Monthly Archives: November 2009

The Perils of Corporate Texting

I don’t think we are going to have to wait until 2012 for the Apocalypse.  There is some evidence that it is already at hand.  The other day I was talking to a neighbour who is an elementary school teacher.  She was complaining that she had a student teacher who she was supervising for a few weeks.  I opined that it must make things easier because there was someone to share the work with.  “No way!” she informed me.  “The woman cannot be left alone.  She’s a clear and present danger.” 

“To the kids?”

“No.  To Western Civilization.  You won’t believe what she does.”

“What?”

“She writes on the board in text language.”

It was my turn to say “no way.”  But yes, apparently she does things like give the kids class assignments and writes, “Wen ur done c me” on the board.  She also writes “Orsum” on well done homework papers.

Call me a Luddite, but there’s a time and a place for everything.  I found this story so amusing that I repeated it to other friends and not all of them laughed.  Their attitude was more like, “I can top that!”  Another teacher said that a dictate had come from on high that if a kid uses text message lingo in a written exam it should be deemed acceptable because that is the way young people communicate and under the pressure of an exam situation, allowances should be made for slips in communication.  Aren’t communication skills one of the things kids are supposed to learn in school?

But not only teachers have to deal with this problem.

You might remember that during the economic boom, consultants convinced businesses that life as we know it would end unless we made the workplace Generation Y friendly.  No one under 30 would want to work for a company that didn’t accommodate their unique characteristics.  Companies were advised to build a Googleplex, eliminate dress codes, stock the conference rooms with Lego and have Starbucks on site.  As part of all that, some businesses became ‘text friendly.’ 

Not only that, because of their greater techno acumen and general joie de vivre, Gen Y people were getting promoted over their older, less with the program colleagues. 

However nobody talked about need for inter generational sensitivity training.  Let’s look at a hypothetical but plausible example of this generational clash of cultures. 

Joshua, a Gen Y MBA, has been put in charge of the financial analysis department of a big American company.  One of his subordinates, Ken, has been with the company longer than Joshua has walked the Earth. 

Joshua thinks that Ken has issues with him because Ken doesn’t respond to his Facebook friend request, and insists on doing things the way they’ve been done forever.  Ken thinks Joshua doesn’t like him because Joshua puts his feet on Ken’s desk when he comes into his office.

Drawing on his experience and acumen, Joshua decides that he and Ken need to have a little talk.  So he proposes that they “pop down to Starbucks” which is conveniently located in the building lobby.  Ken doesn’t like Starbucks because he isn’t sure if you can order plain black coffee there.  But he agrees to go.  In order to show that the portals of communication are open, as they wait in line Ken tells Joshua, “You know, I never know what’s good here.  Why don’t you order something new and different for me.”

Joshua, delighted at Ken’s overture, says, “Sure, man.  You gotta try this new thing they’ve got for Christmas.  Approaching the counter he tells the clerk, “Two Gingerbread lattes.”

Ken insists on paying and they move to a quiet corner.  Ken eyes the frothy drink in front of him like Socrates examining a proffered cup. 

Ken ends up actually enjoying the coffee and the conversation, and both of them feel that they have had a breakthrough.  Ken even promises to help Joshua improve productivity by communicating with text messages when necessary.

Happy, they both return to the office and Joshua decides to explore their new relationship by sending Ken a text message, thanking him for the coffee and the meeting.  He texts:

10Q 4 *$

To Ken, who has worked in finance for a public company for years, ‘10Q’ doesn’t mean ‘Thank you.’  It means Form 10-Q which is a quarterly report to the Securities and Exchange Commission.  He knows that ‘4’ means ‘for,’ but he has no idea that ‘*$’ means ‘Starbucks.’  He remembers that in previous quarters they have put together a draft 10-Q in advance, and he thinks that perhaps Joshua is asking him to do a draft.  But there is no 10-Q filing needed for the fourth quarter and that’s what he decides to tell Joshua.

Ken takes his cell phone in his trembling hand and texts:

No 10Q 4Q

New to the game, he doesn’t know if you are supposed to sign text messages.  He decides that ‘Kenneth Abercrombie’ is too much of a challenge, so he simply adds his initials:

KMA

Joshua’s delight at receiving a text from Ken is short lived.  He stares at the message.  He briefly wonders what he’s done to make Ken so angry.  And then he decides that such insubordination and unprofessional behaviour must be punished.  So he texts:

4Q 2 DCM

And he calls Human Resources.

