Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Going forward proudly, with lessons learned

If there's one current phrase that, above all the rest, irritates me beyond reason it's 'going forward'. Meaning 'in the future' - and no more than that.

Of course, such irritation betrays my age, and growing reluctance to put up with silly, condescending ways of speaking. You get mighty scornful as you get older - short-fused you might say - though often with very good reason! I can't stand platitudes and obfustication. I detect them at once, and they set me against whoever comes out with them.

This particular phrase, 'going forward', has become very popular with people who find themselves having to explain to media journalists why this or that questionable event occurred, or why customers have had a raw deal, and what they now intend to do about getting things right in the future. People like politicians and council chiefs, utility company CEOs, and NHS managers - really anybody who is called upon to babble excuses, defend what has been done badly in the past, and put a really positive spin on what is yet to come. 'Going forward' is a phrase that suggests movement not inertia, progress not retrenchment. A present situation evaluated, faced up to, and set to change rapidly for the better in the hands of a confident team who have an exciting plan in mind.


It's a dreadful and dishonest use of language in my book. There is, I agree, always virtue in looking for variety and freshness in expression. But this phrase sounds contrived and manufactured, as if invented by hired media consultants or ad men, searching for something smooth and soothing and reassuring that people being interviewed can work into their spiel. It's well past its fresh and trendy stage already. It has become trite, and frankly an insult to the hearer. I would instantly despise anybody who said 'going forward' to my face.

Let's look next at two other allied phrases, much-beloved of those with something to defend or justify.

After Something Awful has taken place, and somebody looks blameworthy, they will inevitably say 'Well, no, this shouldn't have happened. We can't understand it. After all, we had adequate safeguards in place. But we will look carefully into it, leaving no stone unturned to get at the truth, and lessons will be learned.' Every time. Every disaster. Every terrible cock-up in which people are hurt or harmed. The same phrase: 'Lessons will be learned'. Generally with 'So that this can never happen again' added on.

There you go. The ritual power of words. Just say them, and it's job done. The inquiry, such as it will be, is a formality. The main thing is to mouth the right words, like a spell. I have no doubt that sincere persons will indeed be engaged to ask approved questions and make a report in the fullness of time. But it will take ages, and public indignation will subside. And in any case, think about what usually happens with every report, no matter how grand, that eventually sees the light of day...

'Lessons will be learned' is a lying phrase, and flies in the face of real history. Only laws with teeth (and possibly, stark commercial pressures) make any difference. Not mere good intentions derived from bad experiences. And nothing is proof against human nature.

And yet another phrase that winds me up. It's a thing most often said when a business is criticised for dire customer service, and some senior manager has to speak up for the firm's poor practices and internal controls. Or, in their advertisements, thrown in to conjure up an image of excellence. 'We are proud to...' - well, fill in the rest as you like. Proud to be the best in the trade. Proud to be the cheapest on the High Street. Proud to be nominated for Best Staff Training and Investor In People. Proud to be voted number one for Customer Care. Proud to be the winner of the Most Innovative Pet Retailer of 2017 Award. Proud to be proud.

For goodness sake. We are not talking about genuinely proud individual craftsmen of old, people who served a forty-year apprenticeship, experts at their business, and religiously dedicated to their task. It's about bored people at checkouts, and shifty prowling managers watching their own backs. It's the attitude you have on minimum wages and maximum pressure. In any case, it all sounds like bragging. As they say, self-advertisement is no recommendation.

It's no good telling anybody with sense that 'pride' guarantees good service. In my book, pride generally indicates an unwillingness to concede shortcomings and accept that things could be better if done differently.

So I'm on my guard when anybody tells me they are 'proud to be the best around', and that I should give them my custom. More than on my guard. I'm very irritated. I'll look elsewhere.

Sigh. Who do they think we are?

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