The waiter flew across the café bearing a double espresso with a mixture of reverence and triumph, and replied to my (heartfelt, it had been an early start) words of thanks with one word – ‘awesome’. He was energetic and kind, the coffee looked pretty good, some sun was squeezing itself through the gaps in the East London shutters, and all seemed pretty well with the world.
But. Awesome? Words pretending to say something else would continue to tumble through that day.
Let’s gyre and gimble a bit and see what’s going on.
Awesome might be a clue. How we use words is bound to change and develop. It can be fast. Jeremy Bullmore once mused in a speech to advertising folk….how speedily the word ‘procurement’ had changed from being a ‘word of the night to a word of the day’.
A well known trope – historians still can’t quite agree which words were actually involved – is that St Paul’s cathedral was greeted and appraised with the words ‘awful’, ‘amusing’ and ‘artificial’ when it was formally completed 1711. And quite right too. These words (then) meant awe-inspiring, amazing, and a triumph of construction skill.
But change can take many directions. ‘Awesome’ must have become faint with overuse to appear at the delivery of a cup of coffee. The articulate curmudgeon Ian Martin observes a more cynical form of overuse happening to ‘sorry’, as the word becomes a sort of aggressive dignity supporting weapon. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/15/sorry-stop-apologising-ian-martin
I haven’t been paying enough attention. Time to be more alert to the awesome/sorry effect. OrwelI did warn us with 1984’s Newspeak where a shrinking vocabulary leads.
So of course, once attention is paid, awareness increases, and more data appears. (A process with which my clients experiment).
Two girls at the next table clatter and chink their cappuccinos. One is chattering, one is listening. Except she isn’t, she’s texting. So she says ‘absolutely’ to pretend she’s heard.
A voice on the radio talks of a ‘consultation process’ – to confirm a construction investment decision already made. An article about Apple marketing catches my eye. It talks of the consumer advantages of owning an iPhone 5. Such a lucky person will apparently be able to access the Apple ‘ecosystem’ of apps.
Does the word ‘shop’ pop into your mind, too?
And it matters. It’s not just that it becomes harder to extract meaning. As these words and expressions (‘put it out there’ was heard minutes later from the two girls) become more ghostly and vague, several things happen. An emotional gap between speaker and listener begins to open up. A temporary anaesthetising affects both participants (no brain activity needed while these ghost words are in the ether). In that space, trust and connection begin to lessen. Where does it lead? We will lose the ability to make real contact with each other. “Absolutely” isn’t really fooling anyone. Each of us can feel when no real connection is there.
Businesses will lose our trust. At some level, we know that ‘ecosystem’ is just a glossy (clever) hyperbole too far. I suggest we start a ‘love some words’ week. It will help look after our relationships with each other. Especially in business.
Because if this weaseling continues, we shall have to go back in time to reclaim some words that can work for us again.
I don’t believe a shop is an ecosystem. A brand that chooses to talk to me like that is just going to become ‘yonderly’. *
* yonderly emotionally distant 13th century English geond .