Are You Ready to "Level Up" in 2021?
I hope you said no, because I don't write about that nonsense. Instead, I've written a few notes on language, including the annoying words and phrases we say and write. (26 Hours, no. 3.)
I wondered what to write here after my last newsletter on the fear of writing online. I considered reflecting on 2020 — the challenges, the losses, and the change — but in the end, I decided not to give that awful year any more of myself.
Over the past few months, the topic of language kept pushing its way to the top of my mind in various ways. This newsletter is different than my previous posts — both here and my blog — and hopefully a bit more fun and feisty. (2020 put me in a mood.) It’s about irritating corporate jargon, “resolutions,” annoying yoga phrases, accessible writing, the “broetry” of LinkedIn, and toddler speak.
Last month at Longreads, I published a handful of best of 2020 lists, compiling our favorite longform storytelling from publications across the web. If you ever find yourself looking for things to read, I curated the best nonfiction stories in business, COVID-19 reporting, arts and culture, essays, and investigative reporting, if you’re interested.
In my reading and shortlisting of hundreds of stories published in 2020, I revisited Molly Young’s brilliant piece in Vulture on garbage language: empty corporate and startup speak that ultimately takes up space, creates confusion, and puts forth the illusion that people are working more than they really are. My team of four editors is part of a larger marketing division, so we see this language all the time. If you’re lucky enough to not know what I’m talking about, here’s an example of this kind of language that might come from a colleague or boss, which I’ve pulled from the best of 2020 list on business writing (where I featured Young’s story):
Hey team! I have an ask. Let’s chat async about ways we can ladder up our skills in the new year and strategize some quick wins. We’ll break up into two teams so we can parallel-path roadmaps, then meet in a few weeks to synergize and find alignment.
Let’s dissect this lazy, bloated language a bit:
Verbs (or adjectives) masquerading as nouns, like “ask” and “win.” These poor words have no business being nouns. In her piece, Young also mentions words like “refresh,” “creative,” and “sync” (please note the difference between “sync” and “async”). The website is ready for a refresh. She is a seasoned creative in the advertising world. Let’s schedule a team sync next week to touch base and regroup. (More on “win” below.)
Extremely irritating phrases like “ladder up” and “parallel path.” I’m not even sure if I’ve used “ladder up” correctly: To improve your skills? To climb the career ladder? Young also describes the latter in her article; simply put, to “parallel path” means to do two things at once. People actually talk like this, and when I have conversations with them, I’m left perplexed and even angry.
“Quick win.” People who say this are generally the same people who foisted “low-hanging fruit” upon me years ago, which I’ve used here and there and has sadly been absorbed into me. (Young writes: “The problem with these words isn’t only their floating capacity to enrage but their contaminating quality. Once you hear a word, it’s ‘in’ you.”) But I refuse to let “quick win” taint my being.
“Roadmap.” What’s so wrong with “plan” or “outline”? Do people need to feel like they’re physically going somewhere? Does that help them feel more productive?
“Synergize.” I must admit I’ve used this word before, in the same way I’ve caved and used “bandwidth” numerous times over the years. I’m not proud.
“Find alignment.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read this in Slack discussions at work over the past several months. Bits of me die each time. What happened to being succinct? Do you feel smarter, more sophisticated, when you put more words together? Is “align” so terrible? Is “agree” not “sexy” enough? (Sidenote: can we also stop using “sexy” to describe software, design, and other online tools?)
In my previous jobs, I didn’t have to deal with this sort of shitty corporate speak, and after over eight years in tech, I suppose I should be used to it by now.
But I’m not. It bothers me more than ever, probably because I’ve reached my limit, and I must actively avoid falling down slippery chutes into murky pools where these meaningless words and phrases live — and can stick to me for good.
