The New Statesman Essay - The tyranny of Nicespeak

Today, even academics are told how to answer the phone, and every hospital has a "mission statement"

In 1990 I returned to Britain after two years abroad, and found that I no longer spoke the language. My difficulty was not with ordinary conversation, but with public discourse. The rules had changed, and I could not get the hang of them. I was baffled when a worker at a fast-food outlet handed me a solitary carton of milk with a cheery: "Enjoy your meal!" I was unsure how to respond when bank tellers or supermarket checkout staff addressed me by name, as though I were an intimate friend. I pored uncomprehendingly over the "charters" that came through my letterbox, pledging the council, the Inland Revenue and the local GP surgery to the highest standards of "customer care". It was the same at work. My academic colleagues had adopted new ways of using English, and while I understood the words themselves, I had no idea what real-world entities they referred to. What, for instance, was the mysterious "quality" that we discussed at every meeting? What did people mean when they spoke earnestly about "aims and objectives" and "learning outcomes"? I was equally puzzled when I read the "mission statement" a committee had put together the previous year. This struck me as a long and convoluted statement of the obvious: we educated undergraduates, and we strove to do this well. Why was that a "mission", and who needed to have it spelt out?

Then there were the instructions on how to answer the phone: "X Institute of Higher Education, Deborah Cameron speaking." At least we were not required to append chirpily: "How may I help you?'' But it seemed strange that instructions had been issued at all, and stranger still that they were generally obeyed. Only a few years before, administrators who took it upon themselves to prescribe a standard phone salutation to academics would have been derided as ignorant petty tyrants.

The changes I was so conscious of had actually begun some time before I went away. I had dismissed them as passing fads. I returned, however, to what had become a revolution in public language. The likes of my colleagues no longer thought of this new tongue as an alien one, into which they translated thoughts originally composed in a more familiar idiom. They had become native speakers. Today, this language pervades both the public and private sectors, and much of the working population is fluent in it. We may joke (as Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoons, does) about the cliched absurdity of mission statements and standardised phone greetings, but we find it hard to remember a time when these were not cliches - when we reacted to them with genuine incomprehension, and sometimes with genuine outrage.

Cultural critics had little to say about the revolution. Many were caught up in a far noisier debate, as advocates or opponents of "political correctness". Arguments raged about the linguistic practices of a radical fringe; Orwell's Newspeak was invoked to portray feminist councillors and anti-racist teachers as the new thought police. Meanwhile, with far less fanfare (and almost no sustained critical analysis), mainstream public English suffered a corporate takeover.

I use the phrase "corporate takeover" because the new public language was shaped by ideas and practices that originated in the business world. The "mission statement" - and its shorter, pithier relative the "vision statement" - was popularised by management gurus such as Tom Peters, who noted that successful or "excellent" companies had a clear definition of their core goals and values, which they communicated explicitly to every employee. Most such statements do not refer explicitly to the real core goal of any capitalist enterprise: "Our mission is to make the largest possible profit for our shareholders." Nor, on the whole, do they allude directly to whatever it is that the company actually does. The journalist Dorothy Grace-Elder once reported on a visit to a Glasgow sanitary-ware factory, during which the workers were asked if they knew the company's mission; after a moment of puzzled silence, one finally replied: "Wur mission's tae make lavvies." Old-style manufacturing industries did not need mission statements. The mission statement belongs to an era in which the main purpose of many companies is not making but branding things; the language in which a company represents itself to the world is part of its brand-image.

As part of the marketising process that began during the Thatcher era and has continued to the present day, British public sector institutions were also encouraged to view themselves as brands, and to use language similarly, for purposes of self-promotion rather than public information. Nobody needs to be told what universities, schools and hospitals do, but they all have mission and vision statements now, most of them comprising platitudes such as "serving the community" and "pursuing excellence". These slogans are as meaningless as the old mottos on schoolchildren's blazers: "Pietas" or "Manners Makyth Man". That they are written in modern English only emphasises their vacuity: as a friend of mine observed when asked to speak at a conference on "pursuing excellence in facilities management": "Who the hell would pursue second-rateness?"

The branding of language does not stop with the mission statement. One of the things I found most disconcerting on my return home was the proliferation of formulaic and scripted exchanges in the service industries - the standard phone salutations delivered with standard perky intonation; the replacement of traditional British courtesies by Americanisms such as "How may I help you?"; the exhortations to "Enjoy your meal" (uttered whether or not they made sense in a given context). This way of speaking did not evolve naturally; it reflected the corporation's growing desire to regulate and control the language that its representatives used. The idea was to subordinate the personality of the individual speaker to a centrally designed corporate voice. Only if everyone in an organisation said the same thing in the same way could customers receive what one company's how-to-answer-the-phone manual called "a consistent experience of the brand".

An extreme instance made news earlier this year: a call-centre in Bangalore, serving US customers, required its employees to conceal their "offshore" location by impersonating Americans. Operators not only perfected their Midwestern accents; they invented American names, and personal histories to go with them, and watched episodes of Friends to keep their colloquialisms current. But you don't have to go to India to find workers adopting prescribed forms of language at odds both with their ordinary ways of speaking and with what they think of as their "real" identities or personalities. All over Britain, in call-centres and supermarkets, airlines and insurance companies, workers are being instructed in every nuance of verbal performance: what words to say, where to pause, what emotions to project using pitch, stress and tone. In call-centres, hi-tech surveillance makes it possible to enforce these demands consistently. In supermarkets, employees know that the customer they fail to greet with the prescribed open gaze and ready smile could be a "mystery shopper" employed by the company to make spot checks on their customer service skills.

