Monday, March 2, 2015

Tell It Like It Is

I don’t recall when they started using grander-sounding words and titles to try to build up a reputation, sell a product or otherwise change perceptions.  The first one that comes to my mind is when they started referring to the Personnel Department as Human Resources.  The sound of resources was friendlier, more human and less administrative than personnel, which may have sounded more like a processing function or an adoption from the military.  Over the years everyone adapted.  Many today may not have heard it referred to in any other way than Human Resources, but now it is still perceived as doing about the same functions.  Those who benefited the most were probably the printers of business cards.

Another business-related change was the move from employees to associates or team members.  In many cases this was a phony attempt to make the employees believe they were considered more important.  Our people are our greatest asset – until the budget doesn’t balance and then the associates suddenly become “headcount,” and are treated as a liability to be cut.  Actions speak louder than artificial titles.  (During my career I was an associate at one company and an employee at another, and the treatment at the second was much better than at the first.)  Remember, members of totalitarian societies would call their neighbors comrade just before they turned them in to the secret police.

Don’t forget the conversion of customers to guests.  They have guest services instead of customer services, but is the waiting time any shorter as you wade through the computerized telephone system and sit on hold trying to talk to a live human being while listening to a message about how important your call is?

One that caught my eye recently is the morphing of teachers and students into educators and learners.  Does it make a difference to the behavior of the ordinary citizen that Smokey Bear tells them to prevent wildfires instead of forest fires?  Yesterday people took a drink of water; today they hydrate.  In these cases, the behavior is much more important than the terminology.

Other noticeable examples include:  social justice – which sounds like a noble cause until you realize that both sides of an issue sometimes use it to defend their conclusions, because justice to one person is often different from justice to another in the same circumstances; health food – which is great marketing, using a name to imply the ability to grant people’s wishes for health, but the products are often untested against that promise; and “high school degree” – which is more impressive than an ordinary-sounding HS diploma.

There are many more examples.  Auto buffs will argue that a crossover vehicle is not exactly the same as a station wagon, but come on!  

In each case someone is trying to sell something.  Educators are trying to sell the image of enhanced status.   Human Resources is selling the idea of a less clerical or bureaucratic function.  Use of the term Associate tries to sell the idea of a more collaborative relationship.

Critical thinking is a must to defend against those who want to persuade us with fancy titles and terminology to buy something, to use a service or adopt a certain opinion.  It's important to be little skeptical of these changes in vocabulary, because using a fancier description is so much easier than actually delivering the quality we should expect.  Critical thinkers require them to mean what they say, to tell it like it is.

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