David Beckham: "Going forward, who knows?"
Blue sky thinking, pushing the envelope - the problem with office-speak is that it cloaks the brutal modern workplace in such brainlessly upbeat language... as Lucy Kellaway dialogues.
For the last few months I've been on a mission to rid the world of the phrase "going forward". But now I see that the way forward is to admit defeat. This most horrid phrase is with us on a go-forward basis, like it or not.
I reached this sad conclusion early one morning a couple of weeks ago when listening to Farming Today. A man from the National Farmers' Union was talking about matters down on the farm and he uttered three "going forwards" in 28 seconds.
The previous radio record, by my reckoning, was held by Robert Peston, the BBC's business editor. He managed three going forwards in four minutes on the Today programme, but then maybe that wasn't such a huge achievement when you think that he spends his life rubbing shoulders with business people. And they say going forward every time they want to make any comment about the future, which is rather often. But for the farmer, who spends his life rubbing shoulders with cows, to say it so often represented a linguistic landmark. If the farms of England are now going forward, then there is no turning back for any of us.
I know I'm on slightly shaky ground talking on the radio about how badly other people talk on the radio. I'm also feeling a bit chastened having recently read a column by Craig Brown in the Telegraph consisting of spoof letters from language pedants. One of them went like this:
"Sir - Listening to my wireless, I heard a song with the chorus, 'She loves you yeah yeah yeah'. Later in the same song, insult was added to injury with yet another chorus, this time, 'She loves you yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah'. Whatever happened to that good old-fashioned word " yes"?
What was even funnier than his column was the readers' response to it on the Telegraph website. Most of them had quite failed to notice that they were being laughed at, and seized on the opportunity to voice their own concerns over declining standards of modern English. One took issue with the preposition "on", wailing over its use in "on the weekend" and "on the team". Another despaired over "for free". A third deplored "different to".
You could say this orgy of pedantry was not only tedious, but also pointless. Language changes. End of. - to use a particularly annoying new phrase. Yet protesting feels so good. Not only does it allow one to wallow in the superiority of one's education, but some words are so downright annoying that to complain brings relief. When someone says "going forward" it assaults the ears just as, when a colleague starts slurping French onion soup at a neighbouring desk, it assaults the nose.
We all have our own pet hates - I don't particularly mind "for free": I think it's quite comic. Neither do I mind the preposition "on". But "up" - now that's another matter altogether. To free up and to head up, both deliver a little jolt of irritation whenever I hear them. And as for heads-up, as in give me a heads up, that is utterly maddening.
In any case, pedantry has a fine tradition.
'Sir: Whatever happened to the old fashioned word 'yes'?'
Writing in The Tatler in 1710, Jonathan Swift complained, "I have done my utmost for some Years past, to stop the Progress of Mob... but have been plainly born down by Numbers, and betrayed by those who promised to assist me." Instead of saying mob, they should have used the proper Latin term mobile vulgus, mobile meaning changeable or fickle and vulgus meaning common people. Yet here I think Swift was being a fussy old bore in objecting to a harmless little bit of shortening. One syllable is surely a lot more manageable than five, so I really can't see what his problem was. And the word mob is so good it has survived the next three centuries with meaning unchanged.
By contrast there is so much more to object to in "going forward". It clings to the tongues of speakers compelling them to utter it again and again. It is a grown up equivalent of the word "like", which seems to trip off the tongue of the average teenager every two or three waking seconds.
Like "like", "going forward" is as contagious as smallpox. It started with business people, and now has not only infected farmers, it has reached epidemic proportions with footballers.
When asked if he was going to be the England captain again after his triumph with Trinidad and Tobago, David Beckham came out with the gnomic reply "Going forward, who knows." It seems that the less one has to say, the more likely one is to reach for a going forward as a crutch. Politicians find it comforting for this reason. "We are going forward" poor Hillary Clinton said just before the last, fatal primary last month when it became indisputable that she was going nowhere of the kind.
Yet more than all this, the really lethal thing about the whole language of business - is that it is so brainlessly upbeat. All the celebrating, the reaching out, the sharing, and the championing in fact grind one down. Several decades too late, it is as if business has caught up with the linguistic spirit of 1968. The hippies got over it, but businessmen are holding tight.
One of the big banks is seeking 'passionate banking representatives to uphold our values' - this is a lie. It wants competent people to follow instructions and answer the phones
The reason that the talk jars so much is that the walk doesn't match. The reality is that business is the most brutal it has been for half a century. If your company is not better than the competition, it goes bust. If you aren't good, or aren't thought to be good (which is a slightly different thing) you get pushed aside.
