Say what you mean. Mean what you say.
Updated: Jul 10, 2022
Stop being diplomatic.
Sometimes you actually need to say what you mean
and mean what you say.
This first post of 2019 explores the power of language.
First things first: Happy New Year! What are your resolutions for 2019?
- Try to get fit or lose weight?
- Try to make it home for dinner more often than not?
- Try to cut down on coffee? Alcohol? Social media? Binge-watching TV? Junk food?
- Try to get more sleep?
- Work really hard and finally get that promotion or posting?
Do me a favour and read those questions again. Do you notice anything about the language I used (besides writing it in English)?
What's the problem?
We diplomats are surely adept at using language. Many of us learn a lot of languages during our careers and can appreciate the subtleties that the right words, sentence structure and other points of grammar can convey.
Indeed, success in our work is based on our ability to use the written and spoken word. In the world of international diplomacy, when words fail, bullets and missiles can take over.
We make our careers out of saying the best thing at the right time. We are trained and become experts at carefully crafting written and verbal communications, so our statements, communiqués, cables, records, letters and speeches are just so. To those who aren't familiar with this otherwise peculiar style of communication, have a look at how diplomatic correspondence is written and constructed.
We are masters of the passive sentence. Nuance is our friend. It truly is a talent that we can say and/or write so many words without saying anything at all.
There are very good reasons for this, without doubt. Rigid protocol around the words we use and how we use them - regardless of language - convey our intentions and meanings in a way that other nations' governments can understand and contextualise. If we all play by the same rules, the risks posed by linguistic and cultural differences are mitigated.
While we are working by those rules, few others in the real world use language like this. We can forget that, sometimes. We can struggle to alter our style and engage with non-diplomats.
Beyond the words we say externally (to the public and to representatives of other countries and companies), what about the words we use in our everyday interactions with others at work and the words you use in your own internal narrative?
Consider these scenarios:
A colleague comes to you to ask if you could help them with the amount of work they have to do. You feel stressed already with your workload. Do you say yes? You know that this comes at your expense. Do you say no? Of course, this carries the risk of them thinking negatively of you. Do you say you'll try to help them?
What about when your boss comes to you with yet more work and uses the old 'good for your development' sales technique? Do you say yes, knowing that this also comes at your own expense? Do you say no and risk them remembering this in your upcoming performance review? You do need their good words and support for your promotion or posting application. We both know what you should do, but do you do it?
What if someone who works to you comes and asks for your support on their promotion or posting application? You want to be helpful, but you really don't feel that they're ready yet. Do you explain your thoughts to them, or do you agree to do it but use appropriate words that overtly say they're great but covertly convey your misgivings (otherwise known as to damn with faint praise)?
Finally, what if I was to ask you to share your own thoughts and experiences about this post on social media or at a dinner? Yep, other people - possibly your friends and colleagues at work - would see it. Could you be honest? Could you do it and not be worried about what other people think? Could you do it and not be worried about ruining your chances of promotion or posting? Could you do it and not worry about being perceived 'wrongly'?
Relax, I know why you can't and won't do the last one (and it's something I'll explore in a future post). But if you broke out in a cold sweat after reading those words, keep reading. [continued below]
For the mid-career diplomat
We mid-career diplomats use language as both a sword and a shield. We can use our words to go on the offensive and then hide our thoughts and emotions behind them.
We've spent so much time and effort in our careers thus far cultivating our image, reputation and work experience that we fear that saying the wrong thing at any time can bring it all undone.
In our hyper-competitive work cultures, we fear that we can never say no without missing out. By 'missing out', I mean the fear of not getting attention from those who matter in our employing agencies, the next posting and/or the next promotion. This is a point on which I've already written in 'Can you ever say 'no'?'
We are trained to keep talking, keep communicating and negotiating until we have delivered the outcome our government requires. This process can require equivocation and verbal gymnastics to avoid making unapproved commitments.
We can filibuster. We speak so others cannot. We dazzle others with our command of language and hope to either impress them or have them not ask any questions.
Colloquially-speaking, we can speak shit. By the time we are in our mid-careers, we know it. Worse still, we don't know it and can believe what we say.
