Thursday, 20 June 2013

LET'S MOVE ON

Perhaps your awareness of the late George Carlin is limited to his withering commentaries on the illusion of choice and freedom afforded to those of us living in supposedly democratic countries. Stuff like his wonderfully efficient three-minute deconstruction of the American Dream, perhaps. If that's the case, and if you buy the huge, doorstop-like tome that is the omnibus of his collected writings, then you may be in for a bit of a surprise. Granted, you will find, dotted around its 890 pages, Carlin's thoughts on the politicians, the corporations, the bullshit wars and all that. But these bits are massively outnumbered by more whimsical musings on the changing use of language. Over and over (and sometimes repetitiously), Carlin amuses himself by wondering at the origins of some idiomatic phrase or by poking fun at those who employ pretentious, ponderous or trendy modes of speech.

This blog could easily be full of that stuff. Because I am one of those people who really notices how things are said. One of those people who infers way too much from someone's choice of words, someone's intonation, someone's accent. Open your mouth in my vicinity and I'll be weighing you up, sifting through your data and deciding in which pigeon hole you are fated to remain pretty much for ever. I was like this anyway, even as a younger man. But a degree in linguistics made me so much worse. Sociolinguistics. Psycholinguistics. Pragmatics. Semantics. Discourse analysis. All that shit. I'm processing your every word, your every syllable through these filters. You've barely introduced yourself and I've decided who you are, what your dad did for a living, where your grandparents are buried, who you vote for and how wrong you are about everything you've ever thought about. But I keep it to myself, of course. Because if I didn't, you'd think I was even more of a dick than you already do. Hence this line of musing being largely absent from this is my england. I want it to take a bit longer for you to decide you don't like me, OK?

But dipping in and out of Carlin's giant repository of assertions and assumptions for the last few weeks (I read a few pages over breakfast, in the bath or when taking a dump) has had its effect. I can no longer resist the urge to join the late George in his picking at the stitches of the speech which invades our minds every day.

So I want to take issue with a phrase which can be heard at almost any meeting one might attend in the course of the working day at that white collar job of yours. I want to talk about why it's used and about the baleful effect it has on your chances of achieving anything useful.

So you're called to one of those regular project meetings. Six or so people who usually work in different parts of the same large building, all doing jobs so specialised that, during a dinner party, each of them would struggle to explain neatly what it is that he or she does for a living.  You're one of them. Your job is just a mysterious little piece of an increasingly arcane and abstract puzzle. Anyway, I digress. There you are, then, all together. You do different things but for now you're all spending part of your time working on the same project. So you need project meetings like this one. You have to talk about the project's various milestones, deliverables, KPIs and all that. Yes, it's impossible to describe this meeting without lapsing into business bullshit bingo. But we'll leave all those objectionable terms aside for today. Instead, we're going to have a look at that one particular phrase which crops up several times during this meeting and every other meeting.

There are, say, six items on today's agenda. Each of them represents a piece of work on which everyone must be clear if you're all going to proceed without working at cross purposes for the four weeks between now and the next project meeting. If you fail to arrive at a real joint understanding now, mistakes will be made, money will be wasted, tempers will get raised and blame will be apportioned. You're not going to get all these people in the room for another month so this is golden time. This is your chance to avoid expensive and annoying fuck-ups. Don't waste that chance. 

Six agenda items, then. One hour set aside for the meeting. The meeting room booked for just that hour, with another group of people waiting impatiently outside, ready to eject your group the moment that your hour has elapsed. So that means each agenda item gets ten minutes, right?

Well the first two items are easy. Everyone understands them and everyone agrees on what needs to be done, how and by whom. Then along comes item three and it starts to go wrong. One person in the room has done some additional research and has to report that the matter at hand is more complicated than anticipated and that the previously agreed approach to it is going to need to reconsidered. Questions are fired back and forth and opinions seem to vary about whether the guy pointing out the problems is just being difficult. Some of the others probably think he's just trying to sound important and make a name for himself as a bit of a thinker. Anyway, some way into this disagreement, somebody notices that almost twenty minutes have been spent discussing just this one point. So here come those baleful words. Let's move on, someone says. We'll have to move on.

Move on? But we haven't sorted this out! We haven't sorted out this important question, and experience teaches us that a failure to do so now will lead to future misunderstandings and to bigger problems. So let's not move on. Let's keep talking and let's sort it out. No, no, someone objects. Let's move on.

Ah, there it is: "Let's move on". Looked at one way, this phrase, which you'll hear at almost every meeting you ever attend, is just good time management: keep the pace up, be efficient.  Your boss probably read that in some book on management and now treats it as the eleventh commandment: Thou Shalt Move On. But looked at another way, it's just a shorter way of saying "no one wants to think about this because we're all too stupid, too scared of looking stupid, too short-sighted, too disinclined to spend time on anything which isn't easy and lalalalalalalalalaI'mnotlistening."

So you all move on. Perhaps you even "park" the difficult matter under discussion, the idea being that it will be "revisited" at some undefined point in the future. But it doesn't get revisited and, just as you thought, the six people in the room clear off back to their individual desks and tasks, basing their work on entirely different understandings of an unresolved problem. Bigger problems do, of course, arise.

A few months later, the most senior person who was present in that meeting is at another meeting with a number of his peers on the management team. They are discussing the poor state of the company's finances and the impatience of the sociopaths who own the business. Talk turns to rationalisation, to restructuring and right-sizing. They start to talk about who will be ejected into a shitty jobs market in the middle of the summer when no one is hiring. The guy who was in your project meeting thinks about the people who work for him. Who to get rid of? Who don't we like? So he thinks about all the problems which resulted from that failure to spend enough time talking about something complicated and important. He thinks about who might be culpable.... and you know who he decides to get rid of? Well, it must be the idiot who kept mindlessly intoning "let's move on, let's move on", right? No! If that was your guess then you really don't understand business or people or anything about today's workplace. The guy who's going to get his P45 is the one who was insistent on discussing the thorny problem properly and arriving at a universally understood agreement. It has to be him. Why? Because he's too negative and because he's not a team player.

If you think this makes sense then you will go far in business. If you're wondering how any of this can possibly be right then you're just not the sort of person who we're looking for. You just won't fit the ethos of our dynamic, lean, efficient, customer-centric, relentlessly relevant organisation. So fuck you.

Carlin's doorstop

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