25 Nov I THINK IT’S ENGLISH?
In recent Zoom meetings, I have caught myself occasionally wondering, “what the **** is he talking about?”. Partly it’s the Zoom dynamic that makes it harder to focus but it seems people are using terminology that has strayed so far from concrete reality that much head-scratching ensues.
This bureaucratic “speaking in tongues” is right out of control inside every industry, sector, or organization. We barely speak the same language when we attempt to communicate with those outside the group. In many cases, acronyms have evolved as a shortcut to those more-than-a-mouthful programs or divisions, and some of them have actually become a recognizable part of the lingo. We’re probably all okay with RRSP, NHL, and AM/FM radio, but how many of you remember the UFFI crisis? What about MURBs? The lyrics to “Hey, Jude”?
When I was anchoring television news, we would often have visitors come through the station during live shows. One of the favourite tour stops was the control room, where the producer, director, technical director, and production assistants would duke it out, sometimes through intercom repartee with the studio floor. To prevent us from making potentially career-limiting comments in earshot of the guests, the director would generally open the key to the floor and inform the studio that the program was technically in “overscan”, our way of being forewarned, without tipping off the visitors we were aware of their presence.
These secret languages serve different purposes. In some cases it’s a way of bonding, in others it’s a way of keeping the outside out, and in many others it’s shorthand for a complex set of circumstances that can’t easily be transmitted.
If you’re enjoying a day on the slopes and you overhear Ski Patrol referring to an RTD, understand that it’s an acronym for Ruptured Tear Duct, but what it really means is “We have here a child who is crying, claiming to be injured, but there is some doubt that the injury is real, although with little kids you never can tell so better safe than sorry” or something to that effect.
If you know the entertainment value of “watching the trippers rub each other off the sheets”, you probably work for the bus company; if you can guesstimate the number of EAQs on that V, you know a lot about B.C. ferries; and if you work in any IT function that involves customer support, you will probably diagnose PEBKAC with regularity.
Government bureaucracies use process talk, jargon, and acronyms in such a way as to obscure the reality of the topic, and that’s not just the government in Canada. Bureaucratese appears to be an evolved dialect of the native tongue of many lands, which encourages vagueness and prevarication, provides a common sub-text for bureaucrats to talk to each other while excluding civilians, and renders lifeless any passion or interest in the issue by running the language through a lens, darkly.
At a recent meeting, some clever soul had the foresight to circulate a cheat sheet of acronyms that would be used during the day: SFMP, TSA, VR, among others. It would be handy if we all wore our code on T-shirts, a graphic simultaneous translation for outsiders.
Communication is supposed to be two-way. You speak, I listen. I make sense, you understand. If you speak and make no sense, and I listen but don’t understand, we might as well be playing Bingo in the dark, for no money.