Excuses, Excuses: Stock Language

I recently asked a group of my members to define in two sentences what they got out of our work together last year and declare what they want to get out of 2019. Here was one participant’s response:

Member: “In 2018, the group taught me how to notice and question behaviors I’d like to change in myself. I want 2019 to help me tailor those questions and make adjustments in order to embrace discomfort, and become a stronger leader and team member.”

How does this sound to you? Read it again, carefully. Ask yourself how specific and actionable it is. Most people read something like this and don’t see what’s going on: it’s a deflection. It’s not conscious or intentional, excuses usually aren’t. Here’s what happened next, via text messaging:

Josef: “Thank you! And what exactly does “stronger leader and team member” mean, this is stock language…”

The member previously had been educated about stock language.

Member: “Hard for me to pare it down to a single sentence.”

This is an excuse I call “The Appeal to Comfort”

Josef: “Sometimes important work is hard. And in the former part of the sentence, what behaviors exactly?”

Member: “Behaviors like my lack of focus leading to disorganization, my hesitancy to have uncomfortable conversations, and my impatience at times.”

J: “Okay, good, and you can add to that your tendency to avoid directness and specificity.”

M: “I wouldn’t have identified my unspecificity as avoidance, more as struggling with the words. But that may be an excuse, I’m not sure.”

It is, and one I’ve pointed out before, which they’re not recalling.

J: “If you care about specificity, you do the work of struggling, rather than complaining about it being hard to find the right words. It’s part of the willingness to show up.”

M: “That’s fair. I will see myself as a stronger leader when I can have the right conversations in a direct, timely, and fair manner; when I follow through on everything I say I will do by when I say I will do it; and when I communicate clearly and fully when I feel I or an employee is not fulfilling their obligations or needs more assistance to do so.”

J: “Okay! See how completely different that is from what you wrote the first time? Well done. When you state it this way there can actually be metrics and accountability.”

M: “Thank you. I always appreciate your directness, by the way.”

Stock language is also called “symbolic language” or “business cliché.” Like stock photography, it’s so familiar it doesn’t move you. It can be an art or a curse, depending on how it’s used. Most stock language artists don’t use it intentionally, however. It’s a product of years of cultural conditioning and exposure to our government leaders, who swim in it like fish do water.

Sometimes, it’s useful and appropriate to talk around something. In diplomacy, in delicate situations, to preserve confidentiality, etc. That’s the light side of stock language. It’s a powerful tool, when used for the right reasons. The shadow side is when it’s used to hide.

The alternative to stock language is what I call granularity. Words like “successful,” “quality,” “customer-centric” and so many others are overused to the point that they no longer communicate meaning without pairing them with many more specific words to support and clarify.

The risk of stock language is that people put their own meaning into the vague words, leading to unintended results. Any time I hear a manager say, “My people don’t listen” they’re usually revealing they speak largely in stock language. Did it occur to you that “my people don’t listen” is stock language!? What did you make that it meant? You had very little to go on.

See how insidious it is? Think about this the next time you catch yourself telling your people, “Let’s hit this one out of the park” or, “We need all hands on deck here,” or “We want to be number one in our market.”

Oops, you told them nothing.

But it’s not too late! Go on to say what you mean by that. Be as specific as you can. Give examples. Make it viewable, actionable. Go granular.

“The new admin isn’t working out.”

What do you picture when you hear this? Is it possible that what was meant is different than what you see? It inevitably is. You just made something up. You actually have no idea what’s happening. This is reality, and it’s the place to ask questions to find out what’s really true:

  • “What does that mean?”
  • “Who says?”
  • “What are the metrics?
  • “What’s being done about it?
  • “What were the expectations?”
  • “What’s the impact?”
  • “Does the admin agree?”

When people use stock language, it’s often because they don’t want to go deeper. That’s your cue to get hungry. Curiosity is the antidote. When you realize how often you actually have no idea what people are talking about, you’ll get curious (after the disorientation, which is completely normal). You’ll inevitably discover how often people are bullshitting you and you’ve been bullshitting them.

Let’s exaggerate to make a point: when someone uses stock language, assume they are lying until they prove otherwise. That may help your hunger. A moment later you may let them off the hook, but stock language is truly this insidious, dangerous, and sometimes malicious. Just watch a few minutes of CSPAN.

Most politicians speak stock language so fluently you’d think it was their native language. It’s the primary way corruption hides in plain sight. It might be as innocent as someone unwilling to struggle with the words, or it might be someone is deliberately trying to deceive you–you won’t know until you unleash your curiosity.

Our politicians even create new stock language terms to avoid the admission of lying.

Kellyanne Conway in 2017 gave us “alternative fact” when answering questions about Sean Spicer’s manufactured inauguration attendance figures.

When Mark Sanford, governor of South Carolina, was caught lying about his hike on the Appalachian Trail when in fact he was having an affair, he said he was “creating a fiction.”

Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler, coined such beautiful terms as “inoperative statement” and “strategic misrepresentation” which sound too clever to be blatant coverups, but that’s the kind of style that earned him the epithet “Tricky Dick.”

Bill Clinton, four months before he was impeached for perjury, admitted to “inappropriate intimate contact” with Monica Lewinsky, but somehow insisted he’d given accurate testimony eight months earlier when he said about Lewinsky, “There’s nothing going on between us.”

He famously said about the statement in retrospect, to avoid being caught in a lie, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” gifting meditators around the world with one of the most powerful koans ever concocted, far more confounding than the well-worn, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

In the business world, we avoid the word “firing” as much they avoid the word “lying” in politics. Instead we have terms like “downsizing,” “right-sizing,” “reduction in force,” and of course the most common, “lay off.” If and when you’re fired you’re most likely to hear, “We’ve decided to let you go.” Most employers won’t actually tell you the reason why, tragically. You’re most likely to hear stock language like, “It’s just not working out” or “We don’t feel like it’s a fit” which leaves exiting employees resentful and racking their brains for months or years about what happened.

The reason most employers won’t tell you why you’re terminated is simply because 1) they don’t have to in “at-will” states and 2) their lawyers advise against it to mitigate exposure to wrongful termination lawsuits. It would be more honest for a manager to cite these reasons rather than offer stock language during such a painful moment. It adds insult to injury, clothed in ostensible care for the employee, when it’s actually about the company covering its ass-ets.

In a society that values truth and personal growth, it would be illegal for a company not to tell an employee why they’re terminated. (Click to Tweet)

What happens instead is that the power of the dysfunctional social norm built into the stock language, “It’s just not working out” or any other vague euphemism, justifies the termination and makes it unquestionable, as if the idiom contains actual reason.

Another way of saying this is that well-worn stock language has the power of the group within it, which also fuels The Bandwagon Fallacy. The attraction to stock language is that it connects you to a larger group, backward through time, and enables you to draw upon power of the millions who’ve said it before, giving it a false legitimacy.

This power is only seductive, however, for those who do not feel they have enough on their own. This is why politicians, the segment of our population who crave power the most, use stock language more than anyone else. It is the language best-suited for those who feel the most powerless, for the quest for power is always proof of its lack.



Are you ready to learn where in your life you’re getting in your own way? My upcoming live seminar will teach you how to look inside and figure out where you’re putting up walls to protect yourself from change. The community members will be there to help support you in breaking down those walls and undoing the limiting beliefs, false assumptions, and habits that don’t serve you. Won’t you join us?

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