For nearly a decade I wrote a fictional column in the Financial Times about a senior manager who spoke almost entirely in business cliches. Martin Lukes talked the talk. Or rather, he added value by reaching out and sharing his blue sky thinking. At the end of the day he stepped up to the plate and delivered world class jargon that really pushed the envelope. After eight years of being him I came to accept the nouns pretending to be verbs. To task and to impact. Even the new verb to architect I almost took in my stride. I didn't even really mind the impenetrable sentences full of leveraging value and paradigm shifts. But what still rankled after so long were the little things: that he said myself instead of me and that he would never talk about a problem, when he could dialogue around an issue instead.
Many of Martin's favourite phrases have recently found their way onto a list of 100 banned words that has been sent by the Local Government Association to Councils with the instruction that they are no longer to use them. It's a nice try, but I fear they are just as likely to succeed as I was with going forward.
Yet what no list of words can get at is the new business insincerity: a phoney upping of the emotional ante. Last week I got an e-mail from someone I had never met that began by saying "I'm reaching out to you" and ended "warmest personal regards". As her regards had no business to be either warm or personal, the overall effect was somewhat chilling.
Plenty of passion, yet no sign of a crucifixion
But this incontinent gush is nothing compared to an e-mail sent by an extremely powerful person at JP Morgan encouraging his investment banking team to be more human. In it he said: "Take the time today to call a client and tell them you love them. They won't forget you made the call." Indeed. I'm sure the client would remember such a call for a very long time.
If love has no place in the language of business, neither does passion. Passion, says the dictionary, means a strong sexual desire or the suffering of Christ at the crucifixion. In other words it doesn't really have an awful lot to do with a typical day in the office - unless things have gone very wrong indeed. And yet passion is something that every employee must attest to in order to get through any selection process. Every one of the candidates in the final rounds of interview on the Apprentice solemnly declared that they were passionate about being Sir Alan's Apprentice.
It's not only when you're trying to impress nine million viewers on national TV. Even to get a humble job in a call centre passion is required. One of the big banks is currently advertising for such workers saying "we seek passionate banking representatives to uphold our values." This is a lie. Actually what the bank is seeking is competent people to follow instructions and answer the phones.
The biggest lie of all in business speak is about ownership. In order to make it appear that there is a strong bond between customers and companies there is My e-Bay and My EasyJet and - most successfully of all - Your M&S. At the risk of being as pedantic as Jonathan Swift, I'd like to point out that it isn't my M&S. It isn't yours either. Neither is it even Stuart Rose's M&S. The company belongs to its shareholders.
Though, just for the record, the knighthood Sir Stuart was given last week by the Queen really was his. Yet even that he deemed to be owned more broadly. It's not really for me, he said, it's for all M&S employees. I'm not quite sure what he was saying here, unless it was that everyone who works at Your M&S can call themselves Sir and Lady, going forward.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
As freelance copywriters, we spend a lot of time trying to convince people that business speak is archaic, and to find their company’s real voice. But the use of a particular word in a company department can become almost fashionable. Marketing, HR, sales – they’ve all got their own micro-languages. The good news is, people are starting to recognise how ridiculous management claptrap is - Business Bingo wasn’t invented for nothing. The bad news? Well, the trend now is towards sounding like Innocent. They developed a fantastic voice, which comes from who they are and what they do. Fine if you sell fruit-based drinks. Not so good if you’re a financial adviser. Everyone’s different, but it’s taking a while to convince some businesses of that.
Agent A, UK
I consider myself a linguist (being fluent in six languages, English being one of my foreign ones), but I also consider myself a business woman and a positive thinker. "Going forward" is the ONLY way to go, because what is the alternative? Staying put? Going backwards? Too many people are stuck in the past, both in their personal and their professional lives. There is nothing grammatically wrong with it either (apart from the fact that it should read "going forwards") and as you correctly point out, language changes; it is a living thing that constantly develops. I am all for correct punctuation and spelling, but the most important function of language is what it conveys, and in this case, going forward(s) conveys exactly the right message. Pessimism and realism are the quickest ways to get the economy in decline, positivism is the only way to get it back on track.
Inge van der Veen, Bristol, UK
The evolution of the language is what keeps it from following Latin into obscurity. But sloppy cliches, impenetrable jargon and meaningless verbal litter, like, just clutter and obstruct clear communication and hide superficial thinking. What we need is a new Oftalk to regulate the use of language, headed by Communication Czar who is passionate about going forward to champion the cause of the deep-rooted values that underpin the language that we all cherish as embodying the lasting and universal but distinctively English values of ... now hang on, where was I?
