Linguistic code is a necessary oil that greases the modern world of work

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 3, 2021

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

One of the funniest – and truest – pieces I recently read was Bartleby’s ruminations on language (paywall) in today’s workplace.

For those not au fait with Bartleby, it is  The Economist column that sets out to provide “Thoughts on management and the world of work, in the spirit of the ‘scrivener’ of Herman Melville’s 1853 novel”.

The original Bartleby, a scrivener in the office of a Wall Street lawyer, memorably refused to do any work saying at every point, “I would prefer not to.”

But at least that was unambiguous. What about the modern workplace, where the spirit of “radical candour” is celebrated?

Well, Bartleby (the column, not Melville’s clerk) says “people rarely say what they mean, but hope that their meaning is nonetheless clear”. Often, it’s the exact reverse of what they’re ostensibly saying. While you might be tempted to shake your head at the opacity of such linguistic coding, Bartleby is right to note that finessing a message is also an essential talent if one is to avoid conflict.

He’s offered a helpful translation of some of the commonest phrases we hear these days – in person, on Zoom, via email or social media. Bartleby covers 14 phrases but here are the three I consider priceless:

** “I hear you”

Ostensible meaning: You’re making a legitimate point
Actual meaning: Be quiet

** “I wanted to keep you in the loop”

Ostensible meaning: I am informing you of something minor
Actual meaning: I should have told you this weeks ago

** “Bring your whole selves to work”

Ostensible meaning: Be authentic and don’t be afraid to show vulnerability
Actual meaning: But not those bits of your whole self, obviously