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The lost art of speaking plainly

Do you understand the following words?

“The government is committed to developing innovative, proactive and goal-focused policies that reflect the aspirations of all Kenyans and meet the expectations of key stakeholders. We will focus on efficient and effective service delivery in an environment of transparency and accountability.”

Or consider the following typical ‘mission statement’ from a private-sector company:

“Our mission is to be a world-class performance-based provider of leading-edge products, exceeding customer expectations and continuously enhancing shareholder value by proactively leveraging deep and diverse management skills and deploying our rich human capital base, governed by our corporate values of teamwork, excellence, integrity and innovation.”

I don’t know about you, but my eyes glaze over when I see or hear this stuff. What does it mean? Can you make any sense of it? It is, I’m afraid, the type of gibberish emanating from many government officials and corporate managers these days in their zeal to appear professional.

We used to worry about whether English would supplant Kiswahili, whether Sheng was a good thing, and whether our regional tongues would die out. The real danger lay elsewhere: that as we advanced, we would all be overcome by a very strange language called international business-speak. This language takes over the mind in a very crafty fashion: it introduces itself while we are at school in the form of just a few innocent-sounding words; it strengthens its grip at university where we realise that whole sentences can be strung together with these new words; and it finally grabs us by the lapels when we enter the world of work, when we quickly realise that our peers speak nothing else and proficiency in the language is a prerequisite for success. By then our brains are thoroughly washed; we are unthinking robots who cannot speak or write a sentence without using words like ‘state-of-the-art’, ‘innovative’, ‘proactive’, ‘goal-seeking’ and ‘people-driven’.

As our society advances, we are all embracing business-speak. It is heard in conferences, seminars and in the corridors of power. It fills our newspapers and reverberates on our radios and televisions. It is spoken in bars and cocktail parties. It is the de facto language of success. Use it, or you are a nobody.

Yet this language of so-called success is vapid, hollow and meaningless. We are all mouthing the words, having forgotten their meaning a long, long time ago. What does it mean to speak of ‘excellence’, for example, when each and every organisation claims to achieve it? The word refers to being pre-eminent or the most outstanding; can every company be the most outstanding? How many organisations have you come across in Kenya that can be called outstanding, even in jest? Yet ‘excellence’ is on every annual report and mission statement. It is so overused that it has long lost its original motivational value.

As our parastatals begin their renaissance under new leadership, they are all producing visions and mission statements filled with lofty goals and noble values. Trouble is, they all look almost exactly the same! What possible value can there be in a statement about your corporation that is just like your neighbour’s? How can you proclaim your uniqueness by touting a declaration that looks like it came off an assembly line?

There is a very serious danger here. It is that we use the words to look and sound good, but we actually do or achieve very little. As part of our ‘stakeholder management’, we spew this stuff out in all directions. It makes us look like we have the right MBA degrees in our pockets. It projects a professional image. It soothes the ear of other business-speak exponents. It lulls the listener into treacherous somnolence. But is very often a complete sham, a way of wagging the silver tongue when the pocket contains nothing.

A mea culpa is probably in order here. My profession (management consulting) bears a heavy responsibility for this state of affairs. So do the writers of business bestsellers. Many in the business thrive by introducing buzzwords, jargon and techno-speak on a regular basis. It is very often a substitute for real content, a proxy for genuinely new ideas. But the zest with which corporate titans embrace this emptiness is truly alarming.

I worry even more when I hear the language beginning to infiltrate the speeches of our cabinet ministers. These people really need to deliver results, for all our sakes. We cannot afford to let them engage in sophistry and the peddling of snake oil. We need to see them create jobs and fix roads, not brandish jargon in our faces. They need to talk less and do more.

Related to this malady is the ailment of aping pronunciation. Is there really a problem with not knowing your ‘rent’ from your ‘lent’ if you are a Kikuyu, or your ‘sheep’ from your ‘seep’ if you are a Luo, or your ‘vest’ from your ‘west’ if you are an Indian? Isn’t all this variety what makes Kenya such an interesting place? How tedious it would be if we all sounded the same! Our diversity is our strength, and we should embrace all its faces.

Yet listen to our newscasters and TV reporters: they are engaging in very painful oral somersaults to sound westernised and modern. Some of them seem to be in serious danger of dislocating their jaws every night; such is their keenness to astound us with their vocal gymnastics. Who is training these people in such artifice? One appreciates fully the need for a certain standardisation, but our reporters’ efforts are comical at best. Yet, rather than laughing at them, our youngsters are imitating them. We seem to be raising a generation that uses words it doesn’t comprehend and makes sounds no-one understands. A modern Tower of Babel, indeed!

How I long for an era of plain speaking, when people will say what they think and say it without unnecessary adornment! When we will begin without initiating, and end without terminating. When we will pay without disbursing, and hasten without expediting. When we will help without facilitating, and will be aware without taking cognisance. How much more appealing the English language will be then! People will use the words they like and understand, not the ones they have to be seen using.

By engaging in contrivance, we are evading reality. We are placing a veil over our real problems. We are hiding our failures behind silly words and empty phrases. We are displaying our insecurity about our heritage by talking like parrots. Learning to let our words reflect our true selves may be a first step towards reclaiming our dignity.

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