“Etcetera!? Non, non, non! C’est trop nonchalant!” My French teacher – Monsieur XXXXX of Sleaford – had a rather theatrical (if incongruous) habit of adopting the persona of a hot-headed Gallic chef, presumably to ‘bring the language to life’ for his students.
His outburst on this occasion made it clear he was angry. After asking how I’d spent my summer holiday, my response was nonchalant to say the least: “le football, le camping, le shopping, etcetera…”. Considering I’d basically replied in English with a bad French accent, it surprised me that the focus of Monsieur XXXX’s chagrin should be such a throwaway word.
But therein lies the problem. ‘Etcetera’ is lazy. It’s what we say when we can’t be bothered to be specific. Take this line from e e cummings: “during the recent war / mother hoped that / i would die etcetera”. Juxtaposing death (very serious) with etcetera (possibly the most casual word in existence) is the poet’s way of mocking the futility of war and its supporters. But when etcetera – or any other thoughtless language – appears in a message that has an impact on your life, it stops being funny.
Let me share an example from the world of work. A friend of mine – let’s call him Sam – was recently made redundant by a well-known hotel chain. After working there for five years, he received a two-line email from a remote HR function, and the end of the message went something like this: “position not needed, capability outsourced, part of UK rationalisation programme, etc.”
Essentially the message had been cut and paste from a cold-blooded financial report, with no thought to translate it into a human version of English for the ill-fated recipient. ‘Etc.’ summed up the impersonal and brusque tone, as if the writer could not bear to spend any more time explaining why the services of this employee were surplus to requirements. And considering that Sam was one of a few hundred people on the chopping list, it’s easy to see the damage this mechanical approach to communication did to the company’s image. Nonchalant indeed.
I must point out at this stage that I’m not on a Lynne Truss style crusade against the word etcetera; more that it epitomizes the kind of careless writing that HR and internal communications are guilty of, making it easy to cast these teams into the role of pantomime baddies. And, like my old French teacher, the caricature is brought to life through language. Get it right and your audience cheers. Get it wrong and they boo and hiss – even if the underlying message is the same.
For me, the problem starts before we write. If we start off only seeing the business case, there’s a tendency to write about ‘cost units’ rather than people. And that’s very easy to do if we’re never likely to meet these people face to face. Even the most hardened of HR executives would find it difficult to dismiss a colleague so coldly in person. So the trick to maintaining the humanity in your writing is to picture the person you’re writing to. You’ll be surprised how you naturally focus on the human side of writing – like empathy and human language – rather than what you’re writing about – the commercial drive to save money.
HR and Internal Communications have a captive audience right now and the way we use words has a significant impact on what people think, feel and say. Stiff and bureaucratic language will chip away at your company culture and a brusque email can be twisted into a symbol of how ruthless your company has become. But despite the potential pitfalls, the recession is a golden opportunity to show your integrity. By maintaining the human element of your communications, you can show that your values are more than just words on the walls – and not reduce a person’s working life to a dear old etc.
Have you been the victim of a heartless HR missive? Or are you someone who is charged with the unenviable task of passing on bad news? Tell us all here…