Bureaucratese: The Language of Insincerity
by Marti Smiley Childs and Jeff March

In a meeting of department managers, Carol raises an objection to a proposed shift in office hours requiring staff members to arrive at their desks by 7 a.m. She points out that the revised schedule would impose a hardship on parents who must get their children ready for school, and would create resentment among employees. The company president, who has already decided to make the change, responds to her argument by saying, "We'll take that under advisement."

Carol and others around the table know the real intent of the president's statement: "Be in the office at 7 on Monday morning."

That scenario portrays the climate in which many businesses, organizations and government agencies operate today--an environment in which honesty has been replaced by obfuscation, in which the courageous "I" has been replaced by the cowardly "we." A generation ago when baby boomers were toddlers, President Harry Truman proclaimed "The buck stops here," meaning that he did not tolerate "passing the buck" and was willing to initiate orders and accept blame for their consequences. As the baby boomers who once challenged their peers to "question authority" rose to ranks of authority themselves, they uniformly shrank from willingness to accept responsibility, enshrouding themselves in a "corporate culture" characterized by task forces, advisory councils and ad-hoc study groups. The result is a blameless environment in which administrators report decisions in passive-voice announcements: "It was decided to consolidate the two divisions..." or "Your point is well taken."

The new "corporate culture" is nurtured by "bureaucratese," a linguistic patois with vocabulary all its own. Laden with acronyms and couched in evasive terminology and phraseology, bureaucratese is the language of insincerity.

Consider the university governing body that mandated "productivity enhancement cuts" a few years ago. The "productivity enhancement" was in reality a severe budget reduction resulting in part from the university's unwise purchase of a large plot of land during already fiscally stringent times. The "productivity enhancement" program directly resulted in the layoff of hundreds of staff employees, the loss of numerous faculty and staff members through an early retirement program, the elimination of at least one academic department, and reduction in the capabilities of numerous other academic departments and service units. The only "enhancement" that occurred was that of the egos of administrators who patted themselves on the backs for enacting tough measures to compensate for their own fiscal myopia of previous years.

At another institution, an administrator denied a request for information about the effects of recent legislation in his discipline by saying, "I should report that my experience has been with the logistical issues involved in providing assistive computer access strategies for individuals with disabilities, and that I try as hard as I can to avoid getting involved in the legislative and statistical matters that you have mentioned. While it is important to maintain a passive understanding of current legislative events, I am more concerned with the manifestation of such legislation at the hands-on application level." The effects of the law at the "hands-on application level" was, of course, precisely the subject of the inquiry.

When and why did he and other bureaucrats learn to talk like that? Why did conversation become "interpersonal communication"? Why did medical professionals become "health care providers"? Why did instruction manuals
become "documentation"? Why did illegal operation become "out of compliance"? Why did a change in circumstances become a "paradigm shift"? Why did suspension from work become an "administrative leave"? Why did deadbeat dads become "noncustodial parents"? Why did drug addiction become "chemical dependency?" Such terminology is, at the least, imprecise. Using the latter case as an example, all mammals, including humans, have a chemical dependence upon hydrogen and oxygen--the components of water and air.

In skilled hands, bureaucratese is a tool through which to make vacillation and inactivity sound like productivity. Consider this statement from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: "NHTSA is implementing a comprehensive plan of rulemaking and other actions (e.g., primary enforcement of State safety belt use laws) addressing the adverse effects of air bags." Does that mean that the agency has begun making rules, or is it merely in the process of developing a plan calling for rulemaking to take place at some time in the future? Hidden within that statement is a darling term embraced by bureaucrats: address. These eventual NHTSA rules NHTSA will "address" the "adverse effects of air bags." By "address," does the agency mean it plans to enact rules intended to diminish the injuries ("adverse effects") that air bags can cause? If so, why not say so?

When a City Council member requested a report on the status of computer software and hardware upgrades within the sheriff's department, the county sheriff replied that the department's computer consultant "will not be supporting the current Sheriff's office computer software after January 1st." Explaining that the new software will not operate on the department's present equipment, the sheriff reported that he "has been communicating with the municipal law enforcement agencies about possible options." Have representatives of the county's law enforcement agencies met? Are they working with computer consultants? Are they evaluating available hardware and software? The sheriff's statement that he "has been communicating with the municipal law enforcement agencies about possible options" is an admission that he has done little to solve the looming computer problem.

In their defense, corporate and government administrators are under constant scrutiny--by activists, regulatory agencies, competitors, litigious clients and former employees. They've learned to speak in vague terms that allow wide interpretation and obscure blame.

Bureaucratese is infectious. Even those who initially ridicule it seem incapable of resisting its insidious effects in bureaucratic enclaves. Before long, onetime critics of bureaucratese find themselves speaking the lingo with abandon. Not all users of bureaucratese intend to obscure meaning. Without realizing it, workers in corporate and government environments assimilate the turgid phraseology of bureaucratese because it bolsters their credibility among peers.

A news report described progress that professional football player Mike Utley was making since suffering paralyzing injuries in a football game several years ago. In an interview, a clinical worker reported that Utley "was able to maintain vertical posture." Did the clinician mean that Utley was able to stand briefly? If so, why not say so?

Absorbing and repeating arcane terms and phrases is far easier than analyzing and castigating their use. So what can you do about bureaucratese? Be vigilant. Don't merely accept it; question it. When an administrator asks for your "input," what are you being asked to offer? Your reaction? You opinion? Your advice? Your approval? If you're unsure, ask. And before you write or say anything, think. Think about what you want to communicate, and think about the most precise, simple, clear way to express your thoughts. Think.

Because more than anything else, thinking is the antidote to bureaucratese.

EditPros / writing, editing & employee training
Marti Childs  marti@editpros.com Jeff March jeffm@editpros.com
423 F Street, Suite 206, Davis, CA 95616-4153
(530) 759-2000;  fax (530) 759-2051 http://www.editpros.com

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