Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

11 Oct 2008, 20:55 p.m.

We Make The Subtext - The Text!*

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2008 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Last night Hal [happy returns of the day, Hal!] told me a tale of a job-hunting workshop he attended wherein the leader told him, without irony, that he needed to pump more buzzwords into his resume. Yes, she said the word "buzzwords." She specifically recommended "proactive" and "think outside the box."

I cringed, not just because that's horrible, but because I can talk like that without thinking about it. And I'm glad it helps clients and bosses understand me, but I don't want to turn into a duckspeaker. So it's good to examine my shorthand and write it out in longhand once in a while.

One fraught word with several confusing meanings is "political," as in, "There's a lot of politics here" or "this is a very political situation." We hear stories about "political" workplaces where the term is a dis, but these last weeks of the US Presidential election make for a lesson, polished and cut, in why "politics" becomes a dirty word.

People don't use "political" to mean that we have to make decisions to allocate scarce resources. Or rather, if that's true but it's a decision that doesn't get bound up with anyone's allegiance or values, we say it's "strategic." "Political" means "emotional" or "touchy" or "dangerous, not to our goal but to people we'll need to support that goal."

At its worst, "politics" doesn't just mean that people don't like to look bad. It means that people let their obsession with status and chain of command get in the way of getting things done, and will in fact sabotage useful progress (consciously or not). And it limits the discourse to things that won't offend anyone, which -- when the truth is offensive -- means constant lies of omission.

"Politics" means that, instead of discussing disagreements like adults, people either throw tantrums like babies, or whisper and deceive and manipulate and sublimate conflicts like bullying schoolgirls.

"Politics" means that you have to humor and tiptoe around everyone like they're my dad.

"Politics" means that there are important things, things crucial to the success of the nation, that you're not allowed to say.

This means a politician must slow way the hell down every time she sends an email or takes on a task. Because she needs to calibrate herself. How do I phrase this as delicately as possible? Which audience do I select? Since too much information "confuses" some people, how do I minimize the payload of each of my messages? And so on, calibrating, hewing to "appropriate" talking points until they becomes second nature, then first.

I'd like this dance more if I thought it was a cooperative one where everyone got something out of it. As it is I'd prefer frankness. And I think adults in the citizenry, and workplace, generally should prefer that, and they're wusses if they prefer the truckling manipulation that they're calling tact.

Transparency, trust, boldness, and long-term investment and empowerment of non-bosses doesn't sound like politics as usual. In fact, if "politics" equals dysfunction, it doesn't sound like politics at all. But it is. It's politics -- the allocation of scarce resources -- with an entrepreneurial, dynamic mindset, instead of a tired zero-sum blame game.

"Entrepreneur" sounds nice, doesn't it? In a sense, the buzzwords "Business," "businesslike," "enterprise," and "professional" are the opposite of "entrepreneur," and show up in the kinds of arguments that don't acknowledge that they're arguments. The subtext for "businesslike/professional" goes like this:

The business's aim is to make money, so it must maintain profitable, long-term relationships with clients and employees. Ergo, the customers must trust the business to perform its duties competently, so as to continue their patronage and recommend services to others. Customers use certain measures of demeanor and register as proxies for trustworthiness. Thus, the business's employees must meet the customer's expectations, both in demeanor and register.

Which ends up as special "client-facing" codewords, a taboo on salary transparency, and dress codes. Speaking of dress, I'm guessing every feminist has a bone to pick with "feminine" or "modest". By definition anything I do is feminine. "Modest" and "feminine" crossed with "business" (especially "business casual") give me headaches: exactly what fabrics am I allowed to wear, and what about the inch of skin under my collarbone, and are unshaven legs or inch-long buzzcuts going to be a problem? I end up looking like a male engineer from 1950, matching two out of three desired buzzwords.

A larger question: how do you open up the pre-sealed bag of salad greens that is a buzzword and see if anything's rotted? Sometimes, when I make conversation partners stop to unpack our assumptions, we all come away with insights, as in a PSA for the value of diversity. Sometimes I just feel misunderstood or sense that I'm a pain in the ass. My third-rate Socrates impression, otherwise known as passive aggression, runs the risk of annoying friends and lowering my status with every question at work ("I haven't seen any women at that client, so would this outfit count as business casual to them?"). But speaking the subtext gets the frown; of course the reason it's subtext is that it's so tense and possibly unjustifiable. How political.

* to the tune of "Shave and a Haircut"


12 Oct 2008, 12:39 p.m.

Very interesting. You are right, politics is tricky. I think it is important to learn how to coexist with others. Just like in a marriage we have to learn to get along even though each person has their own (different) opinions. 'Can't we all just get along' sounds easy to do, but I am still learning and doubt I will be able to master it soon, if ever. I respect a well thought out, intelligent opinion such as yours, and I enjoy your insight.