Archive for January 9, 2013

How ‘Anodyne’ Communication Destroys Societal Trust

January 9, 2013 40 comments

A few months ago I went to an all expenses paid job interview in another city. The interview went well and I was one of the top 2-3 candidates. However I did not get the job, which is fine by me for reasons that I will mention later on in this post. I did however find the ‘rejection’ email interesting because it is one of the better examples of what passes for communication in the corporate environment today.

Here is the name-redacted email..

Dear AD,

The ‘Acme Gadget Group’ interview team wants to thank you for taking the time to participate in our hiring process through the on-site interview stage. This letter is to let you know that despite your impressive experience, after long consideration we have decided to go with another candidate.

Again, thank you for your time and efforts to come to ‘AGG’. We enjoyed meeting you and our discussions indicate that you have much to offer your next employer.

We wish you both personal and professional success in your future endeavors.



While such emails or letters sound polite and to the point, the reality is rather different. To understand what I am talking about, let me ask you a question.

Would you communicate like that to a person you seriously considered having a personal relationship with?

Some of you might say- “but it is work, not a relationship”. My point is that work in the current setup is a relationship if you consider the time and effort you put into it- never mind the amount of communication with those who work around you. People spend more time around the people they work with than members of their own family. While you might trust your family members (hopefully) more than your coworkers, it is hard to get around the fact that your frenemies at work are members of your extended social circle- for better or worse.

For most of human history the people who worked around, or with you, were also your kith and kin. While that could be boring and sometimes problematic, it placed hard limits on how your coworkers or employers could treat you. Thoughtless or sociopathic behavior had consequences, both immediate and delayed. You just could not get away with certain behaviors without accepting a significant personal risk.

The industrial revolution started changing that, though not as much as most people think. People still mostly worked with or around people from similar backgrounds to whom they were often related- if somewhat distantly. Jobs and careers were still decades long and people had enough time to develop some sort of ersatz relationships with their coworkers.

However things started changing around the late-1970s and early-1980s. While there are many reasons behind the socio-cultural shifts that occurred around that time, this post will focus on the results. Prior to the late-1970s, most people around the world could look forward to a fairly stable local environment. Sure, there were wars and other large-scale events, but these events were infrequent and of a very large magnitude.

We never had a world where the big picture was reasonably constant but the local environment around almost every individual was in a state of constant flux.

The real problem with such constant changes in the environment around individuals is that, sooner or later, most people stop caring about the people around them. This extends to both personal as well as ‘work’ relationships. While societies in which interpersonal relationships have deteriorated might appear normal during times of economic expansion, prolonged slowdowns or economic contractions reveal the massive fault lines within that society and exposes its true fragility. While dysfunctional societies become fragile over decades, the actual process of implosion or collapse is rather fast and triggered by seemingly minor and often unrelated events.

But what does all of this have to do with anodyne corporate language? and how does it contribute to the destruction of social trust and why is it important?

Exchanging information for the purpose of maintaining function, stability and order in the dynamically unstable system also known as human society is probably the most important function of communication. However any useful exchange of information requires certain preconditions. For example- It is hard to have a decent and long-lasting personal relationships with another person if you both spend most of your time lying or being selectively truthful with each other. I am not implying that people have to be totally truthful to each other all the time, but it is equally clear that lying and selective truthfulness beyond certain levels is incompatible with any degree of future inter-personal trust.

But what about modern corporations, large businesses and impersonal institutions that are run for the sole benefit of a few connected sociopaths? Do they understand, let alone care about, the necessity for minimal levels of sincerity and useful information content in communications?

The simple answer to that question is.. NO! Modern organisations and institutions are dominated by impersonal sociopaths, careerism-driven managers, scummy human resource types and lawyers who want to make a quick buck while showing everybody that they are so clever. Unlike their counterparts from the pre-1980s era, none of them have any medium-term (let along long-term) plans or involvement with the organisations and institutions they hollow out for short-term gains. Their modus operandi is rather similar to a virus infecting a bunch of healthy cells or cancerous cells metastasizing in an otherwise healthy individual. Sadly these individuals do determine the tone and tenor of contemporary institutional policies and communications. It is therefore no surprise that institutional communications have become increasingly vague, non-specific, full of “hope” and “optimism” without any actionable or concrete suggestions or plan of action.

The nature of corporate communication has now become disturbingly similar to the fake biochemical signals used by metastasizing cancerous cells and viruses to use, abuse and subvert the host.

But there is another dimension to this issue which makes it far more problematic in human societies. People, unlike cells, emulate and imitate strategies which are seen as successful for the individual, even if doing so destroys the social system that keeps things going. Consequently the ‘corporatese’ lies and selective truths that permeate large institutions and organisations seep into smaller versions of them and ultimatey into general society. Soon almost everyone is communicating to each other with the same attitudes, mindsets and expectations as impersonal sociopathic corporations.

It is common for the hacks who pass off as ‘respected’ journalists to bemoan the rapidly increasing amount of general flakiness in society, the unwillingness to keep even simple promises, outpouring of fake emotions to incidents and other instances of social phoniness. But they rarely ask why so many unrelated people are behaving so similarly. I mean.. why are they all following the same basic script? I believe that anodyne styles of communicating and the ‘corporate’ mindset has completely permeated general society in North America, Western Europe and increasingly other parts of the world.

However doing so on a large-scale results in a particular self-protective response aka social atomization.

I see social atomization as the result of individuals trying to protect themselves from a constant barrage of half-truths, lies, general phoniness, legalized scams and ‘official’ abuses of power. People isolate themselves from, and limit communication with, those they cannot trust. In the past, this meant a few especially dishonest acquaintances and strangers. Today that means all of society- including members of your innermost social circle.

People don’t spend ever-increasing amounts of time checking their social media feeds or doing something else on their shiny electronic toys because the online world is better. They do that because the so-called ‘real’ world is too toxic to engage with other than when absolutely necessary. People are just not interested in becoming the next victim of another persons lies, business scams, confidence tricks, fake emotions or carefully measured communications.

What do you think? Comments?