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The Elements of Bureaucratic Style (longreads.com)
119 points by samclemens on April 14, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 40 comments

The writer of this article put to words something I've noticed constantly about corporate press releases and news articles, but have not been able to articulate with such distinctness. The example further down in the article illustrates this "bureaucratic style" well:

“One Dead in Fremont Officer Involved Shooting”

Officer involved? The wording pretends that the police officer was a prop on the scene or some uninvolved bystander, rather than a real person who did a real thing. Re-write it as, "Police officer shoots and kills someone in Fremont". Much more accurate, but you'd never see a press release like this because it correctly describes the police officer as the starring role rather than as a prop in a situation that just spontaneously happened around him.

Think about this style the next time you read some press release where a company is responding to being accused of bad behavior, you'll see it everywhere: Anything about the company's actions will passive and it will be hard to figure out whether anyone in the company actually did anything: "A situation occurred. Procedures were followed." Conversely, anything about the accuser will be active and impart agency: "She became uncooperative. He yelled and acted threatening." It's a deliberate rhetorical tool, and I'm grateful this article gave it a name and described it so clearly.

The linked piece offers a more detailed but also concise breakdown of how to do this:


Stick around for the (genuine) statement from a police department at the end, and its translation.

Actually I'll defend this construction.

Calling it an "officer-involved shooting" (should have a hyphen!) in an initial report restricts the scope to a just-the-facts-as-we-know-them-m'am style. Even from the headline I know: 1> where (Fremont), 2> Fatality, 3> cop was there. Hopefully the first paragraph tells me who shot whom and some macro facts.

But in an early article or "hot take" it's rarely clear if, for example, a cop used excessive force, or poorly pressured someone under stress so they took their own life; if there was legitimate responsibility etc. The passive voice here preserves the "innocent until proven guilty" position.

If the cop is later convicted of murder I would hope that a subsequent news article would be more definite ("officer XXX convicted of murder") or alternatively "Letter: distraught father wanted suicide to be a spectacle"

In fact this is why I am generally uninterested in "news" -- the amount of actual data in these early articles is usually quite small. If people are still talking about it a week later, perhaps it's worth learning about.

I agree that news articles shouldn't speculate on motives and whether or not a shooting was proper in the first few days (with the possible exception of a neutral expert on these issues, such as the excellent copinthehood.com).

Nevertheless, "officer shoots X" is at least as factual and without spin (unless X is "victim" or some kind of loaded word).

OP wasn't about news articles, anyway. In this context, the use of OIS from a precinct press release (i.e., a document not from a neutral observer, but from a representative of one of the involved parties) looks like an attempt to pre-emptively disclaim even the possibility of responsibility, which may or may not exist in any particular case.

Passive voice is a key element: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mistakes_were_made

This is also an interesting study of the origins and evolution of corporate-speak: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/04/busines...

One of the most active sources of new terms is apparently layoffs. Consulting companies and CEOs try to one-up each other, perhaps unconsciously, who can come up with and then own the coolest new term.

Then it starts spreading. CEOs read the same magazines and blogs and then everyone is using the term. "Hmm, I kinda like how so and so used the term 'circling back' I'll start using it too, it just seems so fresh and cool. Everyone will be impressed". [1]

I always wonder how people end up writing in that style. Do they actually think like that, as in for an hour they switch to thinking in corporate-speak, and later switch back to thinking normally. Or do they think normally and then translate as they type so "fuck that guy blah blah" becomes "we reached out to the developer and told them we'll be letting them go".

Imagine the tragedy of a poor CEO stuck in corporate-speak mode, unable to plainly communicate with family or even order coffee, because nobody understands them or just thinks they are an asshole.

[1] http://paulgraham.com/circling.html

I think a lot of people miss the important distinction between jargon and buzzwords.

Jargon: special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.

Buzzword: a word or phrase, often an item of jargon, that is fashionable at a particular time or in a particular context.

