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Obfuscating on thin ice

November 30, 2012 by
Filed under: Uncategorized 

Sometimes it just falls into one’s lap. The other day I spoke to the Content Marketing Association. My speech on authentic communication was in need of an opening line when, the day before the event, I received a hamper from Fortnum & Mason including a card on which was written:

‘Many thanks for speaking at the International Content Marketing Summit. You helped make it a great success’

The CMA delegates – who seem like a thoroughly nice bunch of people – enjoyed the joke. So, it seems appropriate to have the bottle of claret from that hamper as a prize for one of my irregular Friday competitions.

I am looking for the best example of a phrase designed to obfuscate rather than enlighten.

Although I don’t agree with everything in ‘Get Real’ I have found myself repeatedly quoting this line from Eliane Glaser’s feisty book:

‘we have sleepwalked into a world where nothing is as it seems; where reality, in fact, is the very opposite of appearance’.

Glaser is describing things like ‘green’ oil companies, mass produced ‘artisan’ products and ‘farmhouse’ branded goods imported from eastern European factories.

One aspect of the general problem of inauthenticity is phrases which are inherently misleading. An example, albeit somewhat clichéd, is the politician who says ‘I’m glad you asked me that question’ when their eyes are saying ‘how dare you pull that one on me’. Another phrase – this time in a sporting context – usually taken to mean its own opposite is ‘the Board/owner has expressed full confidence in x’. In fact, I’m sure I heard that recently said about QPR’s subsequently and swiftly sacked manager, Mark Hughes.

I have my own candidate for the most egregious and harmful example of double-speak, but had kept it under wraps until just having a very pleasant lunch with a friend who is a senior cooperate executive. She told me about research apparently showing that companies which included the phrase ‘shareholder value’ in their mission statement systematically perform worse than those which don’t.  The research thus confirms the central hypothesis of John Kay’s excellent book ‘Obliquity’.

This emboldens me to reveal my own bête noir (if no one beats it, I keep the wine). It is ‘a duty to shareholders’. This winds me up not only becuase I tend to dislike the kind of people who produce it as some kind of trump card, but also becuase of the ingenious way it generates mental links which disguise its real import.

On the one hand, the word ‘duty’ is resonant with Aristotalian virtues of responsibility, self-sacrifice and restraint. On the other hand, the idea of ‘shareholders’ evokes civic republican notions of collective stewardship, engagement and commitment.

Yet, as we know, the words themselves are generally code for, ‘our strategy is to make as much profit as we can as quickly as we can and damn the consequences’.

Dear readers, you have until midnight on Monday to come up with a better example.



  • Adrian Perry

    There’s a comprehensive glossary of misleading language on my blog –

  • Robert Burns

    Matthew and other contributors,

    How about:

    (a) Big Society = “We meddled and made a mess of it, now you sort it out”; or

    (b) Civic Engagement = “Just do what makes me feel more important than you”; or

    (c) Upward Social Mobility = “Demean yourselves by fighting over scraps, so I can exploit you”

    The quote from Eliane Glaser makes the book sound worth reading :-)

  • Ian Christie

    Thanks Matthew. I think you keep the wine a) for ‘shareholder value’, the most pernicious wrong idea of the past 30 years, and b) for keeping the date with the Content Marketeers.

    My nominations are:
    1) The Coalition, for its brilliantly slippery use in speeches of the term ‘sustainable development’, which is processed through a series of obfuscatory paragraphs and ends up meaning ‘growth’ and ‘business deregulation’.
    2) ‘Customer demand’, as in ‘we’re only following demand from our customers’. In nearly every case this means ‘producer supply’. The idea that Tesco et al are always following our demands instead of creating them is pure bunkum, and they know it.

  • Sam Earle

    Spot on. The ‘real world’ in general is anything but, it seems. And as for ‘shareholder value’, did you see the recent NYT (I think) cartoon: “Yes, we destroyed the planet, but for a beautiful moment we created a lot of shareholder value”. Sums it up.

    But I think the bottle of wine should go to Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Centre for his exposure of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome of climate policy.

    This wilful (self-)deceit is surely among the most dangerous imaginable.

  • Wendi Pasco-McGregor

    My nomination is ‘empower’, particularly when it’s in the context of those with power assuming they know best what others should do once they are empowered. Not only is it an ugly word, but one that smacks of manipulation. I don’t believe you give others power, but rather they take it.

  • Adrian Perry

    Customer demand again – thanks, Ian Christie – when East Midland trains stopped serving free tea to passengers (ooops, I mean customers) and started charging £1.50 a cup, they said it was in response to customer demand. I am glad that the claim that motor companies make that customers prefer to have to spare wheel is at last being attacked

  • Dan

    ‘Public enquiry’?

  • Bernard Mason


    Thanks for the link to Prof Anderson. fiddling while Rome burns comes to mind

  • Livy

    It may be worth nominating a variant of what is roughly the same sentence uttered by countless politicians, and conspicuously, only really uttered every four years or so. It’s the stock phrase politicians use to preface their arguments when speaking to journalists or before an audience on a panel show.

