Let’s touch base for a deep dive into the ruin of plain speaking

By Chief Advocate Ian Henschke

I had someone thank me the other day for returning their phone call.

They said they were glad I had because they wanted to “reach out” to me. I had to stop and think about what they were was saying. The trouble with mangling the English language is you don’t make yourself clear.

When they said “reach out”, I thought of Diana Ross wanting to “touch somebody’s hand and make the world a better place”. But then the Four Tops song came blasting through my brain. I first heard that extraordinary rhythm and blues hit when I was 12. The rest of the lyrics still resonate. “I’ll be there to love and comfort you.” But I didn’t really want to be loved and comforted by someone I’d never met, let alone touch their hand.

What was going on? I just answered a phone message. I didn’t want a relationship. They clearly wanted to “go on a journey”. To “engage in a dialogue” while having “a meaningful conversation” with me as a “key stakeholder” so we they could go for a “deep dive” and think “outside the box”. Perhaps they wanted me “share some learnings” so we could “sing off the same song sheet” while “moving forward”.

I thought I spoke English fluently and understood it when people spoke to me. But I just don’t know any more. At a meeting recently, someone said they thought I was being too “granular”. They seemed to be suggesting I should have been having more of a “helicopter view” and been doing some “blue sky” thinking.

Perhaps they wanted me to “touch base” with them in a way that showed I was thinking more “holistically” and “strategically” so we could “get all our ducks in a row” and “go after the low-hanging fruit”. But I wanted to “take the discussion offline” because I was offended by the “sharing” of their “thought bubble” about a “perception which can become a reality” about my “granularity”.

I have an honours degree in English and I have always loved clear, simple language. I admire people who say what they mean and mean what they say. I studied the wonderful work of George Orwell. He wrote 1984 and showed us the perils of newspeak. This was the controlled language of his fictional dystopia. He also despised the way language could be twisted and distorted into what he called doublespeak.

We no longer have mass sackings. We have “efficiency restructures”. When did a nursing home become an “aged care facility”? How did a kindy become an “early learning centre”? A smart student is now “gifted”. A disruptive one is “on the spectrum”. And, so it goes.

Now you may think none of this matters. But I think it’s vitally important. Some people say the reason Malcolm Turnbull couldn’t win over the electorate was because he didn’t have the ability to speak plain, simple English. Gough Whitlam, who was a bit pompous at times, still knew that the best slogan was two words: “It’s time”.

We are drowning in drivel from politicians and educators. The bureaucrats bamboozle us with bumf. The social workers and psychologists use psychobabble and the business people use MBA BS. And don’t get me started on advertising, real estate or sporting jargon. It’s as if each group wants to hide behind its own form of the emperor’s new clothes.

We’re supposed be relieved when someone in power at Centrelink announces a “difficult to navigate” 28-page form is going to be simplified into a “people-friendly format”. I’m glad it’s going to be “people friendly” and not dolphin friendly. This is not a joke. This is real. On the website it says the new “people-friendly format” is “to further improve transparency and choice on the portal”.

I went into a Centrelink office to get a CRN because, apparently, I needed one. I discovered a CRN is a customer reference number and to get it I had to provide identity documents to a real person and then “navigate” my way through the system alongside a dozen poor souls like myself staring at computer screens clicking mouses, or should that be mice, because they all looked trapped.

All were stuck to their chairs, struggling away, despite the “improved transparency” that must have been one of new KPIs (key performance indicators) for the “digital transformation” team in Canberra.

To my everlasting joy, a vision appeared walking up and down the line translating the information being requested. Her name was Karin. I hope she reads this because she was an angel of mercy. She was a drink of water to people dying in a desert. She smiled and spoke plain, simple English with a slight American accent. Thank you.

This article first appeared on the Adelaide Advertiser website

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