Thursday 9 October 2008

Funny language

Why do so many people, and some professions in particular, insist on talking in a funny language?

I confess that probably the worst offenders are consultants, that strange sub-species of humanity who wander round telling people the blindingly obvious in return for sometimes staggering amounts of money.

Here comes a confession.  I used to be a consultant.  A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, it was my job to run around telling people how to do certain things.  However I did try and keep the linguistic mumbo-jumbo to a minimum.

The other usual target of criticism for showing off with long words and cryptic phrases is, of course, the legal profession.

Just last week I was given the job of reading and amending a contract between two parties.  I’m not a lawyer but a lot of what is written in contracts is fairly simple.  Well, it is once you can fight your way through the silliness.  Early on in the contract it said “Whereas: Company A is desirous of undertaking…” and it went on and on.  “Desirous of undertaking”?  Which century do they think we are in?  

In fact I don’t think anyone ever spoke like that.  Have you ever turned to your loved one and said “It has occurred to me Darling that I am desirous of undertaking a trip to a local purveyor of delicious comestibles in order to enter into a pecuniary exchange so that I can experience some short term gustatory satisfaction”?  No, you just said “I’m going to Spar for some bread.”  Nobody ever has talked like that, nobody does now and nobody ever will.  It’s just a way for the feeble minded and intellectually insecure to sound like they have some special knowledge that you and I lack.

Well, does any of this matter to you and me?  The trouble is that I think it does.  It matters because this linguistic fooling around can be seen in almost all the contracts stores ask us to sign before we can get hold of our goods.  There’s our infamous example of a contract that was presented to a consumer (in fact lots of them) that contained the clause that described the “irrevocable offer to purchase” they were making.  What the contract should have said, which would have been much easier to understand, was “You can never withdraw from this contract without our consent”.  Isn’t that much simpler and easier to understand?

So why would this company use such a round-about way of saying something they could have said much more simply?  I can think of several explanations but one stands out as most likely to me.  They don’t want you to understand.  They know that if you figured out what it all meant there’s no way in a million years you’d sign the damn thing.  They know you’re not stupid but they suspect you won’t understand the contract before signing it.

This particular case was made more disturbing by the refusal of the company in question to let potential customers take the contract home to read overnight BEFORE signing it.  Why would they do that?  When we asked them they said they were afraid that people might steal it and use the terms of the contract in their own contracts.  They said they would explain the contract to the consumer when he or she signed it.  Yes, that’s right.  No, we didn’t think they were serious either.

It’s quite simple really.  This organisation didn’t want you to read the contract because they didn’t want you to understand it.  They didn’t want you asking your Mum or your big brother what “irrevocable” meant.  They didn’t want the contract to be seen by anyone with a rational mind.  They just wanted you to sign up for ever and a day and not be able to get out of the contract unless it pleased them to allow you to do so.  Which it wouldn’t.

In fact they were so keen for consumers not to understand how they operated that they threatened to sue us for defamation for talking about it on the radio and here in the press.

Ooooh, scarey.

Funnily enough they didn’t ever sue us.  Know why?  Because there’s a wonderful clause in our Penal Code that states it’s not defamation if what you said was true and it was in the public interest for the truth to be told.  I think their lawyer saw sense and advised them to drop it before they caused themselves more embarrassment by suing us than we had already caused them.

So be wary of the language you see in contracts.  There is absolutely no reason for companies to speak in a strange, made-up language.  Neither the law nor the community demand, require or even benefit from stores speaking in a funny voice.

Enough.  I have to go now because I’m desirous of undertaking the production of a fragrant herbal infusion.  I need a cup of tea.

This week’s stars!
  • Mpho at Chutneys Restaurant in Gaborone for always being friendly.
  • Mavis from FNB Kgale Hill Branch for preventing a problem happening rather than fixing it afterwards.
  • The entire team from Mochudi Engen filling station from a regular customer for consistently great service.
  • Shadrack from New Capitol Cinemas for a very good response to a problem.
  • Mr Sola at the main Post Office in Gaborone for caring for his customers.

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