Defensive vacuity

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Today's Dilbert:

This is a different — and I think more interesting — take on the issues discussed here and here.


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    November 16, 2010 @ 7:21 pm

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  2. Mark P said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 11:37 pm

    I'm not sure this strip is necessarily referring to managers, but there is a perception that a typical manager's solution to any problem is to call a meeting. And at that point, the jargon and the manager bashing begin.

    In my own field there is a perception that meetings are nonproductive at best, which is certainly not entirely the fault of managers. In a lot of cases, I'm afraid it's the technical people who drag a meeting to a standstill. It also seems that as the overall program (of which my area is a small part) progresses, more layers of bureaucracy are added, and that bureaucracy manifests in the form of meetings. To be fair, I think in many cases these layers of bureaucracy and their meetings are an honest effort to solve problems. Unfortunately, in this case, the problems are probably an inherent part of the system itself.

  3. Ben Hemmens said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 4:11 am

    I think vacuity is real.

    My test for vacuity is if my mind goes blank when trying to translate it.

    You can't translate it figuratively because the metaphors suggest nothing, and if you translate it literally, it's even worse than vacuous. It becomes a kind of supervoid. Trying to explain to people that their advertising blurb just won't work without changes – though it sounds kind of cool in the original – is the hardest most thankless job a translator faces.

  4. Michael P said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 6:29 am

    Amen, Mark P. One of the worst mistakes a manager can make is to call a large meeting too early. Unfortunately, nearly as bad is calling a meeting that is too small or too late.

    I think Adams is trying to touch on the disconnect between high-level executives (and marketers) and line workers. Phrases that may be appropriate for one of those groups is inappropriate for the other: they typically work on such different levels of abstraction that they need different jargon.

    Depending on context, "optimiz[ing] the client value stream" might be a succinct way to describe a business objective. Divorced from the knowledge of what benefits that clients get from the company, yes, it is a great example of buzzword bingo. Good communicators make sure that their audience is on the right page for such things — which sets them apart from the kind of meeting participant that is being parodied here.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 7:54 am

    I wonder what motivates this kind of speech. Is there something about the social position of a manager, a coach or the like? Is it the same cross culturally?

  6. Hamlets ghost said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 9:00 am

    Does it pass the vacuity test; are there are circumstances when one would say the opposite (or at least something different)? Most helpful for determining the vacuity of mission statements

  7. richard howland-bolton said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 9:22 am

    @GeorgeW: maybe the same sort of linguaphobia that drives the sales of Heffer's tome?? (unless linguaphobia is a fear of people sticking their tongues out—though that might work too)

  8. GeorgeW said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 9:30 am

    @Richard: I am referring to the vacuous, cliche-saturated speech associated with managers and coaches.

  9. richard howland-bolton said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 9:42 am

    @GW so was I: thinking of vacuous, cliche-saturated speech as a refuge for the poor dears, who in my experience aren't always up to expressing themselves with any degree of confidence.

  10. Mark P said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 9:42 am

    What's vacuous to one person makes perfectly good sense to someone else. Technical jargon can put me to sleep if it's not in my area, and I think I could put some other technical people to sleep if they don't happen to work in my area. I don't work in the rarified atmosphere of high-level management (the company where I work is too small to have anyone at that level) but I think it's possible that jargon at that level could actually make sense within that environment. I'm not saying it does, only that it's possible.

  11. richard howland-bolton said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    Damn your lack of an edit feature, WordPress!

    Similarly it's lack of confidence that encourages people to buy 'how to' books on language.

  12. GeorgeW said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 9:58 am

    @Richard: Ah, I got you now, thanks. I agree. Maybe, it also becomes part of the culture and is passed on from one generation to the next.

    I would really like to know if this is a cross-cultural phenomenon.

  13. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 10:55 am

    In my experience, corporate meetings elicit the familiar negative responses in attendees because their organizers use them for purposes they cannot achieve. In short, we don't like "meetings" because they cannot do what the meeting leader hopes.

    In small huddles, quite a bit can be done. One-on-one, also much can be done. In large assemblies, much good information can be conveyed. Meetings of a certain size, however, are theater. The meeting organizer invites people to play certain roles, and in large meetings many of the roles are non-productive by intent. Dialogue, monologue, and even soliloquy, in the form of vacuous statements, buzzwords, and manager-speak become de rigueur in this form of theater. Real ideas, committed decisions, viable strategies, and the like cannot come from the theater of large meetings. Thus, these meetings are fertile ground for satirists, comics, and the cynical. Actual managers and executives that I have worked among do not speak like this absent an audience of a certain sort.

  14. Alix said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 11:00 am

    I tend to think of this kind of jargon as being the result of the Peter principle, in which people are promoted to their level of incompetence. Since they don't really know how to think, write or speak clearly, they take refuge in buzzwords and cliche. In trying to come across as intelligent and well-informed, they only succeed in being meaningless.

    But I could be wrong. Maybe this is the result of trying to professionalize management– so that managers are trying to oversee workplaces in which they really have no clue what their employer is actually trying to produce, or what the conditions on the production line are actually like for front-line staff.

