Why Can’t People Just “Talk Normal"?

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By AMA Staff

Tim Phillips is a journalist who has written for the Wall Street Journal Europe, International Herald Tribune, The Guardian, The Observer, the Daily Telegraph, and others. He writes the blog “Talk Normal” and is the author of Fit to Bust: How Great Companies Fail and Knockoff:The Deadly Trade in Counterfeit Goods, and co-author of the best-selling Scoring Points. He spoke to AMA recently about his latest book, Talk Normal: Stop the Business Speak Jargon and Waffle, for an Edgewise podcast. The following is an edited version of that interview.  

AMA: The basic concept of your book is that our inability to “talk normal” has reached epidemic proportions. How did this happen?

Tim Phillips: Well, I think it’s happened just through general inattention. We consider that talking normal is the sort of thing we can all do because we’ve all been talking for a very long time by the time that we get to work. We assume that just because we do so much of it, we do it rather well, and that people who are at the top of their profession do it better than the people around them. However, I don't think that’s the case. I think that because of work’s pressures and the need to communicate so much at work now, our mistakes have been institutionalized. In some ways, we’re getting worse, not better.

AMA: I ask this biting my lip, but I’m wondering what you’re going to say. Is America to blame for this?

Phillips: No, actually, I don't think America is to blame. When I’m making speeches or giving seminars or helping train people, there’s always the objection that I don't like things to change, that I just want the language to stay the same as it always was. That’s absolutely not true. There are some wonderful improvements in the language that I would say that the United States has been responsible for. And that’s great.

What I don't think is good is the coining of new words at the slightly hysterical word inflation that we’ve got, while there are already lots of really adequate words for what we’re saying. One of the reasons that I find this a negative trend is because most of the people who speak English in the world don't speak it as a first language. When I speak to them, very often their problem is that there are just so many words for everything. We can’t keep track of it all. So you can say that’s a problem for them, but it’s also a problem for us. If we’re doing business with them, if they’re working for us, if they’re working alongside us, this constant need to change and move the language around for no good effect isn’t always a good thing.

AMA: What are the guiding principles of talk normalism?

Phillips: There are three. Number one: try and be understood by everybody you’re speaking to. One of the things about jargon is that we get a lot of pleasure out of it because it puts us in the “in” group, the people who understand the jargon. But we have a responsibility to the people in the “out” group, the people who don't understand the jargon, as well. So try to be understood by everyone you’re speaking to.

The second principle is stop trying to sound clever if sounding clever doesn’t get you anywhere. Anyone can explain the difficult things so that it sounds like they’re difficult. It really takes insight to take something that’s complex and make it sound simple for people to create understanding. And really, that’s what we should be doing with language.

The third principle is that it’s about attitude; it’s not about rules. I make jargon mistakes and grammar mistakes all the time. All journalists do. Fortunately, we have people who work as copy editors to fix those for us. If we get hung up on the rules, we’ll lose sight of what we’re here to do, which is to communicate with each other and be understood.

AMA: Your book includes a subchapter titled “How HR Ruined Your Life,” where you talk about some current favorite HR-driven terms—passionate, on boarding, role player, and so forth. What annoys you about these words?

Phillips: What annoys me about them is that we’ve come to this kind of formalism around the sort of language we use when we are talking about our jobs (which have been renamed as “roles” now). It’s one of the things that we’re acting at rather than doing.  And so, we’ve created this language, I think almost to entertain ourselves. It sometimes makes our jobs or roles seem rather better than they are. And I suppose maybe we like to do that sometimes when work is boring.

The passion—what I call passion on demand—is something that has always irritated me. I wrote about this because I was asked to by someone who is the boss of his company, “Why does everyone, when they come in for job interviews with me, now claim that they’re always passionate about their job? Because I run the company and I’m not passionate about it.” He said, “Obviously, I’m very interested. I’m very motivated by the work, but I’m not passionate about it. I’m passionate about my wife and my kids and my hobbies.”

People claim to be passionate about anything. And all that does is it just devalues passion. It becomes a meaningless word. HR is based around competition. We’re competing for jobs. We’re competing for attention. Sometimes that competition gets into the language and the language loses its meaning. But the problem is, HR—before it was called human resources—it used to be called personnel. It’s about people and their feelings and their needs. And for that, using language responsibly is very, very important.

AMA: What kind of role do you think social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn play in this rising tide of jargon and business speak?

Phillips: Now, this is an interesting question, one that has made me unpopular in the past.  There was a time when communication was only done by a few people at work. Now we’re all communicating all the time. It’s good that people can be open about their lives and about things that need to be communicated. What it means though, is that very often we don't think. We don't structure our thoughts before we try to communicate them. We’re so busy communicating, we don't bother to think, “What do people need to hear? What do they really not need to hear now? What’s our priority?”

See, it kind of gets in the way sometimes. I’m sure we’ve all had days—I certainly have—where you spend so much time communicating with people about what needs to be done, you get to the end of the work day and you haven’t actually started doing it yet. And I believe social media can contribute to that.

The other thing social media does is it tends to amplify things. As the first generation of bloggers we came to believe that if we had opinions and our opinions could be modified by comments, we’d reach this sort of golden mean, this consensus about things. It doesn’t tend to happen like that. The way the groups work in practice is that very often we’re attracted to people we already agree with. We comment, and then the group becomes more and more extreme. We see it happening in the media now. And it’s not exclusively social media folk. This is a process that’s been going on ever since people have been communicating. But social media is a great example of how sometimes we don't actually reach consensus; we don't reach agreement; we just start arguing.

AMA: Any concluding thoughts?

Phillips: Very often what we get down to is this: if we just communicated a little bit less, the result of that communication could be so much better. It’s what I touched on in my answer before: to be able to prioritize is about what you leave out; it’s not about just ordering your thoughts. It’s about saying, “Not now. Let’s do that later.” If there was a little bit more of that, then we would have shorter PowerPoint presentations, shorter meetings, and emails that say everything in one paragraph rather than in 15. And I think the world would be a better place for that.

Listen to the complete podcast.

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