I’ve spent a lot of time out and about recently. I love watching people, not (necessarily) in a sinister way, but observation is how I make sense of the world. Having criss-crossed the UK for various meetings and experiences this week, I’m no stranger to the inside of a crowded train and the rain-soaked streets of some of our major cities. It’s given me plenty of opportunity to listen, look and be in the company of the ridiculous. I include myself in that.
In some way or another we’re all ridiculous, bothered by the inconsequential. Huffing at late trains that ruin our routine, meticulously editing Powerpoint slideshows with too much information to make the presentation anything other than a bore, squeezing into suits, rebelling against them, adopting business tones on the phone or just being ourselves. Yesterday I saw a four hour train journey turn into eight and never batted an eyelid. Today I had to bite my lip as I fell into a wild rage over the mention of imposed company values in a corporate meeting room. Ridiculous.
It’s that we all care which makes us human. Even where we strip away our individuality and adopt mechanistic ‘business’ behaviour, we care enough about conformity to do so. Which makes this a friendly celebration of the human traits I don’t understand.
Earlier in the week, I looked over the top of the seat in front on the 08:47 between Salisbury and London Waterloo. A sea of oversized laptops stretched out to the far reaches of the carriage, accompanied by an ocean of serious faces looking intently at spreadsheets, tapping keyboards, frowning occasionally. Every now and then as fields, rivers and hedges passed by, ignored in favour of glowing LCD screens, the hush was punctuated by an odd supressed laugh as a ridiculous spelling mistake or miscalculated figure jumped from the screen under close scrutiny.
Diagonally opposite, a middle-aged man in an ill-fitting charcoal grey suit frantically re-ordered bullet points on a blue presentation slide. Overcrowded with shrunk-to-fit text, the headline read:
1/3 of Businesses Admit They Don’t Have a Mobile Strategy. Isn’t It About Time You Did?
I wondered where he was going, who would be the recipients of this pitch, how he mustered the dedication to commit to this seemingly meaningless work. In my jeans, doing my own thing, self-congratulation made a weak yet ugly attempt to surface, but was quickly muted by the recognition that at least this guy can pay his bills each month.
Beyond the silence of concentration, the din of the train hummed as we raced in and out of mobile signal on our journey through the British Countryside into metropolis. Sporadically a voice pierced the calm, usually — but not exclusively- male.
‘Sandra, Derek. Just calling to confirm that the thing we thought was a thing actually was a thing.’
Looks at phone. Puts it back to ear.
Looks at phone again.
It goes on.
There’s no need to elaborate on this, we’ve all experienced the dropped call and witnessed the person persistent in their futile attempt to reconnect via willpower alone. It’s not the call itself I enjoy, but the tone. Regardless of the words, it’s the tone of voice that says this is Business, with a capital B.
Hey, you, don’t get in my way, I’m doing Business. This is important stuff. Do you understand what will happen if this question about some kind of numbers isn’t answered at a time when there’s nothing I can do about it anyway by virtue of being on a train with crap signal and no WiFi?
It’s the same voice you hear patrolling the corridors of the Institute of Directors, lining the platforms at Liverpool Street, propping up bars at Canary Wharf and perpetuating other traditional Business locations throughout the Western world. An adopted tone of false authority, making the trivial important. A voice best described as that of Dwayne Benzine, occasional girlfriend-stealing character in Channel 4 Sitcom Spaced. A voice I just don’t understand or identify with — which is why I’m so infatuated with it.
Why would you ever need to put on a tone to have a conversation? I love talking to people, strangers or friends, but whoever they are, at whatever level, whatever they’ve done, I respect them enough to speak to them as myself — not some clone of an eighties Hollywood movie. This cloak of seriousness, worn for Business calls and other related activities, soundtracks in part every trip I make. I find it an enjoyable listen.
I’ve been inspired to write this after spending a day in a small room within a very large corporate building. A weird combination of procurement procedures and social media conversations led me to be there with a group of fantastically human people. We were in the room with a more serious bunch of counter-suppliers and representatives of the corporate body itself, all of them perfectly affable yet able to emit a stunning amount of jargon.
Here are a select few of my favourite sound bites from the day:
Low-hanging fruit, C Sat, Cascaded, Been in a dialogue to sense check, Thrash that out a bit, Quick wins, Keeping down with the Jonses, Taking this conversation offline, Dovetail (with associated interlocking hand gesture), Performance management streams.
There’s more, much more, including a list of initials and acronyms that would require a full glossary. It’s a culturally-specific language, endemic to that organisation and many of those who associate themselves with it.
A morning of listening to perfectly useful presentations delivered in the language of Business by a group of corporate employees, culminated in a talk by a young chap in a suit who must barely have been out of University (we were informed that the company currently has no A-Level intake). The subject matter is unimportant and possibly, eight hours later, unclear without digging out reams of handouts, but masses upon masses of research, corporate babble and reporting had combined to define the organisation’s purpose — the punchline of his piece:
‘Championing a better way of doing business for you and your communities.’
No hint of irony, or self-knowing as the cloak of seriousness descended for the delivery. Proudly adorned on all kinds of printed materials, some serious investment has gone into this, the all-encompassing, single driving force for that entire organisation.
There are pages and pages of this stuff. But what the hell does it actually mean, to real people?
After much conversation, a couple of us deciphered the cryptic piece and realised that what they’re actually saying is:
‘We’re going to behave like a small local business.’
Why not just say that?
The latter phrase is understandable, conjures up images of what that behaviour looks like, how the organisation will feel and is of real use to anyone who reads it — customer, supplier, employee, prospective employee, whoever. I just don’t understand why Business has to create waffle, alienate itself and make life harder by communicating using phrases like the former. It’s no wonder people have trouble trusting the corporate world.
I hesitated to include that anecdote. I’ll be working with this corporate soon, via another company who have worked hard to get in there (a group of people I really like). It’s the first bit of paid work I’ve secured in ages under The Work Project, so all in all I’m not sure how well advised it was. I hope everyone takes it as the light-hearted and constructive dig it’s intended to be.
It’s a dig at the ridiculous nature of Business, the seriousness of corporate work — no matter how inconsequential the task. Although I just don’t get it (and I think there’s a far better way) I’m also happy to be tagged as ridiculous in my own ways.
My commitment to walking everywhere I possibly can so I can see more, experience more and get some thinking time leads me to ignore bad weather and head out. Today, for the second time in a month, I arrived at a meeting looking like a drowned rat, after briskly trotting a mile in a torrent.
I’m writing this on a weatherproof late evening train between Manchester Piccadilly and Bristol Temple Meads. The carriage is punctuated by empty seats and a calm drone of conversation fills the air. Lots of people are in jeans.
I’m a little disappointed to report no one has yet pulled on the cloak of seriousness…
By Andy Swann on December 19, 2014.
Exported from Medium on July 15, 2016.