  15. Catherine said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    My first thought when reading this strip was actually that it's a good description of tendencies of Adult Children of Alcoholics and others with insecurity problems to try to say things that "seem normal" rather than that actually communicate meaning. The stock phrases are different outside the business setting, but the behavior is very similar. It can be very noticeable that this is what's going on when questions or attempts to go more in-depth are met as though they are completely irrelevant. I've heard more than one person say, "Oh, you can't take what I say seriously," when someone has expected the speaker to follow up on the meaning of what he or she has just said. And the listening skills are just not there, either.

  16. Catherine said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    I didn't mean to sound so disparaging about listening skills–what I meant is that when people are suffering from severe insecurity, I think that their attention is turned inward so that they have trouble truly listening to and understanding others. The whole idea is to deflect any real give-and-take.

  17. John Baker said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    Note that Wally, the speaker here, is not a manager at all; he's an engineer who is a poor worker. Dilbert has many anti-manager comic strips, but it has even more anti-employee strips, and this is one of them.

    Wally does not have any real meaning in mind, but his statement does express meaning. Another way of saying it would be, "Are you using external resources to deliver goods and services to our customers as efficiently as possible?"

  18. Acilius said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

    @Catherine: You make a very interesting point. "False fine" is a term I first encountered in disability studies, though it may have originated in some other field for all I know. It names a habit of seizing up, plastering on a smile, and claiming that "I'm fine" when in fact you are confused, afraid of being overwhelmed, and desperate to get out of a situation. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that sounds like the same behavior you're describing in Adult Children of Alcoholics.

    @Mark P: I'm always surprised at how few people have the skills required to make a meeting productive. On its face, it might not seem to require any special competence to get a bunch of people together, exchange information, and make decisions, yet as I think of all the people I've met in my working life, I would say that the vast majority simply have no idea how to make a contribution to a meeting. Usually if there are more than five people in a room, most are either sitting quietly in the back, a few are making the kind of barely relevant jargon-laden remarks the strip parodies, and some are trying to sidetrack the discussion into something they find interesting. It never occurred to me to classify these behaviors as examples of "false fine," but surely that's what they are.

  19. Joe said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    This "vacuity" is not specific to managers. I think that these are implicatures specific to jargon that convey, obviously, no real information but affiliation with a particular group (in this case "management types"). It reminds me of a Janeane Garofalo bit where, in playing Janis Gold an FBI analyst on 24, she had to rattle off a stream of technical jargon she did not understand. The idea, of course, was to show that she was a computer expert.

    Obviously, this type of jargon is used extensively in movies, tv, books, etc. to convey a variety of types, not just managers or computer experts. In the real world, I see this used by sales people trying to evoke the level of technical expertise behind their products. Another real world example is the use of jargon as a proxy for "I don't know" — and if the reciever of the jargon can't say "I don't know what you're talking about" (for whatever reason) you end up with a very interesting but "vacuous" conversation.

  20. Catherine said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

    @Acilius: I hadn't heard the term "false fine" before, but I do think it applies at least in part. I'm certainly not an expert on Adult Children of Alcoholics (though I worked briefly in social work), but ACOA is something I've been reading up on because I married into an alcoholic family ten years ago. (I was rather naive at the time in thinking that because the actual alcoholics were gone that the resultant problems were gone.) I think that there's a further problem in not just presenting a "false fine," but in not even understanding what being "fine" is really like because healthy relationships were not part of the person's upbringing. A person fakes it because he or she only knows how to fake it. I recently read somewhere that someone from an alcoholic family may not be able to tell the difference between a relationship that looks good on the outside and one that actually IS good (i.e. healthy and happy), so they become one and the same thing. I think that communication starts to work the same way–if it sounds okay on the surface, then it is okay.

    I'm not sure if this completely relates to the sort of situations that disability studies would be looking at, but there must be similarities in some cases.

  21. GeorgeW said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    In the same general category with vacuous, cliche-laden speech, I would add 'catchy slogans' for programs, plans, etc.

    I can recall a program several years ago in my organization called "doing more with less." What it amounted to was our budget were being cut and we were being asked to produce even more. Rather than being candid and explicit, a catchy slogan was adopted. Although it may have sounded more innocuous, no one thought anything other than more work for equal compensation and less support.

  22. Acilius said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

    @Catherine: For years I've been saying, as I did above, "'False fine' is a term… in disability studies." It turns out it would have been more accurate for me to have said "I know some disability studies scholars who use the phrase 'false fine' in conversation." A few moments ago I googled the term, and found that it originated (as "false 'fine-fine'") in Joanne Greenberg's 1964 novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. While the phrase has caught on in various circles in the sense I outlined above, it doesn't seem to be established in the disability studies literature as a technical term. Sorry to have inflicted my misunderstanding on you!

  23. JimG said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    To manage connotes ideas such as organizing and controlling the activity of peple who actually do the work, of allocating resources. Seems to me that there's far more discussion of how to manage than there is about how to get the work itself done (which is often self-defined by goals or processes.) Maybe the puzzling aspects of managing or the uncertainties of guiding human beings' efforts are why technically competent workers become incompetent when promoted to managment.

    The above reminds me of an old poli sci definition of politics as the authoritative allocation of resources. Could there be some similarity between managers and politicians?

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