Not so long ago, I was sitting on a train back from Manchester in a half full (or, if you’re that kind of person, half empty) train carriage. Coach B of the Arriva Trains Wales Express: a two-carriage number that grinds its way from Manchester all the way down to Carmarthen.
As is the way in this country, there was an instant (and literally unspoken) agreement amongst all the travellers in Coach B of the Arriva Trains Wales express – that there would be no talking. Accordingly, after the train guard has done his announcements, the carriage fell into silence and we were together alone in our moving metal carapace.
‘Travel silence’ is something that we do very well in this country. If you sit on a train in Spain, Italy, India or the US, for example, it’s a-buzz with chat and noise. In England, there is a strict and unspoken traveller’s code: only mad people, drunks and foreigners speak on English trains.
So it was that a culturally-binding silence settled over Carriage B. At each stop this hush was briefly perforated by the incomprehensible, tinny announcements from our train guard; white noise that barely roused us from our private inner worlds.
Then: a phone rang. A few of us scrabbled about to check if it was our phone. (Everyone over the age of 40 seems to have the same ring tone these days). Anyway, the silence was then broken for several minutes as the recipient of the call conducted a lengthy business conversation.
Well, you all listen in, don’t you? It’s impossible not to. Unless you’re plugged in, you can’t help but overhear. We all tend to speak-shout into our phones when we’re on a train and it’s a small carriage.
It was, in all honesty, not a very interesting conversation. A business call. In fact, it was such a dull conversation that it somehow travelled through the spectrum of dull and came out the other side, transformed into something genuinely engrossing. It seemed that things were at a critical point in the negotiations to land a big contract.
The phone call was punctuated by a mesmerising range of professional jargon, management and business speak. A multitude of technical expressions and organisational clichés reverberated around the carriage, soaking the captive travelling audience in a sound-world of industry chat.
The high – or was it low – point phone call was the closing sentence.
“Going forward, I think what we need to think outside the box. Let’s touch base later”.
And with that the call was over.
Now, I find that sentence had quite hard to live with. A recent survey by the Institute of Leadership & Management, revealed that management speak is used in almost two thirds (64%) of offices, with nearly a quarter of people surveyed considering it to be a pointless irritation. The top three most annoying and over-used bits of business jargon were: “touch base” (39%); “going forward” (55%); and top of the pops was: “thinking outside the box” (57%). My carriage-mate had managed to squeeze all three into the same sentence!
Now, let’s remind ourselves that I’m being a Nosey-Parker, eavesdropping on one side of a private conversation. You might also say that if you make a call in a train carriage, you deserve what’s coming to you.
All this enforced overhearing prompted me to think about two things. Firstly, about the value of plain speaking – that is, speaking clearly and free of unnecessary jargon. Secondly, about the value of speaking as a person, an individual; rather than sounding like a manual.
You can tell when someone is saying things in her or his own individual voice. The person comes through the language. The danger of management-speak, jargon, slogans, cliché is that they diminish and muffle our original voice; these over-used expressions standardise us.
Words can be beautiful, powerful things: a means of conveying such a range of sense and feeling; such diverse ideas and observations. We can use them to create fresh possibilities; we can use them to numb; we can use them to agitate; we can use them to soothe.
Most human activities – such as sports, the arts, careers – have their special languages. Think of sport, for example. These are sometimes called ‘language games’. In these games, esoteric terms and expressions resonate with the initiated; by those who understand and are part of the club.
And so it is with education. We bat around all kinds of special language; educational acronyms and shorthand abound. Schools are wonderful generators of idiosyncratic terms. The idea that we should meet in Grot and then do our Top Schools after having tea in KH only makes sense in our small part of the world.
I’m not objecting to specialised language. I’m objecting to dull and lazy language.
What became the Campaign For Plain English was started by the redoubtable Chrissie Maher OBE in 1979. She fixed her aim on various uses of language which she felt were deliberately obscure. It was a campaign against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information.
On the hit list were longwinded official writing; management-speak; professional jargon; tired and overused expressions; silly job titles that see ticket inspectors become “Revenue Protection Officers”, supermarket shelf-stackers go by the title of “Ambient replenishment controllers”, and teachers are “Knowledge Facilitators”. I mean, seriously?
The Campaign for Plain English (or Plain English Campaign as it now seems to be known – you can see what they did there) aims to remove these word-soups from institutional life. They want to get professionals, in particular, to speak more simply. For example, a recent educational document (not ours I hasten to add) deployed the following sentence: “High quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process”. What this actually means is: “Children need good schools if they are to learn properly”.
The issue here is that bureaucratic language excludes meaning – often, it would seem, deliberately. It’s important we don’t get infected by this linguistic virus. We need to find our own, distinctive voices – and delight in them.
Personal statements, for example, should be personal. Essays should be in (pretty much) our own words. We should avoid cliché and jargon but rather make the effort to use interesting and original language. This does need to be carefully done. All of us, not least Headmasters, succumb to over-embellishment and can sound pretentious, and our text (including this one) over-written. Everyone needs a good editor.
Scaling up from our day-to-day context, it is so important that all of us, especially the young, use the power of their words, opinions and voice. Salopians are polite and gentle souls but sometimes you have speak truth to power – even if your voice shakes.
It is mission-critical (is that a cliché?) that Salopians think and speak for themselves. This is a theme that we will repeat and repeat as a school. The world is full of versions of the truth; we all need to be mindful enough to de-code and challenge these versions in the post-truth era. We need Salopians young and old to challenge and to initiate change.
I have said a lot about speaking. As somebody very wise once said: “God gave us one mouth and two ears: we should use them proportionately”. It is critically important that, in the noise of populism, YouTubing and democratic broadcasting, we retain the ability to listen actively.
Active listening is not just waiting for the other person to stop speaking so we can make our much more interesting point. Only by deep and active listening do we fully acknowledge the rights and the values of the person we are speaking with. Even if we despise the views of another, we need to listen deeply to understand them.
Of course, the trick in all this, is that human beings learn by imitation. We observe, we copy. That’s how babies start talking. It’s only natural that we mimic the language of others. This is language with stabilisers. The journey our children are on (in fact we are all on), is to find their own authentic voice; to get rid of those linguistic stabilisers.
For pupils, my simple message is to speak in their own voice. I want them to be confident enough to stand outside the verbal uniform of teenage jargon. I want them to dress their language differently.
Meanwhile, back in Carriage B of the Arriva Trains Wales Express from Manchester to Carmarthen, we’re nearing Shrewsbury station. In silence. After my (albeit unspoken) righteous indignation at my carriage-mate’s choice of language, I’m feeling an uncomfortable guilt at my linguistic snobbery.
What it reminded me, though, is that language can be used to numb and neutralise. And, equally, that it can be used to ignite and enliven the mind. Each mode has its generative powers; each has its dangers.
Words have a power to reveal or to conceal. Political discourse is replete with spin and double-talk, linguistic sleights of hand and verbal finessing. The delight in language is a wonderful thing. Selective and careful deployment of what the teachers at primary school might call ‘juicy words’. It’s good to make interesting sentences and fill our self-expression with colour.
Language can be used to mislead, to obscure, to obfuscate, to redirect, to exclude. So, as in all things, there is a time for floral language, a time for using technical vocabulary and a time for plain speaking. A time to rage against cliché. A time to speak up, in our individual voices, here in Salopia and in the wider world.
Something tells me that the world needs its teenagers and young adults to speak up – and keep speaking up.
And let’s try not to use clichés. After all, it’s not rocket science….