Working with WordsBy Susan McWilliams for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
A few years ago I dated a guy who seemed terrific. Nate (not his real name) was cute, smart, funny, and athletic. Oh, and he happened to be a management consultant.
Our relationship was still in its early swoon when Nate came to pick me up from work one night. He was so obviously excited to see me that even my students noticed. “Ohmigod,” one of them whispered over my desk. “He is so into you.”
As he and I walked away from the office, Nate looked dreamy. He grabbed my hand and led me to a secluded spot in the nearby public gardens. It was a beautiful summer night, with stars twinkling and an ocean breeze blowing, everything conspiring to create the perfect conditions for the romantic declaration I knew – knew – I was about to hear .
Nate stared into my eyes. “We haven’t known each other very long,” he began, “but I hope I can tell you something.”
“Go ahead,” I said. I tried to draw out my words, savoring the poetry of the moment.
Nate took a deep breath. “You” – he paused – “have really amazing followership.”
I waited for him to say something more, but he didn’t. He just looked at me, looking for a response. But I couldn’t respond because I didn’t understand what Nate had said.
“Ummm … follower what?” I asked.
“Followership!” Nate exclaimed. “It’s what we at the consulting firm call it when a team member proactively gains the spirited trust —“
The ensuing lecture on “followership” lasted, by my recollection, 15 minutes. It might as well have been 15 hours, or 15 days. The spell was broken, the connection lost.
* * *
Anaxagoras’ dictum that “it is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals” appears more than once in Shop Class as Soul Craft. But hand-in-hand with this book’s very evident emphasis on manual labor is an argument about the relationship between our work and our words. In fact, I would argue that Matthew Crawford’s reflections about language lie near the heart of this (appropriately) well-written book – and I want to give them some of the attention that I don’t think they’ve received.
Aristotle, after all, wrote that human beings are distinct as a species because of our ability to use language. The fact that we are beings who can do more than express mere pleasure or pain, that we are creatures capable of sharing a moral and rational vocabulary, helps define us. Our intelligence derives from tools of language as well as tools of the machine shop. The interplay between our experience in body and our reflection in speech lies at the core of our humanity, a concept with which Crawford – who makes recourse to Aristotle many times in this volume – is clearly familiar.
In Shop Class, Crawford draws a connection between bodily experience and our ability to communicate – both to each other and to ourselves – and in that way he very much follows Henry David Thoreau’s line in Walden. In the spirit of that great work, Crawford applauds the attempt to master material skills, since that attempt is the spirited “assertion of one’s own dignity.” To build one’s own cabin, or “to fix one’s own car is not merely to use up time, it is to have a different experience of time, of one’s car, and of oneself.” Such work transforms, and it does so in part by revealing the limits of transformation. By interacting with an external reality, the material worker “opens himself to being schooled by it.” True mastery consists in awareness of the extent to which we, as humans, are mastered.
This process entails a kind of candid communication with the external world. Crawford describes what can only be described as his conversations with broken motorcycles: listening for the truth, acknowledging problems, suggesting alternatives, working toward mutual understanding. A significant part of the “gearhead” education Crawford describes in this book is actually an education in speech: How do you talk to your customers, to help them maintain realistic expectations? What do you do when you’ve worked far more hours on a bike than you should have? (In this case, fans of Socrates can take heart: Crawford recommends engaging in a noble lie.)
In Crawford’s take, material mastery is inextricably bound with a deeper awareness of, and appreciation for, the communicative arts. When you want to fix things, you have to learn to communicate with them, to refine your language through patterns of experience. To use language in a way that transcends the distance between us, you have to have a good sense of your audience, a good sense of the world, and a good sense of yourself. How difficult a thing it is, to understand others – and to make oneself understood – even when your experience of the matter at hand is direct.
But in contemporary America, that truth is buried, plowed over by a professional culture which cultivates hyper-specialized, obfuscated, esotericized, and abstracted language – even as it pretends to value straight talk.
For instance, Crawford laments the ascendancy of technical writing, a “profession that is institutionalized on the assumption that it has its own principles that can be mastered without the writer being immersed in any particular problem; it is universal rather than situated.” In that way, technical writing seems to reject that first compositional principle: write what you know. And in Crawford’s estimation, machine manuals produced by technical writers are always inferior – too distant, too foggy, too abstract – to those written by people who have experience with the actual machine.
Although they aim to clarify and refine a style of communication – in this case, product manuals – by separating form from function (or words from work), technical writers achieve the opposite. They complicate and obscure, making more difficult the already difficult task of making things understood.
This kind of obfuscation is familiar stuff in professional America. Especially in the elite professions – the “symbolic analyst” professions, as Robert Reich has called them – jargon rules.
For example, I confess: my first job out of college was at a management consultancy. While I’ve repressed most of the gory details, I still have the “lingo worksheet” that I was given during orientation. The “lingo worksheet” contains a list of company-specific words and phrases that I was expected to learn right away. That way, I could discern statements like the following (which I have taken from the worksheet): “This message is for herbal folks, You can three three seven this, Horace. Our gam wants to touch base at 4 tomorrow to blank-slide some stuff. It would be helpful if you guys could take a first pass at the key takeaways from your back of the envelope.” My favorite company-specific word was “swag,” a secret acronym standing for “Sophisticated Wild-Ass Guess” – the code we would use in front of a client when he asked us for information we didn’t really have. “Sure, Jim,” you could say in such a situation, showing nothing but confidence. “I have the swag figures right here.” That way, your consultant coworkers would know you were pretty much making all that junk up.
Crawford notes how, in many if not most if not all corporations, managerial success is predicated on the manager’s ability to manipulate language, not necessarily on the manager’s ability to get specific jobs done.
That kind of linguistic smoke-screening is irritating enough in the office. But it’s downright insidious when it escapes – as it inevitably does – beyond the low walls of the cubicle. When we become habituated to manipulative and meaningless speech, we no longer expect or demand frankness. (And we have trouble believing that anyone – particularly people in positions of power – would even want to speak to us honestly.) We become distrustful, wary, cynical, sly.
That kind of speech takes us over, the way that it took Nate over when he lectured me about “followership.” I do believe that the poor boy wanted to pay me a compliment, perhaps even a compliment with romantic overtones, but his jargon got in the way. That kind of corporate speech takes us over, and it brings out our worse selves. It makes communication harder. It confuses and it excludes. It disconnects. It makes it harder, I think, to access who we really are and what we really think.
It seems that our national inclination to value “knowledge work” – at least as it is currently practiced – over the manual trades may, almost paradoxically, be disconnecting us from some of the most meaningful human knowledge, which is knowledge how to use speech with others to seek the truth. So to revive respect for working done with hands, as Crawford does here, may do more than that: It may revive respect for talking done with heart.