Apparently I have slightly weird eyes.
My eyesight is pretty much fine – with glasses I can read, drive and find Wally all very adequately. We’re talking about microscopic imperfections here. But with my job, it seems having anything less than perfect vision leaves you very susceptible to eye strain. And with my slightly weird eyes, apparently the only way I can have truly perfect vision is with RGP (rigid, gas-permeable) contact lenses.
Rigid contact lenses are seriously uncomfortable. At first.
This is my third day of wearing them. I have them in now and oh lordy, lordy do they hurt. Ever been larking about on the beach and got a bit of sand in your eye? Yeah, it’s that kind of pain – super sharp.
That’s to be expected at first though, because that’s how our sensory system works. The eyes are delicate organs, so when the brain senses that a foreign body has come into contact with them, it screams at you the pain translation of “get that thing out of yer eye, right bloody now!” (The human brain has a Lancashire accent, for some reason.)
When you get used to seeing the world in one way, both practically and visually, for so long, any change to that is a shock to the system. Your instinct is to reject it, and your body acts accordingly.
Part of this reaction is my eyes streaming with tears. This, right now, is obscuring my vision and making these words all look a bit wobbly as I type them.
Once my body gets used to this though, I’m told it’ll all be much more comfortable. Everything will settle and I’ll see the world in perfect clarity. You just have to push through the initial discomfort.
This sounds very familiar to me
Over the last few decades, language (especially in business) has become more and more obscured. And my job is, in essence, to correct that blurriness. A linguistic optometrist, of sorts.
But old habits die hard, as they say. And this blurriness of business language has been happening for a long time.
At some point, it became fashionable not just to get your point across, but to do it with a vocabulary that demonstrates how gosh darn clever you are. Maybe it was academic speak spilling over into business. Maybe the hotshot university graduates started impressing people with big words, so the management used it on their shareholders and it became the norm. Who knows? But either way, we reached a place where it was no longer good enough to come up with good ideas and make them happen – you had to ‘generate and implement innovative solutions’.
And when language becomes blurry, some people use it to hide. If your idea is complete nonsense, you can get away with it – just as long as it sounds similar to all the ideas that aren’t nonsense. Trying to argue that the earth’s flat? Just say you’re “re-evaluating the current scientific consensus, with regards to the perceived spherical profile of certain astrological bodies.” Say it with enough confidence and no one will question it. It’s like word camouflage.
At some point, for some people, using flowery language became even more important than getting a point across. If it doesn’t sound complicated, it’s not impressive. You can’t possibly be worth £250k a year if any old Joe off the street can understand what you do.
You just need to watch a few episodes of The Apprentice to see how this kind of wordwank culture comes pretty hard-wired into all our young business people.
Wordwank (noun): Any passage of language composed by a person who thinks using long words and formal jargon is more important than actually getting their message across clearly.
This is why plain English can feel uncomfortable. At first.
When you’ve spent your entire life looking at the world without a piece of plastic in your eye, it feels totally unnatural to make that change. And if you’ve grown up professionally in a culture where wordwank is everyone’s first language, using plain English can feel like you’re just not sounding as smart.
Let’s translate that last paragraph into wordwank, just for fun:
For individuals who are not accustomed to having their eyesight augmented by the use of rigid gas-permable contact lenses, their sudden introduction can cause the body to identify the lenses as a foreign contaminant and work to reject them accordingly. Likewise, perpetual exposure to complex corporate jargon can, for contemporary professionals, create a false impression that such vernacular is a prerequisite for retaining the respect of their professional peers.
See the difference? It’s a big change to get used to. And your brain can try to reject it in the same way it rejects contact lenses. At first. But just like our eyes, our brains get over the initial shock and realise that everything’s actually much clearer when we all say what we mean.
Of all the clients I’ve worked with, CV clients have found this change the hardest to get used to. A CV is like a petrie dish for corporate buzzwords, for obvious reasons. But CVs are also (and this is not a coincidence) the place where writing in plain English is most powerful. Why? Because it makes CVs more pleasant to read, it shows confidence and it shows personality. And that’s what makes a killer CV.
Analogies are fun, but they also help you empathise
Some people take to plain English writing straightaway. They love it from the word go. You give them the little rules of thumb that make for readable writing and they can’t wait to get stuck in.
Other people find it trickier. They take a while to adapt.
I feel like I can empathise with this in a whole new way now. From now on, whenever I see someone struggling to remember their contractions or to make their passive phrases active, I’m going to think back to this morning: I’m standing in my bathroom, having just put in my contacts. I can’t see a thing. I feel like I’ve just poured gravel into my eyes. I’m dancing around like the floor’s on fire, tears streaming down my face, clenching my fists and howling at nothing in particular, like an injured wolf.
And when people from super-corporate backgrounds are struggling to write in plain English for the first time, it probably feels no less unnatural to them than this does to me. But they’re pushing through it and trying to adapt. So respect is due.
By the way, most young writers have a wordwank phase at some point
I should totally point out here that if you hopped into a Delorean and came to find me in 2009(ish), you’d find one of the most prolific wordwank dispensers you could imagine. I was starting a masters degree in creative writing, reading The Times on my lunch break, and desperate to show everyone how articulate I was.
I remember writing a letter to my boss, asking for a pay rise, and talking about ‘fiscal prudence’ and my ‘professional trajectory’ or some nonsense like that. In fact, thinking about that now makes these contact lenses my second biggest source of discomfort.