The Great Gaffsby

The past two weeks have seen a spate of Tory feet being jammed firmly into mouths. I always find it staggering that people in such public positions still manage to underestimate the gravity of what they’re saying. It can’t just be absent mindedness that provokes these remarks, surely. After all, what good is a politician that walks around saying what he actually thinks to reporters? That’s sort of like a sky diver with chronic vertigo, or an astronaut with agoraphobia (fear of large spaces) or a lawyer with a conscience.

Lord Young, a Thatcher cabinet minister and Cameron’s enterprise adviser, was the first to put his foot in the proverbial, telling the Telegraph that voters had “never had it so good” during this “so-called recession”. He went on to describe the loss of 100,000 jobs a year as within the “margin of error” in a 30 million strong job market. To me, having one of Cameron’s senior advisors describe the livelihoods of 100,000 people as a “margin of error” is a bit like going in for a haircut only to discover that the hairdresser is blind and will be using a chainsaw.

Unfortunately, he seems to have spent so long pawing over the figures that he’s forgotten that these numbers will actually affect people’s lives. Anyway, Cameron got in a flap about it and chucked him overboard. Incredibly, some party members have questioned the Prime Minister’s decision. To draw on the vernacular of the current student riots: apparently, a senior political figure’s insensitivity to the plight of those less fortunate is a right, not a privilege.

However you look at it, Young’s comments lend serious weight to the public view that some of the conservatives are hopelessly out of touch with the reality of life during the recession. The whole fiasco reeks of Hoover’s misguided declaration during the Great Depression of the 1920s that “no one is actually starving” in America.

Next up to bat was Howard Flight. Having only been awarded his peerage last week, Flight made headlines after saying that the new benefits system would encourage “breeding” among the lower classes. It does make you wonder why on Earth they let someone with the capacity to say this sort of thing near a reporter. It strikes me as similar to letting a Doberman loose on a small child wearing a baby-grow made entirely of steak.

But, while it’s all well and good kicking up a fuss about Tory public indiscretions, there is a gaff so vast, the implications of which were so damaging, that it deserves a special mention – if only to put these comparatively minor gaffs in perspective.

The Ratners gaff.

Ratners was a successful chain of jewellery shops, of which Gerald Ratner was CEO in the 1980s. While many of their competitors were making bespoke, expensive jewellery, Ratners specialised in products that were cheap, mass produced and catered to popular fashion. At a speech at the Institute of Directors, Ratner made the observation that not only do Ratners sell cheap jewellery:

We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, “How can you sell this for such a low price?”. I say, “because it’s total crap.”

He followed this up by saying that some of Ratners’ earrings were “cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long.”

Despite having been voiced at a private function, as a result of these comments the value of the Ratners Group went into a tailspin, losing around £500 million. Gerald Ratner was fired in 1992.

What I hope is becoming evident is that every leader, however minor, needs to watch what they say. And not only what you say, but how you say it. In fact, the way that we interpret what is said is to us is incredibly complex and much of the process is entirely subconscious.

In an article for the Training Journal website, Nick Parker outlined the fascinating way that the language that we use, and hear, impacts how we perceive the world around us:

“Lera Boroditsky, professor of psychology at Stanford University, wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal about various new findings. One study showed that Russians, who have more words for light and dark blues, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue…Then there was Boroditsky’s own study of the Pormpuraaw, a remote Aboriginal community in Australia, who have no words for ‘left’ and ‘right’. Instead, they talk about everything using absolute cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), which means they say things like ‘there’s an ant on your southwest leg’. Because of this constant linguistic ‘training’, the Pormpuraaw are able to orientate themselves accurately even in unfamiliar surroundings.”

The same can be surely be said of how the language that the people around us use impacts how we perceive them. The English language is one of the most flexible on the planet; as a result, there are a variety of ways to frame just about every sentence. Often, the way that we describe a certain issue or situation can give an indication of how we are feeling about it. Potentially, as in the case of Howard Flight, something we’d rather keep secret.

We’ve all heard the cliché: “don’t talk about problems, talk about solutions.” But there is some credibility to this. Here are a few examples of negative statements turned into positive statements:

Don’t be afraid to ask if you need help = Ask if you need anything.

Here, the use of ‘don’t’ and ‘afraid’ both carry negative connotations. Along with this, the use of ‘need help’ indicates an inability to carry out the task alone. This inferred negativity can be resolved by taking them both out and rephrasing it as a positive invitation.

Why haven’t you finished it? = When will you have it finished?

The operative words in this are ‘why’ and ‘haven’t’. It is an accusatory statement, one that infers that the subject is in someway to blame. The second construction is a positive rephrasing of the first, that focuses on the completion of the piece of work (the solution), rather than the problem.

I’d rather hang myself with a dishcloth than watch Strictly Come Dancing = I’d rather saw off my own thumb with a blunt spoon than watch Strictly Come Dancing

Admittedly, sometimes it simply can’t be avoided…

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