You are here

The language of officialdom can leave compassion behind

by Rory Mair CBE, Chair of CAS.

This column was first published in the Herald on 27 October 2021.

There’s an old story about a certain train company in Scotland whose customer satisfaction levels were at one point so poor that they brought in a high-flying trouble-shooter to fix things. At his first meeting with their top executives he found himself bombarded with jargon and management-speak, and one particular acronym kept coming up that he couldn’t work out: S.L.F.  

Whatever it was, this SLF was clearly a huge problem. “If we didn’t have S.L.F we’d be in a much better place….”; “It’s the damned S.L.F that’s blocking all our plans...”

Eventually he had to interrupt and ask what S.L.F stood for. So they told him: Self. Loading. Freight.  In other words? Passengers.  

Our hero tapped his pen thoughtfully on his notepad and then told them he was beginning to identify the reasons behind their customer satisfaction problems. 

It’s a good story. Possibly apocryphal (I’m not so sure!), its moral - that any organisation that seeks to serve the public must never forget that its customers are human beings - is certainly one I endorse.  

But there’s another moral from the story, about language, and how it can both baffle the un-accustomed and also reveal ingrained attitudes. 

One of the things you quickly learn when working in the advice sector is that huge numbers of people don’t really understand the legal and financial documents that we all have to deal with every day. It’s not their fault – it’s just that our education system doesn’t really teach us about rental leases, employment contracts, payslips, loan agreements etc. We’re never formally taught how to de-code the language of officialdom. Some of us figure it out, but others never do, and as a result they lack confidence and develop a life-long fear of official forms and financial transactions. It’s like they missed that day at school.

So, many of these people simply switch off. They just don’t engage with the tax agency or the bank, and when they take out loans or mortgages they sign agreements they don’t really understand. They then get into debt, and many dis-engage even further: not opening their mail etc. so the debt spirals out of control. We in the CAB network see every day the devastating results.  

And you’d be surprised at the range of people I’m talking about here. We see people with university degrees who simply don’t understand the language on a payslip or tax form. Because it is written in that certain style that’s fine if you are in the know, but if you’re not, it can exclude you from all the most important aspects of life.  

All of this is bad enough. But there’s more. If the language of officialdom is a barrier to peoples’ engagement, I believe it’s also a barrier to good legislation.    

I’ll give you a case in point. If you go into the housing department in any council, or government, you will find good, hardworking people devoted to their work and determined to do it well. But there’s a culture; a language which is simply worlds away from that used by the people on the streets outside the building. For example in these offices you’ll hear a word used regularly: unit. In housing-speak, a ‘unit’ is what you and I would call a ‘home.’  

Now it’s a fine word, unit. But it’s very different from the word ‘home,’ isn’t it? A ‘unit,’ to me, conjures up the image of a little box in a diagram. The word ‘home’ on the other hand, makes me think of a family relaxing in a nice warm lounge. You see my point. The people who make the decisions about housing in our communities do so in a language that is clinical, precise, perhaps even a little bit cold. And in my view, this leads to decisions that are detrimental to a decent society.  

For example, think of the bedroom tax. That, to me, was the triumph of unit-speak over home-speak.  

Because, if your outlook on housing is based on units, the ‘under-occupancy act’ was actually a very good, sensible policy. It was logical, tidy, and sought to make the supply and occupation of units more efficient. What’s not to like? 

But if your outlook is based on homes, and you see ‘occupants’ as human beings, living in a community; real people with families and memories and financial problems, it was a cruel assault on vulnerable people. 

And I can’t help but wonder, if our housing officials talked more about homes and people rather than occupants and units, whether public policy would work better for those it is supposed to serve.  

The above is one example. There are others. I mean, just think of all the important financial institutions and transactions you have to engage with in the course of your life, and ask yourself what marks you would give them out of ten for their clarity of language. The tax system; mortgage-brokers; lawyers; the benefits system (don’t get me started!)   

We face so many challenges at the moment. There are so many aspects of our economy, society and environment that need to be fixed. Some of these fixes require specific government action. But there are cultural changes we can make too.

We need to get better at preparing our young people for the every-day transactions of adult life, with a view to empowering them and giving them the confidence they need to make good decisions. And we also need to take a hard look at the language we use in our service institutions, and whether it facilitates good policy and practice, or whether it actually impedes the fair and just society that we all want to see.