet and a great concerto, and showed all those other bubbles how to go out in the grand style.”
And finally, from the title story:
There was a pear tree in the front yard which was heavily eroded by the rain from years of not having any lawn.”
Perhaps the erosion of business follows a similar path of not having solid roots.