The Checkout

Making Everyday Life A Complicated Situation

Here we are in an era where the ultimate marketing goal seems to be simplicity. There are an ever growing number of convenience foods to give us great meals with little work. There are all sorts of quick-cleaning products to give us a sparkling house with no elbow grease. And there's even a magazine to make life Real Simple.

So why then do we insist on making life, or at least our language, so complicated? That thought struck me last weekend as I was sitting in an airport waiting for a delayed a flight. Over the loudspeaker, the gate attendant told us that in a few minutes we'd have our "boarding opportunity." The plane, she explained, was late due to a "weather situation"--"thunderstorm activity" earlier in the day. Excuse me? Whatever happened to just plain boarding? Or weather? Or thunderstorms?

We no longer have emergencies--but "emergency situations." Ditto with "crisis situation." The meteorologist on my local TV stations goes to his "futurecast," not forecast, to predict weather. Operators are now "customer service representatives;" store clerks, "sales associates," or "team members." And cashiers? At The Container Store (where my daughter works), they're called RSPs--for register sales persons.

What's going on here? Are we trying to overcompensate for all the short-cuts we're taking in our everyday lives?

I'd love to hear your ideas (or should that be idea activity?)--and any other terms you've come across in your daily situations.

By  |  May 22, 2006; 7:00 AM ET Customer Service
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I have no comment on the wording of things, but I have to note that my wife gets Real Simple magazine and, for being so simple, it manages to be about 200 pages each month. You would think a magazine about simplicity would be short, with short articles such as "Reduce Clutter by Reading Fewer Magazines."

Posted by: Justin | May 22, 2006 7:35 AM

There's nothing simple about the way life is lived in our culture. Perhaps the strange wording reflects this reality. Is our health system simple? We now have a lot of cheap, disposable merchandise on store shelves. Lots of waste and ways to dispose of it. How about choosing a phone, or long distance service, or cable. All these complicated rules about roaming and carrying over minutes. What about the long phone menus and endless waits for 'customer service.' Is our tax code simple? I submit that we live in a clutter nation.

Posted by: Sharon | May 22, 2006 7:59 AM

Make up for lower pay with a fancy title. Why else do so many big businesses have multiple vice presidents (VP of this, VP of that). Humans crave power. Give them "power" and pay them less.

Posted by: Bob | May 22, 2006 8:01 AM

These "non-titles" seem to me to obscure their real purpose or position and so protect us from the truth. A "crisis situation" is less panic-provoking than a crisis itself. Likewise, a future cast clearly incorporates uncertainty, making it harder to blame the messenger when the forecast it airs ends up wrong. A forecast is held to higher standards.

Posted by: Not liability related? | May 22, 2006 8:06 AM

Airlines have been at this for years with scripts like 'until the aircraft comes to a complete stop in front of the terminal building.' But what about the weather channel with their 'weather events' 'storm activity' and, my favorite, 'your Monday'. The folk on the weather channel have little to say and a whole day to fill so we should not blame them for such redundancy, but for everyone else there is no excuse.

Enough of this idling. I must get back to my primary wage earning activity--job.

Posted by: david | May 22, 2006 9:43 AM

These stilted, unnecessary phrases drive me nuts! Personally, I think it's an attempt to sound smarter, more important, or more scientific. But none of those reasons really explains the sign outside the office building/mall near the Rosslyn Metro: "This building promotes a no smoking policy." Whenever I walk by, I'm always tempted to cover up all the words on the sign except: "No smoking."

Posted by: Arlington | May 22, 2006 9:46 AM

One of my finest work titles was at my first and lowest paying job: Junior Technical Data Specialist (AKA file clerk).

Posted by: FURBALL | May 22, 2006 10:17 AM

It seems like constructions like "crisis situation" are designed to take away some of the power/scariness of the noun in question by making it into an adjective. Thus, it's no longer a "crisis" (scary!) that's at issue - it's merely a "situation" (ho-hum, very unthreatening). So what if it's a crisis situation - it's basically just a "situation," and that's nothing to worry about.

Also, people often attempt to hide an offending word in a smokescreen of other words. For instance, people seem reluctant to say, "No." In my workplace, if someone asks, "Have you gotten to that project yet?" you will NEVER hear, "No." Even if it's the truth! Instead, you will hear, "I have not." The negative word is sort of buffered by the other words preceding it...I guess it's supposed to sound less harsh than "No."

Posted by: Amateur Linguist | May 22, 2006 10:56 AM

You wrote about Starbucks the other day. They call their workers, partners. Then the partners are doing the job of barista or register partner.

