Joanne is blasé and glib, and annoying to be in meetings with. She, like all blasé, glib people, does not realise this. She seems to spend much of the year on holiday, and when she’s not on holiday she’s in meeting rooms with people like me, making excuses. Excuses are her thing: nothing ever makes progress and it’s always somebody else’s fault, or nobody’s fault at all. I suppose technically, since she’s almost never there, it could hardly be hers.
She has one verbal tic which, more than the perma-tan and the easy smile which never spreads to her eyes, really gets on my nerves. I’m not saying, she’ll start most sentences. “I’m not saying that we’ll secure the budget for this” she might say, or “I’m not saying this is definitely going to work”. It’s cowardly bet-hedging dressed up as honesty, a fraudulent assault on the English language. I could fill an A4 pad with all the things that Joanne hasn't said over the last couple of years, like the Oxford Dictionary Of Non-Quotations, but why would I? Why would anyone?
I daydream about replying in one of those meetings. “I’m not saying you’re fobbing me off,” I’d say, “But perhaps you could – just this once – tell me what you are saying. I know you would find this challenging. I appreciate that it would involve saying something instead of nothing, but you never know, you might even find it habit-forming. Go on, give it a try. Just for me.”
Of course, I don’t. I leave it unsaid because I, like most people, don’t tell you all the things I’m not saying.
Maxine, who I used to work with, was cheerfully useless. She’d come in once a week, sit at her desk and say she was unable to log in. Even though this involved a two hour drive she never did anything to ensure that her next visit the following week would be any more successful. An untrusting soul might reach the conclusion that Maxine enjoyed both driving and sitting around doing nothing, and as I’m an untrusting soul I did exactly that. She would come to lunch with us and talk about her forthcoming holidays – like Joanne, she seemed to have plenty of these - and pleasant though she was I found myself, like Joanne, coming up with all kinds of things not to say.
Her tic was different. For want of a better word she’d say all the time. “So, I’ve got a reply back from the technical guys,” Maxine would say, “And it’s, for want of a better word, disappointing.” Such a curious space-filler to jam in the middle of a sentence, such an interesting way to advertise how inarticulate you are. I felt like explaining to Maxine that personally I thought “disappointing” was a perfectly acceptable word, although my preference – because I’ve always been plain-speaking – would have been “shit”. I also felt like telling her that next time she had trouble finding a better word, which on past form would be most likely be rather soon, she might consider investing in a thesaurus.
But I didn’t bother, because she was incompetent. That was the perfect word for her; I didn’t need a better one.
I have a long-standing fascination with what people say - at work in particular - and how it tells you all sorts of things about them which they probably don’t intend you to know. My colleague Iain, for instance, says “frankly” a lot. It’s endearing when he does it, because I like him, but I’ve always found this a rather strange word to use in the workplace. I have a sneaking feeling that it should go without saying and it’s bizarre that it doesn’t (you might as well say “and for once I’m not lying”, and see how that goes down).
After a while, though, I realised that wasn’t how Iain was using it. It was a conversational space filler for him just like Maxine’s pointless search for a better word, a search to which she never seemed very committed.
“I had to call them three times to get it done,” Iain would say to me on the way to the kitchen, “Which is an utter disgrace, quite frankly.”
Well, of course it’s a disgrace, and to say so isn’t being particularly frank, but that’s not the point. It’s merely punctuation, just a way to end a sentence, one of those meaningless words we all add to something we say that hitches a ride on all the other words, cheerfully coasting without bringing anything to the party. Unless, of course, you are saying it on purpose in order to cultivate a reputation as someone plain-speaking: how ironic that by doing so, you encourage the opposite impression.
There are other space-fillers too, the words we retreat to without even knowing, as unconsciously as clicking a pen. I was delivering a presentation once with Danny when I realised that he was using the word “basically” at least once per sentence, sometimes even twice. At one point he started and ended a sentence with it. It got so bad that eventually that I wasn’t listening to anything he said except that word, and the rhythm of his speech became an excuse to bang the drum of those four syllables. The rest was just a formless soup of words: Basically we blah blah blah, blah blah basically. Blah blah blah basically blah blah.
I knew it was unprofessional, but I wrote the word on my pad and showed it to Gabi sitting next to me, and we smirked. Then I made a mark on the paper every time Danny said it, and by the end of the presentation the paper was a forest of five bar gates. For days afterwards, Gabi and I included the word “basically” in all our emails to one another. Basically kind regards basically was how I signed one of them off. We stopped while it was still funny, something I don’t often have the sense to do.
Our colleague Ed joined in with all the jokes until it was his turn to do a presentation about a week later. That’s when we all discovered that his word was “obviously” and that he used it every bit as often as Danny said “basically”, even though he was explaining things to people for the first time. We broke it to him gently; it had been obvious to everybody but him.
Before you ask, because I know you will, the answer is yes: I know what some of my stock phrases are.
I know, for instance, that I say “That’s useful” when someone has finally told me what I wanted to know, often after repeated attempts to get them to answer my question. I don’t know how obvious it is that I’m trying to sound gracious when I feel anything but. I know too that I say “I get that” to try and shut people up and move them on when they’ve been talking about something irrelevant, usually because they know I’m not going to like what they have to say further on in the conversation. It’s a kind translation of “get to the point”, and I wonder in turn how many people I say it to get that. Now I think about it, I guess that many of my verbal tics are just the act of eye-rolling shaped into words. But at least I’m aware of those: it’s the others I worry about, the things I say that broadcast who I really am without my realising.
The worst thing of all, though, is the thing I’m most aware of: that I’ll probably never find them out, which bugs me more than I can tell you. I wish a warning bell would light up in my head when I say them, or perhaps a klaxon that only I could hear: something, anything, to alert me to the fact that I’m falling back on the tried and tested.
I’d just like to know, basically. Obviously I’m not saying that I’d change them – that, quite frankly, would be optimistic, for want of a better word.
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