Leadership and social status at work depend, in part, on how we use language. Being clever and evoking powerful imagery are two techniques that help to distinguish our own use of language. Because few of us are so clever and so facile with the language that we can create our own powerful imagery, we repeat what we've heard from others in our lives or in the media. Repeating something that's still fresh is probably helpful.
Repeating something that's no longer fresh is unhelpful. Notice that I avoided making a reference to the "sell-by date" of stale and overused linguistic forms. That term is itself an example of high-falutin' goofy talk.
Here's Part III of a list of phrases that are no longer fresh.
- Bite the bullet
- To "bite the bullet" is to finally take an action or make a decision that one would rather not.
- The term probably comes from a (possibly apocryphal) tale that in previous centuries, battlefield medical personnel who lacked anesthetic would ask their patients to clench a bullet in their teeth before they underwent painful surgeries, such as amputations. Is that really an image you want to evoke in your meetings?
- Drink the Kool-Aid
- To "drink the Kool-Aid" Few of us are so clever
and so facile with the
language that we can create
our own powerful imageryis to adopt whole-heartedly what one is told to believe. It is also a metaphor for extreme dedication to a cause despite the potential for self-destruction.
- Kool-Aid is a powder used to make a fruit drink. In November 1978, in a remote settlement in north Guyana that had been established by an American cult called the Peoples Temple, over 900 cult members committed suicide (some unknowingly, and some forcibly) by drinking a fruit punch made from Kool-Aid, cyanide, and prescription drugs. Is that really an image you want to evoke in your meetings?
- Think outside the box
- To "think outside the box" is to think unconventionally, creatively, or from a new perspective.
- This phrase is so heavily used that FastCompany has published an article about its use [Kihn 1995]. Its origin probably traces to management consultants in the 1970s or 1980s. If you're advocating "thinking outside the box," using a phrase as clichéd as this one tends to undercut your advocacy. Avoid it.
- Throw <someone> under the bus
- Now there's a gory image. To "throw someone under the bus" is to betray a friend, ally, colleague, subordinate, or supervisor for selfish reasons.
- This idiom is of relatively recent origin — less than 20 years, more or less, depending upon where you believe it began. Still, it has been so heavily used in mass media that using it in the workplace is of no advantage, and might even lower your social status.
- It's a win-win situation
- A win-win situation is one in which all participants receive benefits. If there is only one participant, then the implication is that all outcomes are favorable.
- The term is a play on either no-win or win-lose. Early in its usage, it was clever-sounding, because the latter two terms were so much more familiar that Win-win stood out — it seemed almost paradoxical. But by now it's so heavily used that the cleverness has worn off. Moreover, the term is often misused and misinterpreted as if it meant compromise [McNary 2003]. Avoid it.
- Take it to the next level
- To "take it to the next level" is to improve it in some significant way.
- The term probably is a reference to the level-oriented structure of most computer games, wherein players face successively more difficult challenges arranged in groups, or "levels." During the early days of computer games, using the term at work probably seemed clever. Today using the term is no longer clever, whether you work in the computer game industry or not.
A memorable feeling accompanies hearing these phrases for the first time. It can even be thrilling. We repeat these phrases ourselves, in part, to recreate that feeling. That might work somewhat at first. After a few repititions, though, it's a dubious strategy. First in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Encourage Truth Telling
- Getting to the truth can be a difficult task for managers. People sometimes withhold, spin, or slant
reports, especially when the implications are uncomfortable or threatening. A culture that supports
truth telling can be an organization's most valuable asset.
- Nasty Questions: II
- In meetings, telemeetings, and email we sometimes ask questions that aren't intended to elicit information.
Rather, they're indirect attacks intended to advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part
two of a catalog of some favorite tactics.
- Why Dogs Make the Best Teammates
- Dogs make great teammates. It's in their constitutions. We can learn a lot from dogs about being good
- Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
- When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information,
we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for
interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process.
- Columbo Tactics: I
- When the less powerful must deal with the more powerful, or the much more powerful, the less powerful
can gain important advantages by adapting the strategy and tactics of the TV detective Lt. Columbo.
Here's Part I of a collection of his tactics.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.