Say What You Mean

I’ve just spent a few days with friends in Barcelona.  It’s a great city and well worth a visit if you haven’t been – it’s worth going again, even if you have been!  It was also a great chance to practise my Spanish, as English is not as widespread as it is in the resorts of Spain.  I even got to argue in Spanish – which was a first.

I think my focus on language got me thinking about how we sometimes don’t always make ourselves clear, we use phrases which don’t quite mean what we want them to mean and sometimes we use double-speak to pretend we’re saying one thing, when we mean another.

I have recently been wooed relentlessly by a company which is expanding and very keen to break into the media world.  According to them, I was ideal and they’d move heaven and earth to get me onboard.  I could see the boxes I would tick for them – and there were a lot.  I was interested, particularly as they agreed I could only do it for part of the year, leaving me free to follow other interests.

We had a number of email exchanges, informal chats and eventually I had to give a 15 minute presentation and a 45 minute formal interview.  All seemed to go well (although having been on both sides of numerous interviews over the years, you can never really tell how they’ve gone because the candidate never has the full agenda).

However, last week they rang to say they were not sure I had shown ‘enough commitment’.  I politely pointed out that I would have been shelving two new businesses that I’d spent a lot of effort setting up to join them which I regarded as a fair degree of commitment, especially as they had been encouraging me to apply for weeks because of what they perceived to be the value I’d bring to their company.

This comment was met with silence which I allowed to continue for a few seconds inviting a response (amazing how often the truth can emerge when people can’t think of anything else to say).  She then said it was all down to the amount of time and effort they put into training their consultants.

Given they’d known all along how much that involves, I was left wondering whether this was a simple matter of maths.  Had they looked at how many years service they could expect to get out of me, divided it by their investment in me, and I’d fallen short?  Perhaps I have just suffered my first case of ageism, or perhaps I was just no good – but then if we say what we mean, that should have been their feedback.  If not a case of double-speak as I suspect, then certainly not the whole truth.  To be generous we sometimes gild the truth to protect the feelings of others.  We are misleading but well-meaning.

Although sometimes, as was finally proved last week with the Hillsborough verdict, we lie, deceive, betray and cheat simply to protect ourselves. This is reprehensible enough in a person who puts their own happiness so far above the happiness of others that they seem to believe anything is justified to get them what they want; but when it happens in an institution like the police it takes on another dimension.

You only have to spend some time with officers talking openly to each other to fully understand what they fail to comprehend, which is why the public simply don’t trust them as much as they would like, or need, to have a fully effective force.

Trust and respect take a long time to build up and an instant to lose.  And whatever the liars and cheats amongst us think, once trust has gone it can never be fully restored.  Think of a shattered vase.  You can repair it as carefully as possible but it will bear the cracks forever, and those cracks are weaknesses in the structure.

But usually our use of language is not as serious in its implications.  On my way back from Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago the cabin crew greeted us with the words: “Welcome to those passengers joining us at Amsterdam.”  It was a 40 minute Easyjet flight from Amsterdam to Luton, hardly a 12-hour flight from Bangkok with a stop-over in Dubai!  There was nowhere else we could have joined from.

It reminded me of the common American misuse of the word ‘momentarily’, which means ‘for a moment’ not ‘in a moment’.  This adds a whole new meaning to the phrase often used by cabin crew on US airlines informing us that “The captain will be joining us momentarily….”  I was rather hoping he/she was going to stick around for the whole flight, it would certainly make me feel safer.

But perhaps the most bizarre language incident last week concerned my exposure to ‘youth speak’.  I was walking my dog and passed a group of teenagers.  One of them turned to me and said: “Your dog’s well good” with that irritating antipodean habit of a raised inflection at the end of the sentence, as if they are never quite sure about anything and everything is a question.

Before I could thank him for his canine compliment he followed up with: “And I’m not even joking.”  Either this is a young man who is never taken seriously and has to reinforce his comments with an assurance that he’s not poking fun, or as I suspect, it’s just a language habit and has become a phrase he adds at the end of most sentences – a completely redundant, meaningless expression.

And things got worse when I decided to buy a copy of NME, for the first time in probably 35 years, to read their take on the Reading Festival.

First surprise, it’s now a magazine and not a newspaper (be honest, who knew?) and second shock, I read the comments of one reviewer to discover that she though a band was ‘sick’.  I saw that band and thought they were pretty good.  On reading the rest of her review, apparently so did she.  Sick means good and is presumably a continuation of the theory of opposites which has turned ‘bad’ and ‘wicked’ into positives over the last few years.

Surely this trend has to stop somewhere.  Some American politicians – and Julian Assange – are having a difficult enough time over the definition of rape, without ‘No’ actually meaning ‘Yes’ to some people.

Would love to hear your thoughts and comments.

Good Luck
The Barefoot Bohemian.

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