Posted by: Puddin | May 22, 2006 11:23 AM

I think George Carlin got it half right. His example of the evolution of shellshock -> battle fatigue -> post-traumatic stress disorder, and his point that adding more syllables might make it less scary.

The other half would be 'marketing' or 'branding' that by calling something by a more complex name forces the listener to think about what it is, which subconsciously gives the subject more cachet. At least that's my take on the thinking behind it.

For me, though, the best branding is tied into humor. Best example of this is Southwest Airlines and their semi-parodies of these overly serious FAA announcements.

Posted by: Peter | May 22, 2006 11:48 AM

George Carlin did a really funny routine on this subject - "euphemisms". For example, he noted the evolution of the phrase "shell shock" to "battle fatigue" to "post-traumatic stress disorder".

I googled this and found a transcript:

Posted by: w | May 22, 2006 11:49 AM

I think some of it is to inspire community. Starbucks 'partners' receive a lot of training to help them sell high profit coffee. By making up special terms and names they create a club/community atmosphere that is supposed to draw workers in and help them exude the corporate culture.

Posted by: RoseG | May 22, 2006 11:52 AM

is the media becoming complex or just incredibly bizarre? Almost 75% of local news time the day of the recent police shootings went to "breaking news" about the event--one officer stayed dead, one remained critically wounded, and the shooter had holes himself up, but nothing changed in those two hours. Or how about reports without end about a freakin' race horse? Our nation is going into collective debt faster than ever, and there's nothing better to report on than a trophy horse's demise.....Ack! Eureka! Brangelina's baby can be named Barbero!

Posted by: bigolpoofter | May 22, 2006 12:27 PM

My pet peeve is the overuse of the word "system". No product stands alone anymore. If it has a least two parts, it is a "system". When I picked up my new glasses, I was given a "Cleaning system", consisting of a bottle of cleaning solution and a polyester cloth...oh, yeah, they were in a fake leather draw-string pouch.

Posted by: attorney | May 22, 2006 12:37 PM

My own bugaboo is the use of the word "issue" in place of "problem." No one will ever admit to having a problem anymore, and I think we're afraid of sounding judgmental if we say that someone else has a problem.

Posted by: E in DC | May 22, 2006 1:16 PM

I'm merely an administrative assistant in a big firm. We used to be called secretaries but when women's lib hit the fan, we got a high-falutin' title. I had a problem with one of my supervisors and told the secretarial manager (we're admin. assistants but the woman in charge of us is the secretarial manager -- go figure). She said 'It is incumbent upon the employee to ....." Why couldn't she just say 'It's up to you..."? We have a lot of people here who try to sound super smart but end up using the wrong long words because they don't know what they mean!

Posted by: Northwest DC | May 22, 2006 2:22 PM

Then there's the prize-winner, the discovery of "WMD program-related activity..."

Posted by: yellowroz | May 22, 2006 2:32 PM

"We have a lot of people here who try to sound super smart but end up using the wrong long words because they don't know what they mean!"

Once I was at a training session at work. The instructor wanted to say (I believe) "There is no panacea for that problem" but instead, said "There is no placenta for that problem."

Or how about all those people who say things like "When you're done, give the report to George and I." - trying to act all smart but using the wrong word - "I" versus "me".

Posted by: Bob | May 22, 2006 2:36 PM

Another George Carlin link, this one exclusively devoted to airline announcements:

This is a George Carlin link. Those easily offended by colorful language are advised not to click on the link.


The next sentence I hear is full of things that [upset me]. "Before leaving the aircraft, please check around your immediate seating area for any personal belongings you might have brought onboard." Well, let's start with immediate seating area--SEAT! It's a [clip] seat! Check around your seat! "For any personal belongings." Well, what other kinds of belongings are there, besides personal--public belongings? Do these people honestly think I might be traveling with a fountain I stole from the park. "You might have brought onboard." Well.......I MIGHT have brought my arrowhead collection--I didn't, so I'm not going to look for it! I am going to look for things I brought onboard, which seems to enhance my likelihood of finding something, wouldn't you say?

Posted by: checkoutReader | May 22, 2006 3:18 PM

Just a note to say "daily" will suffice at the end of your article, as you would point out, instead of saying, " ... daily situtations."

Posted by: Ed | May 22, 2006 3:19 PM

Burger King is now hiring 'crew members'. Yaargh!

