A topic that has come to bother me lately is the usage of passive language. Okay, I will admit it – it annoys me. Equally annoying is the avoidance of owning a documented statement, denying it in order to cater to a specific audience. But this isn’t just about my perception on owning language, it’s the perception by the audience of the communicator and the organization they represent.
When I read a line in a bulk corporate email such as “We encourage you to review your account to confirm there may not be any conflicting or otherwise questionable activity, if so, please contact us so we may be able to help you,” I cringe. What is so difficult about telling the audience, in a respectful manner, “Please check your account and contact us if there is an error, we will work with you to fix it.” Give reason, be forthcoming; avoid becoming an insipid spineless messenger.
It’s sad, I see this passive language everywhere – politics, business-to-customer communications, within organizations, legal and financial documents, and so on. What does it say about the direction our culture has taken? My gut instinct swears it is contributing to a downward spiral of lower educational standing along with other decreases of rank and glamour on a global scale. Now I may appear to be overreaching, in fact, I know I am – I tend to look at issues from both extremes of an argument in my own process of narrowing them into mid-ranged rational points of view. This applies just as much to a political stance as it does to grammar. And my gut tells me, because it has nothing better to do than play truth-seeker, perpetuators of passive language make the group they represent appear soft and unable to commit to an action or thought process. That alone makes the group vulnerable to submissive defeat in a competitive environment. Communicators need to be conscious of this at all times.
We live in a capitalistic democracy, here in America, and therefore an element of Darwinism sits at the foundation of how our country operates. Competition drives our economy and our politics, and communication plays a critical role in their facilitation. When I hear the current panel of presidential candidates unable to answer a question directly, I automatically lose respect for them. I am sure I can speak for the population in that we do not want to hear a candidate beating around the bush, backpedaling, or denying they said something has been well documented. Mitt Romney’s latest backpedaling about the Blunt Amendment was astounding, when first asked in an interview he said government had no business in the privacy of a couple’s home, then asked about that stance less than a day later, he claimed he misunderstood the question as he pandered to the party lines. Really?
Owning your words is a powerful stance. No one can take away their meaning or interpret them as anything but what they were intended. Great leaders do this well, whether they are individuals or whole organizations. So my advice to everyone reading this, and please share it with your friends – kill ambiguity, do not take a passive approach to deflect blame or shift responsibility, just say what you mean. And prepare yourself to stand by your words.
2 thoughts on “A Writer’s Exploration: Own Your Words”
Excellent Points! The problem is that in so much of society, if one says one word that offends anyone, he (or she–oops, I almost potentially offended someone), is branded for life. I got myself in trouble more than once in work place for "shooting straight" with my words. In politics, talking a lot and saying nothing is standard. It doesn't matter what party they belong to. The republicans are in the forefront now, but four years ago, I recall the same from the democratic presidential candidates; no one could figure out what Obama stood for.
Passive voice is the preferred language of politicians because it distances the actor from the action — so much easier to say "Social Security was cut by the committee" than "I voted to cut Social Security."And if your words reflect what you think (which they should), you must own your own ideas, as well. Nice piece, David.