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Jewish World Review April 11, 2002 / 30 Nisan, 5762

Geoffrey Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg
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Consumer Reports


The most influential man on corporate business language and image is 'spaced-out'


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | One picturesque note to the Enron affair was the names that the company picked for those offshore corporations that it used to hide its losses, from action adventure films like "Braveheart," "Jurassic Park," and above all the Star Wars movies, which contributed names like Jedi Capital, Obi-1 Holdings, and Kenobe, Inc. In retrospect, those names were clearly a symptom of the singularly space-cadet mentality of the company's top management. But the fondness for "Star Wars" imagery isn't restricted to one rogue outfit in Houston. The fact is that George Lucas has probably had more influence on the language of corporate America than any other single individual, with Vince Lombardi and Fritz Perls running neck-and-neck for second.

This has less to do with Lucas's cinematic imagination than with a problem that has haunted corporate America ever since the early twentieth century, when large corporations definitively replaced the family firm as a dominant economic force. How do you motivate employees to feel a sense of loyalty or commitment to an abstract entity like a coporation? In the words of Peter Drucker, the first and the only great theorist that the corporation has ever had: "An engineer will not be motivated to make a shareholder rich."

That problem became more urgent about twenty years ago, as corporations started to bail out on the traditional promise of lifetime employment, and as the salary gap between employees and top managers began to swell. That's when corporations and consultants started talking about creating "high-performance corporate cultures." That term was meant to suggest that purely symbolic rewards and motivations could move employees to feel a loyalty and esprit de corps that went beyond anything that was justified by material considerations alone.

But "culture" is too vague a term to do any work by itself -- it has to be fleshed out with language borrowed from some other realm of social life. Writing just after the Second World War, when the country had come together in a swell of patriotic spirit, Drucker had suggested that corporations ought to think of themselves as miniature polities, the representative institutions of society. But modern corporations haven't found the language of civic engagement a very inspiring model. It's not stirring enough, for one thing, and it focuses too much on individualism and democratic consensus. However you package it, it's hard make a corporation look like anything but an oligarchy.

At first blush, the military would seem to be a better model. But modern military language has become more corporate than the language of the corporation itself, with its predilection for acronyms and euphemisms like "collateral damage." And not even a bank or insurance company would dare to refer to its employees as "assets."

What corporations really wanted their employees to feel like was the combatants in medieval romances, setting out on quests in the face of implaccable, inhuman enemies and driven by a spiritual sense of mission. And of coures that's what the space operas made their stock-in-trade -- Sir Gawain on the holodeck. So it's no accident that shortly after movies like "Star Wars," "Star Trek" and "Mad Max" began to appear, corporations started to loot their language. Salespeople became "road warriors" and the people who shepherd new products and and initiatives through development were called "champions." Above all, that was when corporations started to come up with "vision statements" and "mission statements." Those were posted on walls or Web sites and printed on wallet-sized cards that employees were expected to carry on their persons at all times, like the sacramental badges called scapulars that the members of monastic fraternities wear under their clothing.

In the end, these vision statements almost always come down to the same bromides and generalities that had been around for years under the headings of goals and mottos. "Our vision is to seek long term growth by providing innovative, high quality products that create significant value for our customers." That's an unimpeachable corporate objective, whether you're selling eyeglasses or heavy equipment. But thirty years ago, no one would have thought to describe it as a "vision," a word that used to be reserved for people like Saint Teresa of Avila.

Whatever you tell them, of course, most corporate employees aren't at risk of confusing themselves with Luke Skywalker. In fact the chief effect of all that "Star Wars" talk about missions and visions has been to exacerbate employees' sense of disaffection, all the more because it seems to demean the everyday dedication that most people actually bring to their jobs. In private life it's enough to have goals and hopes, but when you arrive at the workplace now your eyes are expected to be glistening with some nobler sense of purpose. I recall what a friend told me about having to compose a "vision statement" for his job: "It isn't enough that I give them my body -- now they want me to kiss them on the mouth."

But then the real audience for this language isn't so much the employees it's addressed to as the executives who commission it. In an age when successful CEO's are routinely treated as media stars, top managers no longer model themselves after traditional corporate sages like Alfred Sloan or James Watson. They'd rather think of themselves in the image of General Patton or Captain Kirk, leading their troops into battle as they trail a cloud of rousing metaphors behind them. However dreary or dull your friends may find you, it isn't hard to think of yourself as a charismatic leader when you've got a communications department churning out yards of fulsome panegyric. Not long ago I saw a Xerox Corporation press release that said, "The senior team. . . spontaneously erupted into sustained applause and stood as a sign of respect to their new leader." There was a time when that sort of language would have made even a Stalinist apparatchik blush.

In the end, though, the real victims of this sort of talk aren't the cynical employees who shine it on but the trusting ones who buy into the story and load up their 401K's with the company's stock. And then when the Death Star explodes, the force is nowhere to be found.

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JWR contributor Geoffrey Nunberg is a Consulting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University. The author of, most recently, "The Way We Talk Now," he also chairs the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Comment by clicking here.

Up

02/15/02: Cars and incantations
02/01/02: Hacking up our language
01/18/02: Rebirth of the Cool
01/11/02: The Last Post
01/04/02: Literal frustration
12/28/01: I Have Seen the Future, and It Blogs
12/21/01: An interjection for the age
12/14/01: Its own reward
12/07/01: Community sting
11/30/01: 100 Percent Solutions

© 2002, Geoffrey Nunberg