Posted by: Pirate Pete | May 22, 2006 3:32 PM

Northwest DC and Bob are onto it. Especially in the business world, it seems that we fluff up our language in the misguided hope that it makes us appear more substantial.
Things we used to do every day we now do "on a daily basis."
It's hard to refer to one's self with a simple, two-letter "me." We have to fluff it up: "Send the form to John or myself."
And we're enthralled with the legalese "and/or" when "and" works just fine by itself.
We now add a redundant present participle (okay, now I'm the one fluffing up!) after the word "reason" and say "The reason being is that. . ."
My former employer doesn't make and sell consumer products. It "operates in the consumer product space."
"Circa", derived straight from Latin, used to mean "about" or "around" to express uncertainty about a date. Now it seems to mean "in the past," as in "This photo shows the attack on Pearl Harbor, circa 1941."
I was once in a meeting on an issue (okay, problem) that needed a ruling from an expert. One of us reported, "I got confirmation from John around that." Just not enough fluff in "John says we're right."
The best way to fight biz-speak is to not speak it.

Posted by: Mark in Vermont | May 22, 2006 3:33 PM

I forgot to add some of the gems the local police department can come up with. I used to work there and ranking officers (lieutenants, captains, assistant directors) honestly can't form complete sentences. One told of a prison inmate being taken to a hospital by ambulance and kept calling the paramedics 'paraplegics.' Another didn't know what letterhead stationery was, and he was in charge of ordering office supplies.

Posted by: Northwest DC | May 22, 2006 4:12 PM

Ed sed:
Just a note to say "daily" will suffice at the end of your article, as you would point out, instead of saying, " ... daily situtations."

I think Ed is experiencing a "not getting the joke" situation.

Someone earlier mentioned how anything with more than one part is now called a "system." I've also noticed the same use of "solution."

A box is no longer a box, it is a "storage solution," or maybe a "shipping solution."

Posted by: SteveG | May 22, 2006 4:15 PM

I think you tapped into a small part of a much larger issue. While the ultimate marketing goal seems to be simplicity, the ultimate political goal seems to complexity. I wonder if we all will eventually have to hire a life coach. You now need a tax advisor to do your taxes, financial advisor to handle your finance, estate attorneys to prepare your will.

I hear the new prescription drug program for seniors is rather complicated, time to hire another advisor. Can't wait to see what Washington will do next!

Posted by: checkoutReader | May 22, 2006 4:29 PM

"Or how about all those people who say things like 'When you're done, give the report to George and I.' - trying to act all smart but using the wrong word - 'I' versus 'me.'"

Along the same lines, I can't stand it when someone uses "myself" instead of "I": "My colleagues and myself were at the meeting." I've heard highly educated people use this, and it just sets my teeth on edge. Same problem -- they think that because it sounds odd, it must be formal business-speak.

Posted by: jane | May 22, 2006 4:44 PM

don't forget the redundant phrase. my own personal favorite is toxic poison.

Posted by: quark | May 22, 2006 5:06 PM

And another one: to ask for something politely, we used to say "please." Now we're expected to ladle on a "thanks in advance."

Posted by: Mark in Vermont | May 22, 2006 5:46 PM

ITA, George in Vermont! LOL


(I find myself sending more and more emails with "TIA" - "thanks in advance" - at the bottom. I guess I don't think it's that bad b/c at least it's an outbreak of politeness rather than the rudeness that grips our society...IMHO :))

Posted by: TIA | May 22, 2006 6:24 PM

This is so much like the George Carlin bit of years ago where he jokes about alot of the politically correct sayings (verticall challenged not short, hearing impaired not deaf). I guess it makes people feel better about themselves and/or their jobs if they give it a better sounding title - a trash collector will still pick up your trash even if we call him a sanitation engineer so why not.

Posted by: KB Silver Spring | May 23, 2006 11:18 AM

Yes. I totally agree. George Carlin did a bit on this as well. I think it is an extension of the "PC" terminology that was created to make sure no one got their feelings hurt, or offended. That goes hand in hand with all those anti depressants - everyone wants to be happy - and what a boring place it would be with only one emotion.

Posted by: Jennifer- Orlando | May 23, 2006 11:51 AM

How about "sales event" in place of the good-old "sale"? (Or, should I have said "in lieu of"?)

Posted by: SSS | May 24, 2006 3:05 PM

And what about the annoying way a local radio host in our area says, "And it is 7:29, twenty-nine minutes after seven." What's with that? Are we too dopey to understand the first half of his sentence...he must think so.

Posted by: kikio | May 24, 2006 5:25 PM

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