Maggie Smith, who penned “Good Bones,” one of the most beautiful and sad poems that I return to often, wrote a short piece in Net-A-Porter on new year’s resolutions. She explores the origins of the word “resolution” and explains that in 2021, she hopes not to do more, but less — to release and lighten her load:
I’m not opposed to the idea of self-improvement; it’s a natural impulse, I think, to want more for ourselves. But I don’t like the idea of starting off the year at a deficit. As if, on day one of the new year, we’re already behind. I don’t like the idea of beginning with a spirit of “I need to level up.”
This is where language can save us, though, and give us another option. (I’m a poet, first and foremost, and a self-proclaimed “word nerd,” so of course I was curious about the origin of resolution.) We can trace the word back to the Latin resolvere, meaning “loosen” or “release.” Now this is a metaphor, an image, that I can embrace. It suggests I am enough on day one of the new year. I don’t need to do or be more; perhaps I actually need less.
Nick asked me recently if I had any resolutions for this year. I said, not really. I mean, I hope to be a better mother and partner and daughter. I hope to find time for me, to be creative, to pursue interests. I hope to reconnect with the friends and family members I have not physically seen in 10 months.
Are these resolutions? Or is it all just trying to be?
I like the idea that I’m enough on January 1. That I don’t need to set X or Y or Z. And if I do set “goals,” I can focus on letting go. In Smith’s words:
What I want for myself in the new year is to be lighter, less encumbered. To loosen my grip on the past and release what no longer serves me.
What no longer serves me.
Ugh. There’s another phrase. Even Maggie Smith is not immune!
Whether uttered by a yoga teacher during class or used in Instagram captions by expat life coaches in Bali who teach you how to find your purpose, phrases like this bother me. I assume that saying and repeating these things may genuinely help other people to find their calm or center, and that’s great for them, but they just don’t work for me.
In the Before Times, when our packed Saturday morning power vinyasa class reached its climax at the 75-minute mark, we’d all be drenched in sweat: 30 warm bodies standing on slick mats, paused, in ardha chandra chapasana. Eventually, we’d all find our way back down to the ground: exhaling, resetting.
“Let go of what no longer serves you,” our teacher would say, and then push out her slow, hissy lion’s breath.
The phrase has always sounded odd to me, and what irks me is “serve” — and the broader language of yoga and the wider world of wellness — which implies that you’re the center of everything. My body is a temple. I’m a goddess. And then there’s the related imagery: A person sitting in lotus position on a yoga mat, eyes closed, on a deck overlooking a beach in Thailand. The personal altar of a wellness influencer, perfectly curated and staged with a candle, flowers, and a Moleskine filled with mandalas. It’s empowering, yes, for each of us to be able to design the life we want to live, to shed the parts of us we no longer need or identify with. But some of this community — on display on Instagram — feels so performative and self-important, and this type of language just adds to that vibe.
Consider make your arrival, as in “make your arrival to your yoga mat.” What a waste of your breath (which you’re supposed to be mindful of to begin with)! Why do we have to make our arrival? Why can’t we just arrive? Or better yet, since we’re not aliens from another part of the universe, can’t we just come to the mat, or sit on the mat, or lie down on the mat?
And how about receiving things, as in “allowing your body to receive the gifts of this juicy pose.” Like, what? Can’t you say something simple, like “pause” or “take in”? Let’s pause for a minute. Let’s take in what we’ve done. Because that sounds too ordinary, and yogis are not ordinary. We are sacred beings of light. And don’t get me started on “juicy” — I’m shocked that more than half of the yoga instructors I’ve had over the years share a love for describing poses with this word.
And what about my favorite — “holding space,” as in “let’s hold space for each other.” I read and hear this constantly, not just in the context of wellness, and I hoped that I would someday let go of my frustration around it and just embrace it like the totally easygoing, light-filled yogi that I am both on and off the mat — 🙄 — but I guess I’m not that mentally or emotionally present enough. (All that said, I know I use “space” in my own writing often and in a very broad way, so who am I to talk about how others use the word — or any word?)