A lot of these "corporate-speak" terms that are easy to poke fun at are jargon created to describe very specific, nuanced ideas within a professional group - they make communication easier. Then maybe the popular ones get used more broadly as buzzwords, by people who don't really know what they're talking about, and then it becomes assumed that anyone using that term doesn't know what they're talking about -- a huge disservice to the original creators of the jargon term, who coined it because they needed a word or phrase for nuanced communication with each other.

In my old management consulting job, we used this kind of jargon all the time. We knew it was jargon, many (but not all) of us never spoke like that in our personal lives. But at work, it helped us be more effective communicators.

Low-hanging-fruit is an example - does anyone have a shorter way of describing the idea? Sometimes we called them "easy wins", but that's as jargon-y as anything else I've heard.

> Consulting companies and CEOs try to one-up each other, perhaps unconsciously, who can come up with and then own the coolest new term.

This is an interesting example of a euphemistic treadmill. Corporate-speak has to change because each cool new term (e.g. downsizing) eventually gets poisoned by what it actually describes.

For a dysphemistic treadmill: "bleeding edge" was originally satire about the pain of being "past the cutting edge", but it gets used sincerely to describe new projects and even advertise startups. At this point it's so unremarkable that Programming Sucks had to use "hemorrhaging edge" to get the same effect.

More interesting question - since bureaucratic style is meant to shield blame, i.e. to put the situation into words such that the primary actors are put in a semantic position outside the scope of direct blame, then do the people who write in that style start thinking in it, and then do they stop being able to perceive themselves as the direct cause of events, to some extent? Language shapes thought to some extent, so if you use blameless language, do you start thinking of yourself as not responsible for anything?

I am quite good at "corporate speak" when i need it. I tend to use when i want to be really vexing for the receiver.

In general, i begin with "what i want to say" and then i generate the smoothest way to explain it in a sentence, without anything that someone could "grasp" on.

It tends to be enough. So i don't think i ever think in corporate speak. I just try to use my imagination.

I use the same process, though I realized that to do that effectively you need to have appropriate vocabulary. An occasional press release you stumble upon, or a dystopian sci-fi movie/novel you read, serve as good sources of useful phrases.

Political press releases are fantastic for this. "If by whiskey" has become infamous, but the actual technique can still be made quite subtle. Similarly, "neither confirm nor deny" is a trope, but it was originally a lesson in avoiding giving away negative information.

Well i read a _lot_. Like during 10 years i read one book per day or more. I am lower now, but i am slowly getting back to it. So i think i have the vocabulary anyway. It is deeply engrained into me now.

I think business speak is like a second language in that I may need to switch to using it for a while and certain constructs I'll get tripped up on and others not so much. But like any language, if you use it often enough you may start to actually think using the language.

I just wanted to point out that your 2 examples are manifestations of different phenomena:

>One of the most active sources of new terms is apparently layoffs. Consulting companies and CEOs try to one-up each other, perhaps unconsciously, who can come up with and then own the coolest new term.

(1) euphemisms for negative events like "layoffs"/"firings" into "downsizing", "rightsizing", "resource actions", etc. Same situation as using "unintended targets", "collateral damage", etc for civilian deaths in war.

>"Hmm, I kinda like how so and so used the term 'circling back' I'll start using it too, it just seems so fresh and cool.

(2) phrases of "social graces" such as "circling back", "reaching out", "touch base" instead of the blunt tonality of "I will call you", "I will notify you", "Be prepared for me to be back at your desk a little later for your answer", etc. It's fascinating that this language lubrication to not make other people not feel like they are at our beck & call has been happening forever. If it was 200 years ago, I suppose one person might hand a note written on a piece a paper to a servant, and then the servant then passes that paper to the target's servant, and finally the target's servant gives the paper to the target. It seems like reinvention of phrases like "circling back" are recreating this non-threatening version of "we will be communicating later".

I understand that people can be irritated with both examples. However, (1) is more about dishonesty and deflection where (2) is just human grooming and ego preservation.

So in other words, it boils down to the usual human "I heard some cool new phrase in my in-group, I'm gonna start using it"?

Pretty much. There is always a trend and those trends make you money of you leverage them. It's a way to exploit the need to belong.

