Sticks and stones may break my bones…

…but words may never hurt me.

Well that’s just rubbish isn’t it? Long after the broken bones have healed words may still hurt as much as the day they were delivered. I remember, as if it were yesterday, being humiliated by a friend who was trying to impress other people at my expense.

This was over thirty years ago, and whenever that excruciating moment pops into my mind I want to curl up and disappear just as I did then as I looked around at all the speechless faces whose countenances spoke for their still lips: “How are you going to respond to that?”

I couldn’t respond. I was so utterly broken by the words that I would almost rather have lowered myself into a snake pit than remain in the midst of that group. I don’t think I have ever felt a deeper sense of shame than at that moment.

This was an example of words being used to inflict pain on a person. But what about how words are used in an attempt to minimise pain?

Working in the arena of redundancy and outplacement I am constantly confronted by, and drawn into using, language that is deliberately stripped of emotion and feeling. This is all part of a message that says “it’s not personal, it’s just business” rather as Michael Corleone sees things when he offers to murder two enemies in “The Godfather”.

It’s not “just” anything. When a person is made redundant it is very often devastating. It may be devastating for a moment or for several months. Even when people manipulate the situation in order to make themselves redundant, they will often experience a worrying sense of doubt or fear.

Rather than use language that acknowledges this, the industry, feeling the need to constantly generate a sense of optimism and positivity (that’s not a real word, it’s a word invented by the happy-clappy positive thinking fraternity), has engulfed itself in the language of “make it feel better”.

Even the name of the industry itself, “outplacement” is a crude euphemism. Out Placement. To place somebody outside. It conjures up an image of a giant grabber, delicately and precisely extracting somebody from their workplace and silently lowering them outside the walls of the building. Clinical, silent, anonymous.

Part of the purpose of the language is to protect those that remain. There’s something very 1984 about it for me. One minute a person is there, the next they have been carefully placed outside and everyone else just quietly carries on as if nothing significant has happened.

At least the word “redundant” is sufficiently brutal to match the emotion. And how do we in the industry soften this brutality? We go to great lengths to emphasise that it is not the individual that has been made redundant but the role.

Well thank you for that. Meanwhile I’m out of a job.

Today I discovered a new word for redundant: Separated.

“Employees have been separated from the company.”

If you have read Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights you will know why I find this word quite sickening in this context. (And if you haven’t read it, you must).

It really gets to the heart of the emotion and devotion that is invested by employees into the organisations for whom they work. When I think of the word “separated” like this I can almost hear the terrified screaming of a child being taken away from its parent, and yet the word has been chosen because it is emotionless and impersonal. I say it is painfully so.

Still, they’re only words.

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One Response to Sticks and stones may break my bones…

  1. Mike Trup says:

    There is such a thing as ‘reading too much into words’. I am fortunate. I am both highly educated and language plays a large part in my family as everybody except myself is at least bi-lingual and several are professionally involved in the world of words.

    However many, probably most, do not have anything like the breadth and awareness of the nuances of vocabulary and I have often found myself picking up on points that actually the other person never made, because they did not choose their language so precisely. Indeed the more emotion involved, often the less time is spent searching for the ‘correct word’. It’s often not what you say, it’s how you say it that’s important.

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