Ken has an adrenaline rush when his phone beeps and he quickly reads Joshua’s message.  He doesn’t realize that ‘DCM’ is text talk for “Don’t come Monday,” and means that he’s been fired.  He studies the message and decides that Joshua is labouring under the delusion that a 10-Q is needed for the ‘fourth quarter, too,” and is requesting documentation from Ken justifying his position.  After all, the kid is fairly new.

So Ken quickly prepares an e-mail with attachments of the pertinent literature.  His outgoing e-mail crosses a notice from HR which he reads with incredulity.

 

And I don’t even want to think about the legal ramifications of all of this electronic miscommunication.

Adventures in Grammar–Definite and Indefinite Articles

I can’t believe you are reading this.  Didn’t the title put you off?

But this is actually kind of interesting.  The other day I was thinking about all the things I was taught in school that have not stood the test of time.  I’m not talking about things that have legitimately changed, like Pluto not being a planet any more.  I’m talking about inviolate truths that aren’t so true in reality.  And one of them has to do with the word ‘the.’  Yes, ‘the.’

What got me started was an experience in a restaurant.  Have you ever noticed that ordering food in a restaurant requires a slightly different manner of speaking?  Normal, i.e., not restaurant food, is called simply what it is:  a steak, a salad, a baked potato.  But when food is prepared in a restaurant, for some reason it has to be prefaced with the word, “the.”  I don’t know why this is.

Consider the following exchanges.

Waiter:  And what sort of salad would you like?  We have Caesar, Mixed Greens, Greek and Oriental.

Customer:   Um.  I’ll have The Mixed Greens.

Waiter:  And what dressing would you like.  We have Italian, French, Russian, Serbian, Franco Prussian, Sino Japanese, Raspberry Vinaigrette, Ranch, Balsamic Vinegar, Red Wine Vinegar, Poppyseed, Bleu Cheese, Caesar, Hannibal, Napolean and Thousand Island.

Customer:  Uhhh.  I’ll have The French.  (Technically, shouldn’t a statement like that terrify the nation of France?)

Waiter:  And for your entre?

Customer:  I’d like The pork chops.

Waiter:  Any soup?

Customer:  Yeah, The French Onion.

I ask you, why do people do that?  I don’t remember learning it in school.  I don’t remember my mother telling me when I went out on my first date, “Be a gentleman and preface everything with ‘the.’ 

I looked back to my education.  I learned that there are two articles in English, ‘the’ and ‘a’/’an.’  ‘The’ is a definite article, which you use when referring to something specific while ‘a’ in an indefinite article which doesn’t refer to a specific item. 

It sounds simple, but it isn’t.  For example, if there are only two articles in English, definite and indefinite, why didn’t I say in the previous sentence that “‘the’ is the definite article?”  If it’s the only one, it’s gotta be specific doesn’t it? 

So now I was totally confused and started to think about how we (mistakenly?  I don’t know) use the word ‘the’ when we mean something non-specific. 

A lot of times when referring to ourselves, we could say ‘my’ instead of ‘the’ but for some reason we use ‘the.’  I wonder if this is to depersonalize things in some way.  Remember Forrest Gump?  “Where did you get hit son?”  “In the buttocks, sir.”  Not, my buttocks.  Or just plain buttocks.  But the buttocks. 

Cops talk that way all the time.  “What part of the body was dug up first?”  “The foot.”  Why would it be ‘the?’  We don’t know which one it is.  It could be right or left.

So do doctors.  “When we remove the brain, we can go in through the eye or the ear.”

Not to mention drill sergeants and bosses.  “If you ever do that again I’m going to give you a boot right in the ass.”  Note that the drill sergeant is half right.  Because he doesn’t specify which boot he will use, he correctly says “a boot.”

It’s the same thing with possessions.  For example, when taxes go up you might hear someone say, “This is going to hit me right in the wallet.”  Why not say ‘my’ wallet?

Or what about:  “How’s business?”  “Down the toilet.”  Now which toilet is that?  Technically. it should be ‘a‘ toilet because we don’t know which specific toilet the business is going down.  It’s the same with windows.  “How are your plans to buy a new house?”  “Out the window.” 

It’s probably one of those things where what sounds better and what we heard from our parents while growing up prevail over grammatical rules and logic.  So the drill sergeant could say “I’ll give you my boot in your ass.”  Technically correct, but not as effective in my opinion.  Similarly, having a business go “down the toilet” sounds much more final and regrettable than “down a toilet.”

But I still don’t think that “the Caesar salad” sounds right.  

PS–Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends in the US!