You see that a lot with people who are new to management. Their whole language suddenly changes.

That, plus a layer of "everyone knows the shitty thing I mean when I say this, time to update". Hence "firing" becomes "downsizing" becomes "rightsizing".

Except that these are individuals who have a lot of power and what they do and what they say affect a lot of people. So it is kind of more interesting to study.

Agree. A deep dive. Mission-critical, process-driven accountability. Address the action items at our next one on one.

use of the passive voice to avoid responsibility

No, it's use of the passive voice to more accurately communicate the outcome of a system designed so that nobody has responsibility.

Saying that using passive voice is dishonest and evasive is a special case of shooting the messenger.

I think that often, this speech is the result of how the perpetrators felt.

They are thrust into a situation, fall back to training that says 'just follow the rules / orders'. In that frame of mind, they indeed had no choice. Had they taken any other action, they'd have gone against policy as a simple lowly employee. That is terrifying and thus not an option.

Except for especially insidious cases: https://m.imgur.com/UUCWStu

I don't see the issue with that.

Shortened headlines are supposed to have words elided (so I'd read it as "[is being] paid"), and newsy stuff tends to be about now which means that "paid" as past tense doesn't make sense and it would say "pays" (like the main headline does) if she was the one paying. The sentence ordering (Melania first, Daily Mail last) is to put the thing people are most interested in at the beginning.

It's not a case of dishonesty, it's a case of forgetting that most people don't usually use words that way.

I think it's an ugly example of bad headlining, though not 'fake news'. I did parse it backwards at first because so much had been elided.

BBC does this constantly because their mobile news app uses such short headlines - they elide all the specifiers and half the verbs, to the point where what's left is word salad with a handful of key nouns. Annoyingly often, it's necessary to read a piece just to see what the headline meant in the first place.

> ... the outcome of a system designed so that nobody has responsibility.

Ironically, you said that in the passive voice, which hides the question of who designed the system that way.

Probably nobody identifiable, or a large class of people.

It pretty clearly causes increased organizational fitness in the current social / regulatory / legal environment.


The solution is not increased punishment for customer-facing people, since that would just put them in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.

Something along the lines of RICO or Sarbanes-Oxley might help, since it would give strong personal incentives to the people who actually have power to set procedures and organizational culture.

Something that has definitely hurt, is the demonization of (and organizational liability for) individual initiative and discretion.

There does seem to be something a bit odd in making both leadership personally liable for bad outcomes of following policy, and the organization liable for bad outcomes of not having a strict enough policy.

If you're interested in this topic, two other books on the same subject from very different angles:

Life at the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1566635055

Eichman in Jerusalam by Hannah Arendt https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0143039881/

> The success of politicians like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump come from their ability to reject the party line in favor of surprising constructions of speech, even as these creations drink from the same poisoned well of dull thought.

Many have their theories to explain the current reincarnation of nationalism, few are prepared to admit they don't know why.

Right now I think such explanations are unhelpful. In their haste to pretend to understand, I think many prevent themselves from reaching any kind of usable explanation at all. And the application of their pet world view is more a shield protecting them from new evidence than a useful tool to help them understand.

Maybe people would often be better off, just saying, I don't know, and keeping an open mind.

Aside from that, I like how this article throws some light on how language encodes power and systems.

If people can be aware of how that works, maybe they won't be so bound by a discussion that was framed deliberately to disempower them, to prevent criticism of itself, and to confine their possible responses, and even imagination of responses to those least effective.

I just don't think anything good can come from systematically disempowering people. The human spirit always pushes back. Oppression simply guarantees reaction and conflict. And ends up destroying whatever order that the oppression was meant to create.

Instead of crushing people into the shape you think is most desirable, I think things work better when you can inspire them and guide them to take on that shape, and discover the possibilities of that shape, themselves. Not tyranny, not anarchy, but some kind of enlightened leadership. I think the American Dream was a good attempt at this, but maybe it got depleted by over-emphasizing consumerism, and got knocked off balance by, possibly, spurious, conflicts that eroded its moral legitimacy, and resulted in the corrosive self-doubt that stagnated progress and undermined the Dream's appeal.