I started following more disabled and neurodivergent writers and disability rights activists on Twitter this year — including Black Disability Collective, Autistic Science Person, Imani Barbarin, and Steven Spohn — to help inform and improve my work, and to better understand and recognize signs of ableism. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what “accessible” and “inclusive” really mean, because the more these words are tossed into diversity discussions in the workplace or used in a certain context, the more they seem to lose their meaning like some of the words I’ve mentioned above. (Consider, too, the unfortunate fate of “organic.”)
Recently, ProPublica began experimenting with publishing accessible versions of their stories about disabled people, written in plain language. Plain language includes common words, shorter and simpler sentences, and a clearer structure to make the text of an article easier to read and understand for intellectually and developmentally disabled people.
Here are the first two paragraphs of a story on their site on treating developmentally disabled people in Arizona:
Today, the Arizona Daily Star and ProPublica are jointly publishing an in-depth examination of Arizona’s system for helping some of its most vulnerable residents: people who are intellectually and developmentally disabled.
Arizona enjoys a national reputation for its efforts to keep such individuals with their communities and families instead of warehousing them in impersonal institutions. But our stories chronicle disturbing shortcomings in the promise of help offered by the state’s Division of Developmental Disabilities.
And here’s the plain language version of the story’s opening:
The Arizona Daily Star and ProPublica wrote a story about people with developmental disabilities in Arizona. Developmental disabilities are sometimes called DD. We looked at how people with DD get help from the state.
Arizona is known for doing a good job helping people with DD. But our story says not everyone gets what they need.
It’s a cool and interesting experiment, and one that further shows how ridiculous — and alienating and exclusive — corporate speak can be.
Also, one thing I realized as I compared the two variations above? The plain version is how I normally write. I’m not a technically adept writer, nor do I have an expansive vocabulary. My writing is strongest when it’s simple, when I write the way I speak.
I recently stumbled on a fun piece by Carina Rampelt that dissects the insufferable form of “broetry” on LinkedIn. (The term “broetry” was apparently coined by Bloomberg writer Lorcan Roche Kelly in 2017.)
If you browse LinkedIn somewhat regularly, you can’t miss this type of post: it starts with a click-baity opening line and includes simple and short sentences separated by lots of line breaks. Here’s a real example that Rampelt includes in her post:
Broems on LinkedIn tend to have hundreds, thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of reactions and comments. The more narrative ones are framed around an emotional personal anecdote through which the person shows strength and essentially toots their own horn. In other examples, a person might tell a story about someone else, like a job candidate they interviewed, who has overcome some kind of obstacle. Perhaps this approach of highlighting someone else’s story takes the spotlight off of them but still shows they’re upstanding and empathetic people. Or maybe it’s simply an easier way to weave a lie and make something up.
Broems offer a sprinkling of drama in an otherwise—let’s face it—pretty bland and boring LinkedIn feed. But where thoughtful storytellers reflect on the decisions they made and the lessons they learned, broets portray themselves as heroes who can do no wrong.
Here’s another example:
I’ve noticed this format and style of post on LinkedIn over the years, but I didn’t know it was A Thing until I read Rampelt’s piece. It’s an entertaining discussion, and at the end, she rewrites the examples she finds so they’re more tolerable.
And finally, I created a Tumblr a while ago, Milk Is Sad, to compile my 2.5-year-old daughter Emilia’s funny phrases. I haven’t kept up with it on a regular basis, but below are early examples of her blossoming language. I love witnessing how she experiments and learns, putting words together to create odd yet delightful sentences.
“Milk is sad” (when she spilled her sippy cup of milk)
“Soup fell down” (when she knocked over her bowl of noodles)
“I want party hat” (when she saw a WiFi signal icon on a sticker)
“Sally egg hatch” (when she squatted over a toy with the image of astronaut Sally Ride on it)
“There’s something big coming, down there” (while lifting her leg up and pointing to her butt)
Speaking of butts, she is currently obsessed with poo. Everyone and everything is poo. She adds “poo” to phrases and sentences to dress them up, to make them fun. And given my own obsession with it, I’m absolutely loving this stage. 💩
Happy 2021 to you. I hope you are as well as can possibly be right now, wherever you may be reading, as we move into this new year.