Issues Jargon Management PeopleSo here’s a funny article on the sheer silliness and passive-aggressive hostility of the jargon that dominates the worlds of management, consultants, marketing, and all that. That world, it seems to me, is divided between people who use that language earnestly in the belief that it is a sign of scientific precision and sophistication and those who use it ironically.

There are those who can say “I have issues with your proposal” as if that really made sense. Then there are those who say “issues” knowing that it’s a craven and pseudo-polite disguise for personal hostility. You, my supervisor or co-worker, who have issues with my proposal are saying more that you don’t like it. The seemingly therapeutic but really highly judgmental implication is that it’s worse than bad. It suggests some personal deficiency in me, because it suggests an inappropriate attack on your or someone’s personal identity.

You say “issues” because you don’t want to be on record as saying something negative about me. I’m not the type of guy who could respond objectively to criticism. That’s because I’m not sensitive to the relevant issues. The truth is, though, that I’d be more relieved to hear that my proposal stinks, and then more able to respond to real criticism about its technical shortcomings. That’s what you don’t want me to be able to do.

One reason not to major in management or some similar techno-lite thing as an undergraduate is that your textbooks and PowerPoints and such will be filled with the unironic use of management-speak. And you will be stuck with being limited by its shallow imprecision and psychological biases. But if you major in a subject that’s all about real books and the rich and precise mastery of the ordinary language of real, relational life, then you will be able enter the world of management with the power of irony, with the power of conscious manipulation of linguistic tools.

When you say “issues” when you know you merely mean problems, then you will be free of the emotional baggage with which those who say “issues” earnestly are saddled. You can say “issues” and really mean shortcomings. And soon those you work with will be disarmed by your friendly irony. You can use management-speak while signaling that you are better—and more personal and less menacing—than the words you’re required to use.

An inevitable problem in higher education is that its administrators and such will use management-speak. (Go read articles in Inside Higher Ed on, for example, “strategic diversity leadership” and “high-impact practices.”) That’s the language of their consultants, most of the members of their boards of trustees, the government,  and other “stakeholders.” As running colleges and universities gets more complicated and challenging, it’s almost inevitable that “faculty governance” will fade. Who can deny that one reason is that faculties seem self-indulgent and feckless, unaware of the real issues or problems in running an institution these days?

Often administrators and faculty just aren’t able to communicate effectively with each other, despite the administrators’ often sincere desire to have a “conversation” (a word that’s become management-speak) on this or that issue. The point of intersection between faculty leaders and administrators these days would have to be those in both groups who can “speak management” ironically. Faculty members who “speak management” unironically, of course, are de facto administrators. It’s probably the case that faculty members—in the name of liberal education or whatever—who diss speaking of “competencies” and such too insistently (as opposed to ironically) will be excluded from the “conversation” and not have “a place at the table.”

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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2 replies to this post
  1. It is all well and good, not to mention disarmingly fun, when people educated in such language preoccupy themselves in the main with selling vacume cleaners, toothbrushes and plastic robots that transform into cars. It becomes dangerous when such people take it upon themselves to govern a nation. One of the most tragic aspects of modern times is the proliferation of two-bit salesmen with no deeper liberal arts understanding in all branches of government in almost all parts of the world. Why, there are even Churches with priests who treat them as Museums requiring management and excuse themselves by pointing out how few people attend Masses (thus, the argument goes, we need reposition the church towards a more profitable target group: tourists). Little wonder we are in a crisis of civilization when our rulers are this type of person.

    Here in Europe, the most recent pseudo-managerial educational industry is “coaching”, which I like to tell people, is an old phenomenon once known as Sophistry. Sadly, while everyone has heard of Coaching, no one knows who the Sophists were and are thus easy prey for their modern heirs: the Coaches.

  2. This kind of polution of the language is common in public education. What is noticeable over time is that the same phenomenon will be renamed in an effort to rehabilitate it. After a period of time the label becomes the reality and so there must be a new label.

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