To reach for a theory, maybe this reincarnation of nationalism is about trying, somehow, to design a new Dream.

I find myself dissapointed your comment was short. Great read.

<this reincarnation of nationalism is about trying, somehow, to design a new Dream

American dream was defined by the media, to me. Nationalism was defined by my mother telling what it was like in 1941. I could not believe that men and women would actually sign up for war, as they did then. Everybidy did, she said.

From my ears of viEtnam and tent-cities and matches the last thing that was was nationalism.

So if this new theory of AD is elusive too, then perhaps nationalism-as-dream will be realized by a portion of the citizenship.

"Let's tease this situation apart."

United Airlines' core concern is for the safety and security of our passengers. Mr. Dao, a passenger on a recent flight was politely asked to leave the flight after a safety-critical United employee had to board and take his place.

The safety and security of all our passengers is paramount at United. After repeated attempts to disembark, Mr. Dao became belligerent and eventually posed a safety risk for passengers and crew members, requiring the contact of the Aviation Police.

The police arrived and handled the situation according to C.R.C 1875.12. At least two non-physical attempts were made to diffuse the situation before a physical response was required. Acting in accordance with the law, officers used a reasonable and warranted amount of force to remove Mr. Dao from his seat, eliminating the safety risk he posed to United crew and other passengers, and also to himself.

We thank the officers and United crew for their quick attention to this matter, which likely prevented further safety and security problems from arising.

At United, we are committed to the safety and security of all passengers and crew.

'The thrust of these style guides falls back to a weird kind of masculine virility. The terms themselves—“passive” and “active”—rely heavily on received tropes of gendered norms, and for that reason alone we should be suspicious of them.'

Are gender norms really the root of all evil?

Power will corrupt in both patriarchies and matriarchies.

that comment strike me as odd too - the terms "active and passive voice" are due to the passivity or activity of the speaker in the events being described. It has absolutely nothing to do with gender. If they were called "masculine and feminine voice" to correspond to the same then the author would have a case.

I think the author misquoted United's email; I was kind of baffled by this first statement:

>As you will read, the situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers was politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Officers to help.

The email actually read, "one of the passengers -we- politely asked..."

But that's kind of the problem, isn't it? That the style indignantly defends itself as polite when it's really a big, "fuck you?"

One thing the author didn't mention is, in this case, whatever the intentions behind Munoz's dismal bit of bureaucratese, it most certainly did not deflect blame or attention. In fact, the response was so ham-fistedly out of touch with the response that was needed it made the PR situation way worse.

What's the point of PR-speak if it inflames a situation it's meant to cool?

> Contains no passive voice.

Passenger is used as the subject, rather than object in your quoted passage. To see it in active voice, change "one of the passengers was politely asked...", to "SOME_SUBJECT politely asked one of the passengers...".

I've oversimplified, since it could be argued as active by adding the word "who",

"one of the passengers who was politely asked to deplane refused..."

but even if that's the case, then the master dodge phrase "it became necessary" cut SOME_SUBJECT from the second part. Note that the passenger is not doing the contacting in

"...and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Officers to help."

That statement contains a ton of passive voice.

Here's the active voice version, for contrast:

"We needed to contact Chicago Aviation Officers to help because the passenger unfortunately compounded the situation by refusing to deplane after we politely asked him to do so."

Notice that in the original statement, all humans have been moved from subjects to objects, mere instruments of authoritative concepts like "the situation" and "[what is] necessary".

This type of nonsense isn't necessarily evil on its face. It's a theatric response to the lazy and hysterical approach that the press and other spectators take with any event.

Communications like this are signals to professionals who speak the jargon. If you know wtf you are talking about, it's pretty easy to parse the nonsense and figure out what is actually going on.

If you're in the know about a topic that others aren't, it's easily to spot these things by looking at the editorial decisions. If there's a new smartphone, and in the 2 hour keynote address, there's no mention of battery life improvements... guess what? The battery sucks.

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