Mary Ruth was laughing about the request. “Marketing is out of their minds. There’s no way we can do what they want us to do.”
“So,” I said, “what did you tell them?”
”I said what I always say―with unlimited resources and unlimited time, I can do what you want.”
“Why couldn’t you just say no?”(I never thought I’d be quoting Nancy Reagan, but there you have it.)
Without seeing the humor in my question, Mary Ruth spoke deliberately, as if she were explaining to a three-year old why the sky is blue. "That would be negative.”
“My answer,” explained Mary Ruth ,“gets the message across without me really saying I won’t do it. Because I would do it under different circumstances,” said Mary Ruth earnestly.
Mary Ruth is not alone. Theresa, who works for a software company, also follows the rule that saying no to any request, to any department, at any time, is a definite “no-no.” So instead of the vile no, Theresa will say, “that’s going to be a very challenging project” or, “that’s an extremely aggressive schedule.” As she told me, “I would never say that something just isn’t possible – that would reflect badly on me.”
“In what way?”
“People might get the impression I’m not willing to meet their requests.”
It reminds me of a David Sedaris essay from his book, I Talk Pretty One Day, about his grade school experience of being forced to work with a speech therapist for his lisp. Sedaris writes that instead of working on the problem, he convinced his mother to buy him a Thesaurus.
Sedaris then used the Thesaurus to substitute problematic words with his own non-sibilant euphemisms. Instead of saying school, he said: learning academy. Please became: with your kind permission. And, instead of saying yes, he said: correct or affirmative. The therapist knew exactly what he was up to, but his teachers began complimenting him on his excellent vocabulary.
In many ways, that’s exactly how business operates. I once had a client who forbid any of the people in his department from saying or writing the word “problem." Before learning this rule I made the corporate mistake of asking a conference room full of people what their marketing problem was. It was a George Carlin moment. There was an audible gasp, people adverted their eyes, and I knew that I had said something terribly wrong.
To me, that’s a huge challenge/opportunity. In too many companies the focus is not on what people are saying it’s on how they are saying it. Are they talking pretty? You bet they are. The use of corporate euphemisms is rampant.
In a study conducted in England, nearly 20% of workers said they felt compelled to use corporate lingo to keep pace with their colleagues ―even though they don't know what many of the words actually mean .In this country, experts say, that number probably tops 80%.
A couple of years ago, the Credit Union Executives Society’s newsletter ran a lead article entitled “ Never say No.” .Now, in all fairness to the author, his point was that companies need to truly find solutions, rather than automatically saying no to a customer or coworker’s request.
But, like so many things, most organizations miss the point. Instead of focusing on the real message— about customer service—most organizations don’t get past the headline. All they see is “Never Say No”, and they take it literally. It seems that faster than you can shoot off a group email “No” has become a four-letter word.
Speaking in euphemistic code is an essential fabric of corporate life. There is a real belief that as long as it sounds positive people will feel positive --even when the real message is negative.
In an era of Reality TV you would think that Corporate America could start speaking realistically. What so many corporations don’t seem to realize is that corporate euphemisms can undermine trust, not build it. People are so busy trying to interpret the code that they are never quite sure what the real message is. And that can create some cranky employees.
To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, No is a No is a NO, and couching it in pretty talk doesn’t change it to yes, correct, or affirmative.
NOTE: Mary Ruth and Theresa are real people who work in real corporations. They asked to change their names to protect their jobs. Theresa does not work for a software company and requested we change the industry sector to further protect her identity.
If you have a story that you would like to share, I'd love to chat with you!