This usage seems fairly mysterious: The president said he is confident that ... Mr Brown will ... "make sure that the sacrifices that have gone forward won't be unravelled by draw-downs that may not be warranted".
Language needs to adapt to new developments. While I agree that changing the word "redundant" to "downsized", does little to change the fact that you need to find a new job, trying to halt the expansion of language is like trying to stop tide. George Orwell's 1984 shows us that the fewer words we have to express and think with, the more limited and controlled we become. As it's not the weapons that kill people, but rather those who use them, words are not insincere, but those who speak them may be. So let's go forward and push the envelope of word usage, but let's do it with a bit of serenity.
DS, Croydon, England
Unfortunately, the success of English as the dominant business language means that England no longer has control, but surely that's better than having a group of 20 octogenarians telling us we should say magnetoscope instead of video recorder. Plus, we can now play Buzzword Bingo during tedious cross-channel conference calls.
JC Lux, Luxembourg
Finally someone else thinks the same as me about that horrible expression... whatever happened to "in future" or "looking ahead"?
"Speak English, or get out." I say this A LOT.
Nic, Nottingham, England
My pet hates in badly used language are "can I lend some money?" instead of "can I borrow some money" which is what they mean. Using "can" when you should use "may". Mispronunciation of the word specific as pacific, I could go on but that would probably make me one of the pedants referred to in the article. The English language is a wonderfully rich and beautiful one, and we have a duty to avoid it being adulterated with pointless Americanisms and business-speak. All languages evolve, but their manner of evolution is a matter for the native speakers to decide.
No-one wishes to be reactionary and oppose all linguistic evolution; the efforts in France to "protect" their language are absurd and rightly the butt of much ridicule. However, Lucy Kellaway usefully points out how much of these recent changes are intended to deceive and mislead. Most of the phrases are merely empty, but some are deliberately dishonest and designed to distort meaning. (She takes her examples from the business world but this kind of malevolent misuse of language is at the heart of the "political correctness" fanaticism which can be seen in the political and social realms.)
Douglas McCallum, Kingdom of Bahrain (temporary); otherwise, Bullwood, by Dunoon (Agyll)
I've been following use of the word "dramatically" in all kinds of prose. It is used by everyone from Bill Gates to local journalists, and has a variety of meanings. Its polysyllabic nature is used to add drama to almost any statement.
Richard Chase, Vancouver Canada
At last, thank you. Going forward and leveraging have been driving me mad too as I could not see what either phrase actually meant. People seem to absorb them by a kind of collective hypnosis and then regurgitate them in incomprehensible sentences or paragraphs, together with most of the examples you quote above. I thought it was just me and I wondered why I could not understand English any more.
Cathy Gillespie, Kenley, UK
Like, wouldn't it be really cool if going forward when writers deciding on the topics to write on, they'd like would put the emphasis on the struggles they have with their own shortcomings as opposed to writing rants about what's wrong with the world? It's like in your article there are no solutions, only a bunch of holier than thous. Of course you admit to this; but only so others don't have to point it out to you. If you see the judgement in it, why write it. It's like saying, "the flame is hot" and then sticking your finger in it. Don't get me wrong, I see the entertainment value in your writing; but overall it's just as superficial as the level of speaking ability of the average person. I've seen the same thing in my own writings and so moving forward I'm changing my style. How about you?
Michael, Lilburn, GA, US
I once turned down a four-week temping assignment because the people who interviewed me for the job used the term "going forward" in amongst other useless business-speak which annoyed me no end. I couldn't stand the thought of four weeks of that kind of talk, it was working for the government.
Nina, Sydney, Australia
It sounds good - "We will review this going forward" = "We will sit around and see what happens" - seldom has doing nothing sounded so like a plan. In my office we dissuade people from using the phrase by laughing at them and pointing out how stupid they sound. In future, we expect fewer people to use it.
Tom, Blackburn, UK
I have the misfortune to work in the corporate events industry, and as a result, I spend my life in conference rooms around the globe, listening to the endless drone of business-speak. I am not sure if it is an urban myth, but apparently "going forward" became popular after New York Mayor Giuliani used it in his post 9/11 speech - it was snapped up by every business school on the planet, and has become top-scorer on the 'Corporate BS Bingo' card. It has become the corporate equivalent of the full stop.
JR, Cambridgeshire, UK