Thursday, April 9, 2020

Language does not lie.

About two months ago I changed the "headline" on my LinkedIn profile. I started it with the words "Recently-fired..."

Since then, barely a day has gone by when someone hasn't written me a note and said something like, "Dude, I can't believe you wrote that. So brave..."

I've taken to responding with the Noel Coward quotation above. I don't know why people are shocked that I wrote 'recently-fired.' I was recently fired.

There's no Scarlet "F" affixed to my ontological resume. Everyone gets fired in advertising. And in these austere, parsimonious and yes, ageist times, it's no sin to have been turned out on your cauliflower ear.

I was fired. Why should I be embarrassed? I didn't write "Recently-convicted child molester..." Or "Recovering fish-fondler..." I merely told the truth about what happened to me.

Since the Covid-crash of 2020, companies around the United States have been telling people that they're "furloughed."

I know what furlough meant to Sergeants Bilko and Carter and Private Gomer Pyle. It usually meant you got two weeks off with pay so you could go to Vegas with Miss Bunny. 

I don't know what it means in advertising. Likewise, I don't know what being "restructured" means. Or being "rightsized," "downsized," "eliminated," or "being aligned to client exigencies and the ever-changing media eco-scape."

When it happens, all I know is a bunch of people are panic-struck and they might have a hard time coming up with the rent or the mortgage. Not to mention pizza money.

I also know something else when I read language like that. I know the person or company issuing that statement is, if not a liar, than a prevaricator. Someone who lets the artificial nuance of imprecise language get in the way of being honest so as to spare themselves either rebuke or bad press.

As Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said in the early 1960s "The war in Vietnam is going well and will succeed."

Yep. Tell that to the 3-5 million killed.

Among the millions of words written by the great diarist Viktor Klemperer, four of his most important are these: "Language does not lie." Klemperer studied the meaning behind words--not just the words themselves. He read philologically, getting to the semantic core of language.

You can say, "Corona Virus is a hoax." That's either true or not true. But the deeper meaning is there for the reader to discern. It's a hoax because you don't believe in facts or science. It's a hoax because you want it to be because it's good for your grifting administration.

Likewise with furloughing someone. You're afraid that in adverse times that to be seen firing masses of people would paint your corporation in a nasty light. You hope you can bypass that by manipulating the language. And you hope that we're all too busy to notice. Or too dumb. Or too scared.

The funny thing about language, and this is one of Klemperer's points, is that we're never too busy to notice. We hear it even when we don't hear it. 

We might not consciously recognize prevarications, but they register. For instance, on every service desk call on which you've ever been on hold, you've heard these sentences. "Your call is important to us." And, "this call is being monitored for quality assurance."

Subconsciously you know your call, and you, are unimportant to them. Otherwise they'd hire enough people to answer your call in a reasonable amount of time and with a person, too. But, you aren't important. That's all. Likewise, if your call's quality is assured why is the quality of help so low?

Those are the every day lies we tell each other as we furlough the world into oblivion.

In fact, not long ago I had a bit of a set-to with a client. They kept saying my copy wasn't friendly enough. I kept saying, the copy isn't here to tell people we're friendly. We should, as a company, be doing friendly things. Like helping customers in a way more substantial than saying "Welcome!" And "We care about you."

A couple days ago in this space, I printed this quotation by Carlos Castaneda: “We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”

I know it takes no more work to be honest to readers than it does to lie. 

It just takes a bit of a spinal column.

Maybe that part of one's anatomy is rarer than cashflow in an ad agency.

I suppose if I were a CEO or even a lowly CCO, it would be much easier to say to the trade press, "I've had to furlough 20 people," than to say, "I've fired 20 scalawags." 

To steal a phrase from McCann Erickson (where I've never worked) we're supposed to be in the "truth well told" 

Not the unctuous euphemism business.

One last little anecdote. Many years ago I wrote catalog copy for the Montgomery Ward catalog for $225/week. If you made an error in the copy, left off a cherry red pump when you listed the items featured on a page, you cost the company a lot of money. A single line of eight-pt. type made up of 12 or 15 numbers could earn the company thousands of dollars. People can't buy it if they can't order it.

If you made such a mistake, you received an inter-office memo called a "Blue Star" notification. Five Blue Star notes in a year and you were fired.

With each Blue Star, you were summoned to the big boss' office. 

Invariably, most people would start in on some sort of story. The catalog copywriting equivalent of "my dog ate my homework."

The big boss would lean back in his leatherette chair and pull a long drag on his Dutch Masters' cigar. Exhaling slowly like an old ferry coming over from the Jersey side.

I only got one or two Blue Stars in all my time writing copy for this catalog. But each time, the big boss said the same thing to me when I started to babble an explanation, "Hit me but don't shit me."

I think a lot about those words and the honesty behind them. 

My generation didn't tattoo slogans on ourselves to keep words as a frontlet. But those words might be ethical words to have as your signpost. 

Hit me but don't shit me. 

I'm sure a lot of people on furlough right now would have preferred to have been hit rather than talked to like shit.

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