The commonest instruction given to service workers is: "Smile when you say that." Let customers know what a great company you work for, and how happy you are to be serving them on its behalf. For public sector professionals, the pressure takes a different form. Despite the telephone answering instructions I quoted, professionals do not usually have to perform someone else's script. Instead, they have to produce their own propaganda, using a language imposed from above by the government agencies that allocate their funds.

This was what was going on in the discussions of "quality" that mystified me in 1990. The government, trying to improve the accountability of publicly funded bodies, had set up agencies to measure the quality of university teaching. What was evaluated, however, was not what happened in lecture halls, labs and seminar rooms. Primarily, it was (and still is) a linguistic artefact: the "self-assessment document" in which departments define their mission and evaluate the quality of the education they provide. In theory, this is an exercise in critical self-reflection; in practice, departments are playing a zero-sum game, competing with others for finite and inadequate resources. If they do not claim to be "excellent", they will inevitably come out losers. That is why British academics, just like managers in corporations, have become fluent in promotional jargon, accentuating the positive even if that means being economical with the truth.

Self-assessment documents do not say, for instance, that large classes and overdependence on casualised teaching staff are compromising standards. Instead, they say things like: "The challenge of teaching larger classes has been addressed through rolling programmes of staff development; standards are monitored through robust quality assurance procedures, in the context of an institution-wide commitment to continuous improvement." This is an invented example, but I assure you that it is not (quite) a parody. Like the political discourse criticised by Orwell in "Politics and the English Language", it takes a series of buzz-phrases ("the challenge of X". "rolling programme", "staff development", "quality assurance", "continuous improvement") and uses the verbal glue of vagueness and abstraction ("has been addressed", "in the context of") to stick them together in the manner of a prefabricated hen house. The resulting sentence contains hardly any information, but that is not its point. The point is to demonstrate to the Quality Assurance Agency that the university speaks the approved managerialist language, which in turn signifies its commitment to the values embodied in that language. The English literature scholar Peter Womack has likened academics writing this sort of prose to Winston Smith in 1984, composing his features into the required "expression of quiet optimism" as he turns to face the telescreen.

Managing language is a booming business, supporting legions of consultants whose expertise may consist of having once read a book about transactional analysis or neurolinguistic programming. One big corporation advertises that its employees are trained in "expanded listening": they have learnt that listening is a "four-stage process" and that most people listen at a "25 per cent level of efficiency". (So far as I know, no reputable psycholinguistic research supports either claim.) The New York Times recently reported that computer help-desk workers are being trained to diagnose not the technical problem a caller wants help with, but the caller's personality type. If the worker uses a language (pseudo-) scientifically designed for the caller's personality, the interaction will be judged successful, whether or not the computer problem is solved.

In politics, too, there is a growing faith in the power of managed language to transform less tractable realities. In the spring of 1999, New York police officers shot and killed an unarmed Gambian named Amadou Diallo; they claimed to have mistaken him for a dangerous armed criminal. More than 1,000 people were arrested in the protests that ensued. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his police chief, Howard Safir, responded by handing out pocket-sized cards that reminded police officers to speak politely to members of the public: to address them as "sir" and "ma'am", and say "good morning", "please" and "thank you". Faced with a serious political problem, Giuliani - not, as we have seen in recent weeks, a stupid or insensitive man - resorted to the premise of corporate customer care: say the right words, speak nicely and all will be forgiven.

Such examples suggest that we need to move beyond George Orwell's mid-20th-century analysis of what ails our public language. Orwell's main concern was the ideologically motivated use of words to conceal the truth; the remedy he proposed was plain English, a prose style as clear and transparent as glass. The problem with today's public language, however, is not so much that it represents reality inaccurately or dishonestly, but that it does not set out to be a representation of anything at all. When organisations proclaim they are "pursuing excellence", or when they write scripts for their employees to parrot, they want us not to believe the words, but to applaud the sentiments behind them. Their claims are not primarily "veracity claims" ("what I am telling you is a fact"), but "sincerity claims" ("what I am telling you comes from the heart").

Orwell's antidote to Newspeak - plain English - was intended to expose statements of dubious veracity: he reasoned that if we stripped away the obfuscation and understood what was being asserted, we would expose the lies. But dubious claims of sincerity cannot be exposed in the same way. "Nicespeak" is dishonest in a different way from Newspeak, and plain English is less effective as a critical response to it. Indeed, Orwell's prescription has been co-opted by the other side: no one knows better than a corporate PR-person or political spin-doctor the value of plain language for creating ersatz intimacy and simulating sincere concern.

If fake sincerity does not respond to the bracing tonic of Orwellian plainness, perhaps we should try the homeopathic approach: irony. This is the technique of anti-corporate "culture jammers": take our adversaries' language and turn it against them by inflecting it with a different or opposite meaning. ("Just Do It," the anti-sweatshop campaigners tell Nike - meaning: "Pay your workers a living wage.") Admittedly, the ironist has a challenging task in a world where a notice can announce in all seriousness: "In order to better serve you, we are closed this afternoon." But if our mission is to expose the emptiness behind the painted smile of Nicespeak, irony and satire may be our most effective weapons: suitably postmodern remedies for a postmodern linguistic disease.

Deborah Cameron is professor of languages at the Institute of Education, University of London, and the author of Good to Talk: living and working in a communication culture (Sage, £16.99)