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Do you suffer from the disease of speaking “professionalese?”

Aug 09, 2010 Business Daily, Management

“One night last month, a Virgin Atlantic flight left Heathrow Airport bound for Newark, New Jersey. As the plane neared the Eastern Seaboard, bad weather forced the flight to divert to Hartford, Connecticut, some 106 miles north of its destination. The plane sat on the runway there for four hours – without air-conditioning, food or water – as babies wailed and adults anguished in the darkened cabin.

The next day, the airline, which explained that the Hartford airport lacked the customs personnel to process an international flight, offered this response: “Virgin Atlantic would like to thank passengers for their patience and apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

DANIEL H PINK, The Telegraph (18 July 2010)

Did you see anything wrong with the statement made by the airline, shown above? If you are a professional manager, the chances are that you didn’t. The airline apologised for the inconvenience and thanked people for their patience – so what’s wrong?

Now think about it this way: if you upset a family member or close friend, or were genuinely sorry for something, would you say: “I regret the inconvenience and thank you for your patience?” Not at all: you would try to convey how sorry you were in as natural a way as possible. What most professionals do is hide behind “professionalese”: the language of obfuscation, evasion and refusal to take responsibility.

I have a lot of time for Daniel Pink – a plain-talking man whose books and talks I love. That’s why I lapped up his recent article on business language, excerpted above. Pink points out that managers use this language because they think it shows professionalism, and avoids legal liability. But the reverse may be true: people probably respond better to genuine words and gestures than they do to this gobbledegook. If you actually say: “I’m sorry” they calm down a lot faster than if you deploy weasel-words.

This professionalese language we use at work would be unthinkable at home. Pink’s hilarious example: if your wife called in the middle of something crucial, would you say to her: “All of my brain is busy right now, so please hold and I’ll be with you shortly. Your call is very important to me.” No, you would not! So why is that the standard call-centre recorded message? Why can’t we say that we hate making people wait, but we’re swamped and can’t help it right now?

I think being clear and sincere works just as well in professional life as it does in our personal worlds. I have beaten this drum for a long time with every organisation I have ever advised: say what you mean, say it as clearly and simply as possible, say it with sincerity and conviction. Don’t hide behind vapid phrases; don’t use banalities – address the specific issue.

Airlines seem to be particularly bad at this. Last year I endured a ridiculously sub-standard experience at the hands of a local airline, involving a 6-hour delay, seating screw-ups and sullen, rude service. I shot off an e-mail to the customer feedback address provided on the boarding card, pointing out that this was a common occurrence and threatening never to fly the airline again.

Their response, sickly, insincere and non-specific: “Thank you for taking your time to give us your feedback regarding our service, staff and flight experience. We are very sorry to learn that you have found a reason to be disappointed with our service…We hope that you will let this one-off occurrence not discourage you from flying with us again in the future. We trust that you will give us another opportunity to portray this hospitable style the next time you travel with us. We look forward to serving you better in the future.”

Was that sent by a human being?

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