We Don't Talk Anymore

My daughter called me from Starbucks which was surprising, not because she hates me or despises Costa but because she was supposed to be studying for exams.

She has worked harder than a pacifist in the House Of Commons over the Christmas and New Year holidays, her face buried in books around the clock so that she can pass this week’s exams, and I admit that her conscientious, head down, fully concentrated, get the work done, attitude has pleasantly surprised me. I’m someone whose history of exam success is similar to Trump’s with his Mexican wall. Always wanted to have it but never will.

Because she is diligent and not given to distraction, I was surprised when she called. Turns out she wanted to ask me to interpret a question on a past exam paper she was reading.

“Explain, using examples, how the empathetic model negates the paradigm of ‘winner takes all’ and leads to a leveraging of onward relationships.”

Try typing it in to Google translate for fun and you’ll find your computer wheezing before dying a noisy death. It’s a nonsense which, after several readings, seems to mean “Why are results better when we sympathise with customers?” So why couldn’t they just have said that instead of showing us all how great they are at crosswords??

It sounds much more academic, and shows the question setter is better than the rest of us, if they make it difficult for their students to understand what they are asking. Big words equals big brain. My vocabulary is bigger than yours because my intelligence is better than yours.

I really detest business jargon, designed to disguise the fact that someone’s read a business book at an airport, not understood it enough to explain it to themselves, and is just parroting back the words in the hope they sound informed.

In my hosting of conferences I come across jargon a lot, words like granularity, silos and negative feedback loops, and “scaleable paradigms which allow the loading of ideas into the bullet chamber to fire a solution.” I’ve started replying in a way that underlines the meaning in plain English for the rest of the audience, but why should I have to? Can’t we all stop showing off and just communicate with each other? I blame Gwynneth Paltrow and Chris Martin. Couldn’t they have said “we’re divorcing” rather than “we’re consciously uncoupling?”

I worked in TV with a very good producer who loved showing off her vocabulary. Nothing wrong with that so long as you’re still communicating; there’s no point in being glowingly erudite if your audience doesn’t understand a word of what you’re saying. Her favourite word was “rebarbative.” Now, how odd is that? When have you ever heard anyone, anywhere, at any time use that word? If anyone argued with her she would say “don’t be rebarbative” and the conversation would stop immediately because the recipient had no idea what it meant. (It means argumentative, by the way, a word most of us would have recognised had she used it.)

Often on radio ‘phone ins my job is to put the other side of an argument to a caller, acting as devil’s advocate. I can’t express an opinion as, working for the BBC, we’re impartial, but I can put all sides to get the best out of the listener who has dialled in. A few, when challenged, test the waters by resorting to jargon just to see if they can pull the wool over the audience’s eyes. They should be politicians.

So.... back to my daughter.

Once I’d translated the question for her, I asked how she would stop herself from panicking in the exam, how she might relax herself enough to read and reread the question over and over until she understood it fully.

Her answer? She’d think of a photo she saw yesterday of her big sister as a baby showing her bare bum. Not posterior, gluteus maximus or even bottom. Just bum!

Plain English works every time, and there’s no point in being rebarbative about it.