    ‘Well, you know, people aren’t stupid.’ Or, ‘The British public aren’t stupid.’ (This is sometimes mixed in with accusing other politicians of being ‘out of touch’.)

    Nobody who actually believes that feels compelled to state it. Of course people aren’t stupid. Those who really understand this on an intuitive level don’t go around saying it, and wouldn’t think to do so just because their job is on the line. But the public can be mentally lazy, infected with corrosive ways of thinking, be grossly mistaken in large numbers on the same issues, and become highly susceptible to group think. The best of us are guilty of it. Not because of stupidity, but for simply running inefficient, badly coded software packages on our operating systems. Those programs can be riddled with bugs that slow down our machines; draining too much RAM and using up too much hard drive space.

    Lying behind this phrase, “People aren’t stupid”, is the same technical mechanism employed by lower tier stand-up comedians, particularly in the UK where the quality is comparatively low. As soon as the comedian takes to the stage he will begin with a piece of self-deprecating humour to get the audience on side, taking his most obvious quality and play up to the crowd’s base prejudices and misconceptions. For example, if the comedian is Jewish, black, short, or a woman, the crowd will hear nothing but jokes about being Jewish, black, short or a woman for the first three minutes of the set. The most off-putting instance of this may actually be American stand-ups performing in London, beginning immediately with a dose of America-bashing. The speed and volume with which 200 British people can explode in to roaring, belly-aching laughter from poorly crafted comedy based on nothing but prejudice is fairly chilling.

    By mere virtue of being on that stage in front of 200 people (according to stand-up comedy theory, not me) the audience will hate the comedian – before he even says a word. He has the ability to do what they can’t, the speaking confidence they don’t possess, an outlook on the world they have not yet learned. They will look for a reason to take him down a peg by focusing on a glaring personal trait or stereotype. For politicians, it’s the (often unfair) perception of being out of touch and holding a belief that the people who pay their bills are at best stupid, or worse, members of a different species. Perhaps the most disheartening problem with politics is that we lack a leadership that has the courage to tell us these assumptions are unhealthy, that we can install better software and rid ourselves of that corrosive thinking. In many ways the authenticity we crave is the audacity we despise; the audacity to communicate in a genuine manner, resisting the overwhelming temptation to pander to our preconceptions and feed our lowest impulses.

    It’s the difference between the average, functional comedian and a real comic like Louis C.K or Dave Attell. The best, most experienced comics in the world don’t do this, nor do they base 80% of their sets on crowd work. They share what they think is funny, what they find insightful, noble, corrupt, tragic or hysterical without caring about the crowd’s predisposition and it becomes a mode of honest self-expression that people will appreciate, even if they disagree with what they’re being told.

  • Joe

    Common sense – what I think.

  • Robert Toast

    “Lambeth – the Co-Operative Council”

  • Benjamin

    ‘Your call is important to us’ (perhaps a sub-phrase of shareholder value)

    ‘friendly fire’ never goes out of fashion

    Any John Lewis advert about the wonder of Christmas (Bah Humbug)

    ‘hard working families’ – i.e. damn those scroungers and anyone who isn’t attractive enough to get married.

    ‘squeezed middle’ – that’s right, you lot we need to focus group as you live in a marginal seat

  • Chris Brown

    Thanks Matthew. I would offer two:
    – “right-thinking people”, inauthentic insofar as it means “people who think what I think”, yet which is in fact brilliantly authentic if “right” is interpreted as “to the right of Fox News”;
    – “you will recall”, which in the civil service at least means “you won’t recall this, but you may once have been informed, if only in a footnote in an annex to a 50 page paper I sent you many months ago, and now I’m going to use failure to recall it as a weapon against you”.


  • Livy


    That’s not bad

  • nigel

    ‘Democracy’, when what is meant is ‘representative democracy’.

  • Rosemary Glass

    My nomination is the phrase I hear regularly used by politicians in interviews: ‘What people want is …’ or ‘What people really want is …’.

    As I listen, I always automatically exclude myself from the grouping, and wonder which people the speaker is referring to. The ones who voted for them, or the majority who didn’t?

    I have difficulty with the paternalism that oozes from the phrase. ‘I’ll make my own mind up about what I want’ is the usual thought I direct back at the radio.

  • Sandra Pickering

    I’m taking seriously the word ‘designed’ in your “designed to obfuscate rather than enlighten”. It implies mens rea nd not just incompetence or unknowing confusion and bewilderment.

    So, I must nominate “This is the most humble day of my life.”

  • Carl Allen

    While we talk about the squeezed middle let us not forget the sat upon bottom.

  • Livy

    ‘Freedom of the press”

    = It’s my democratic, or fundamental human right to know that Lily Allen had a miscarriage, and I’m morally entitled to laugh at pictures of her leaving her house looking rough because she’s upset and not wearing any make-up. I’m morally entitled to know all this because she’s paying her bills by following her dreams and making music, while I have to work a job I hate because I don’t have the balls to follow my own dreams.