Further, I see evidence of many mid-career diplomats have actually internalised their work communication style and never giving away our own thoughts or opinions without first checking that they're 'right' and/or that it's safe to do so. Many of us have carefully constructed and well-nuanced linguistic shields.
Again, this will be the topic of future posts. For now, I worry about us always carrying these shields and the mental and emotional damage this does to us.
What are we to do?
We must pay attention to the words we use - both out loud and in our heads. We must call ourselves on any convenient half-truths we each tell ourselves and each other. We must stop wrapping ourselves in words and using them to justify actions, habits and behaviours that no longer serve us as individuals.
Critically, while our jobs require that we use language to convince counterparts in other governments to do things that are in our government's interests, we can turn these same skills inward. We can convince ourselves that we are on the right career path. We can convince ourselves that the work we are doing will get us that attention we crave, or that posting or promotion.
We can use our language skills to counter those pesky feelings and nagging thoughts that something is not quite right for us.
This is dangerous.
Something within us could be telling us that things aren't OK and we need to investigate why. This is scary, so it can be easier to counter these feelings with beautifully-scripted self talk and hope that we believe it.
But any skill can serve us just as much as it doesn't serve us. With that in mind, we could turn this possibly destructive or numbing self-talk into a powerful tool.
How? Getting curious. We need to be aware that the language we use in our heads may be our Joes speaking to us. If this is the case, we already know that we need to stop what we are doing and pay attention, feel the emotion and counter the beguiling words our Joes use with some reason, talking to someone we trust and we know will respond with empathy and some self-care. Read this for more on your Joe.
Let's go back to those resolutions I listed at the start of the post. Did you notice the use of the words try and should?
Try and should are two weasel words that I want you to banish from your vocabulary in 2019. I want you to stop whenever you use them, hear yourself think them or when someone else uses them.
Why? They are words that carry as much baggage as an airport luggage carousel. They burden us with feelings of compulsion, obligation or half-heartedness.
Try is a weasel word. As Yoda says: 'Do, or do not. There is no try.'
As for should, it is my least favourite modal verb. And modal verbs are my least favourite kinds of verbs. It's a verb that relies on another verb to give it any meaning. How useless! When we use or hear a sentence like: 'I should try to get a better work/life balance', we all need to recoil in horror.
The key is to replace: 'should' with 'must'; 'try' with 'will'
and then witness the transformative power that comes from using active language.
For example, let's look at what's surely a common resolution:
- 'I'll try to leave work at a reasonable time' becomes 'I will leave work at a reasonable time'. You get bonus points for 'I will leave work by 6pm each night unless it's an emergency' [This was one of my commitments when I worked in Seoul. It was very powerful].
- 'I should cut down on the amount of junk food I'm eating. It's not healthy' becomes 'I must cut down on the amount of junk food I'm eating' Again, bonus points will be awarded for 'I must cut down on the amount of junk food I'm eating. I'll have a burger or some pizza once a week. I'll also investigate why I'm relying on junk food to get me through each day.' We need to be aware of our numbing behaviours, after all.
For the sake of clarity, here's one more:
- The answer to a question like 'I need to talk to you about getting involved in a new project. Can we meet tomorrow?' becomes a simple yes or no. None of this 'I'll try' business. I know that you want to be helpful and be that team player. I know that you already are. But at what cost does this come? If you can't do something, say it. No one can depend on an 'I'll try' and you'll feel awful within yourself until you make the clear decision.
Of course, there are many, many cultural considerations to take into account. For instance, in many cultures, saying 'no' means losing face and 'I'll try' is the same as a no. We must always employ language and clarity in the appropriate cultural context; within reason.
This week, and for now, we're going to be paying attention to the words we use within ourselves and the words used around us.
I want you to ask clarifying questions whenever someone uses the words 'try' and 'should'. Pin them down. Ask them to get specific.
The same applies to when you speak - or think - the words 'try' and 'should' yourself. Mentally attach red flags to them so you stop and rephrase yourself with words that are more direct whenever you notice the red flag. I do this. You may have noticed this if you've seen my Facebook Live videos. If you're accustomed to subtleties and verbally creating wriggle room for yourself, this challenge will be confronting. Trust me: the clarity is liberating.
Do it and tell me how you go.
Thanks for reading!
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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.