It’s that time of the year when students give group reports. I sympathize with them. They have been doing group projects since kindergarten and would rather be left alone. I feel the same way, although I include group work in their assignments, because this is business school. Business has become a collective endeavor since the Japanese started doing morning calisthenics on the factory floor in the mid-sixties.
I constantly ask students to stop mumbling, stand up, and address the entire class, not just me. They try to do that, but bad habits are hard to break. Again, I don’t blame them. I may be the only one paying attention and am certainly the only one giving the grade.
When it is time for questions from the class, answers often begin with “yeah, no.” This usually means yes as in, “Yes, you are right. No, there would not have been negative consequences had there been a code of ethics in place.” The “no” also lends moral weight to the answer. For instance, “Yeah, no, that’s totally what happened at VW. There’s no way the CEO didn’t know about the ‘defeat device’ for emissions.” Once the question and answer period ends, they shuffle sadly back to their seats like a chain gang.
Faculty have their own linguistic conventions, of course. Think of their use of “anecdotal” to undercut any argument they don’t like and the pensive, long-voweled “so…” at colloquia. And don’t get me started about “problematic.”
Language is changing. Today, people speak so fast I can barely understand them. It’s like the first time I listened to a Yankees game in Spanish. And they mumble. I remember a Polish woman’s description of English as sounding like a pot of boiling water or someone drowning. That’s how I hear it now.
Business is the worst offender with phrases like “circle back,” “bring to the table,” best practices,” “deep dive,” “synergy,” and “thought leader.” This is lazy language; I don’t care who says it or where it is published. The problem is that lazy language is a reflection of muddled thinking and can lead to flawed strategy. That, in turn, could cost millions.
I read this recently in the Wall Street Journal: “If a central bank without credibility makes a credible promise to run a non-credible policy, do the double negatives cancel out and create credibility?”
Apparently, this is a central bank’s version of chucking wood. Marketing takes the cake with this advertisement: “Electrolux Ergorapido Lithium Ion Limited Edition Perfect Bagless Cordless 2-in-1 Handheld Stick Vacuum.” The suspense builds, doesn’t it? They had me at ergorapido. Then I found out they were talking about a vacuum cleaner.
There is another form of “yeah, no” found mainly in the Western United States. It goes, “yeah, no, maybe.” Once, I heard “possibly” tagged onto that, but that was in Seattle, which is an outlier. The aim here is not to offend anyone. You want to be sensitive and consider all possibilities with none of them being wrong. They are just different ways of interpreting reality. So, yes, you are affirmed in your right to believe that gravity is culturally-constructed and, no, I am not judging that belief. I simply offer the possibility of maybe. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Who’s to tell, really?
I probably shouldn’t be so harsh. After all, “yeah, no” would work well in societies where you have to save face and not directly confront anyone. Its logic could form the basis of an emerging diplomatic language (e.g., either-or), which is the role French played previously. It even sounds like French when spoken with an “upspeak” accent, which has become universal. The possibilities are endless.
Just keep in mind that, “The end-users’ ability to efficiently and effectively execute key business processes impacts the organization’s ability to meet its goals.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
For crossing signal photo, go to WNYC News.