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How's that again?

HOW'S THAT AGAIN?

"Doublespeak" allows companies to run a "negative deficit" instead of a profit, car mechanics to become "automotive internists," and newsboys have the title of "media couriers."

It's been a tough day shopping, but you're almost finished. Just a couple more things to get and you can head for home. Loaded down with bags, you struggle into the last store. Looming before you is the "Courtesy Desk," with the sign that firmly states, "For Your Convenience Please Check All Packages at the Desk." You wait in line to unload your pile of packages into the hands of the "Customer Service Representative," who stacks them behind the counter and gives you your check number. After finding two of the four things you need and standing in line for what seems like hours waiting to pay, you reclaim your packages and wearily fight your way through the traffic to get home.

Sorting through your packages at home, you discover something's missing. But you distinctly remember paying for that electric hamburger flipper and taking it with you. Then you realize they must have forgotten to give it to you at the last store, when you reclaimed your checked packages. So, fighting the traffic yet again, you drive back to the store to pick up the package you checked for your convenience. It dawns on you then that you didn't check your packages for your convenience at all. In fact, it was very incovenient for you to check your packages. You checked those packages for the store's convenience. And you checked them because the store is trying to control its "inventory shrinkage," not because it's providing a service for you.

You have just been introduced to business doublespeak. Because business permeates so much of our lives, business doublespeak can have serious and far-reaching consequences. Because business doublespeak is so prevalent, however, you tend to ignore it, and you end up paying for your ignorance, whether you realize it or not. Although some business doublespeak, such as job titles, is often obvious and humorous, other business doublespeak is subtle and serious. You need to be aware of business doublespeak, for your own economic survival if for no other reason. And there is plenty to keep you busy.

These days, banks don't offer second mortgages on rental property--they offer "non-owner occupied equity recovery." When fewer policyholders died during the year than one insurance company expected, it reported a bigger than anticipated profit due to "positive mortality experience." When the Wilson Sporting Goods Company decided to close its U.S. plant where baseball gloves were made and to import foreign-made gloves instead, it announced it had "decided to foreign-source its glove needs." In Sears' catalog of products for 1986, the company offered a ceramic mug "made in USA and imported from England." Credit companies no longer have collection departments or billing departments--they have "Fulfillment Offices."

After the psychedelic 60s, followed by the silent 70s, we hit the greedy 80s, a time when making a lot of money was not only socially and morally acceptable but required. Yuppies and their lives of hard work, big bucks, and fancy cars, clothes, and habitats made the cover of Newsweek. "Greed is good," Michael Douglas said in the movie Wall Street, and we all knew what he meant. The Peace Corps was out and business school and investment banking were very much in. Then the "fourth quarter equity retreat" hit in October 1987.

Business, like most areas of our lives, has always had doublespeak, but the increased popularity of business has not just given doublespeak wider circulation, but has increased it dramatically. When Thomas Murphy, chair of the board of General Motors, was interviewed on "Meet the Press" in 1980, he was asked why the automobile business was so bad. Said Murphy without hesitation, "We are in a period of negative economic growth." This was one way of saying that because so many workers were laid off during the recession, few people could afford to buy a new GM car. And when the GAF Corporation announced in 1981 that it was selling nearly half of its subsidiary companies, a Wall Street investment banker praised the company for its "enterprise restructuring," a term that sounded a whole lot better than the previously popular term, "downsizing."

The Doublespeak of Avoidance

With doublespeak, companies can discuss subjects they would prefer to avoid. Pacific Gas and Electric Company no longer sends its customers montly bills. Now it sends them "Energy Documents." At United Parcel Service, no driver is the worst driver. Instead, a driver is the "least-best" driver. At CBS-TV, the "Program Practices Department" is the name given to the censor. Kirk Willison of the American Banking Association denied in 1988 that interest rates on bank credit cards were too high. "Don't call it an interest rate. Call it a service rate. It's not just a credit card, it's a payment mechanism," Willison protested. In 1982, federal investigations into widespread fraud in the heart-pacemaker industry revealed that "kickbacks" were called "rebates" or "fees for product testing."

When General Motors wanted to avoid a recall of 5.3 million cars in 1984, it tried to persuade the federal government that it "isn't dangerous for a car's rear wheel and axle to fall off." Rockwell International had a slight problem in 1984 when, after more than five years of research and $12 million worth of engineering, the space shuttle's toilet still did not work. On 10 of 11 trips into space, the toilet failed. Rockwell, however, insisted that the toilet had not failed but had just suffered "a number of different problems." For Mark Carter of Austin, Texas, the doublespeak used by his savings and loan association was financially painful. When Carter handed over his automatic teller machine card and access code at gunpoint, the robber's $500 withdrawal was an "authorized transaction," according to Texas Federal Savings and Loan officials. A letter to Carter stated that "Texas Federal has established a policy to consider a robbery of an ATM to be an authorized transaction." Willie Sutton would have loved to have heard that.

Doublespeak and Product Development

Through doublespeak, corporations can change the products and services they sell without spending a cent on product development. Hallmark no longer makes ordinary greeting cards. Now Hallmark makes "social expression products." In 1985, officials of the Quaker State Oil Refining Corporation were reported in the Wall Street Journal to be urging reporters to stop describing their corporation as an oil company and instead to call it "a consumer marketing company serving the automotive aftermarket." Once upon a time, North American Van Lines was a moving company, but in 1988 it became "North American Relocation Services." Doesn't the four-syllable "relocation" sound more impressive than the two-syllable "moving"?

No longer is it an automobile junkyard, nor junk, nor even used car parts. Now it's "auto dismantlers and recyclers" who sell "predismantled, previously owned parts." New Jersey junkyard operator Richard Montaldo insisted, "We're not a wastepaper business. We're a secondary-fiber business." To Camden Zoning Board of Adjustment officials, however, "a secondary-fiber business is a wastepaper business is a junkyard." In Burlington, New Jersey, a gravedigger, Newton Johnson, has the words "Internment Excavation" on his truck, and he points out that he "prepares" graves, he does not dig them.

Sometimes companies don't want people to know what it is they really do, so doublespeak helps. The Nuclear Engineering Company of Louisville, Kentucky, a company that disposes of radioactive and chemical wastes, changed its name in 1981 to "U.S. Ecology, Inc.," because the firm wanted a name "that would make people feel comfortable."

Business Schools and Doublespeak

Even business schools get in on the doublespeak. The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania runs a program called the Wharton Executive Education Program, which provides intensive instruction for senior executives at corporations around the world, for a nice fee, of course. Does the program make a profit? No, but it does run a "negative deficit."

In 1979, the Wall Street Journal reported that students taking the "Competitive Decision Making" course at the Harvard Business School (which calls its curriculum "learning technology") learned that negotiating in the real world involves using "strategic misrepresentation," or lying. They were taught that hiding certain facts, bluffing, or even outright lying often results in a better deal. The purpose of the course isn't to teach them to lie (or to use "strategic misrepresentation"), but to learn that they may be lied to.

The Harvard Business Review contributes its share to business doublespeak by publishing prose such as this:

If competitive advantage can be

achieved from just-in-time

participatory management styles, then

bottom-line oriented organizations can

better facilitate their gain-sharing

systems to network for the new

global technologies. At my

company, for example, detected

casualties fluctuate between generic niche

discontinuities and complementary

enculturative yield functions.

If this writing reflects the kind of clear thinking prevalent among senior executives of American corporations, we should have little trouble meeting the challenge of foreign competition. They'll just roll right over us while we flounder in our prose.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:doublespeak
Author:Lutz, William; Trawin, Don
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1990
Words:1514
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