By J.F. McKenna
Remember the expression “My word is my bond”? You don’t hear that used very often anymore. Is it because promises are so ingrained in business and life that the expression is considered a given–or have such bonds become so devalued as to be worthless?
All indications point to the latter.
The pledge to take little Elmo to the zoo is rendered null and void because “it’s raining too hard” or “given the fact that the Bronx Zoo lost its cobra last week, we probably should postpone our visit to the Cleveland Zoo to another day.”
The brand promise of “Serving You When You Call” typically translates into “Please wait for the next available agent.”
An agreement between company and customer now comes with standard boilerplate qualifying each and every circumstance that, “in effect, may alter the previously stated terms, as determined by the servicer.”
Then there are the bonds guaranteed by government and its agents and representatives. “If men were angels,” James Madison griped, “government would not be necessary.” Not only are men less than angelic, their elected and appointed representatives are devilishly bad at making and fulfilling straightforward compacts. The continuing soap opera about federal government funding immediately comes to mind.
Famed Christmas Story author Jean Shepherd satirized this bond issue perfectly. The title of one of his books is In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.
The devaluation of one’s word may be the single greatest crisis we face. We have accommodated a “fudge factor” into our language, and our dissembling has corrupted all of our commerce, both social and corporate.
More than 50 years ago, author George Orwell scolded the world about such abuse. “Our civilization is decadent,” he wrote, “and our language–so the argument runs–must inevitably follow in the general collapse.”
In his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell laid out the crisis this way: “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fails all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Things have devolved even further since Animal Farm’s author put those angry words to paper. Michael Maslansky calls ours the Post-Trust Era, dating it specifically to 2008.
“Every year, public relations firm Edelman tracks people’s level of trust from their news outlets to their banks,” he writes in The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics. “The 2009 Trust Barometer found that three out of four Americans trust business less than a year ago. To make things worse, trust levels are down in every major market….In short, this not a blip on the screen. This is a transformation in trust. And for anyone with anything important to communicate to people, it’s a crisis different than any we have ever seen before.”
Maslansky is CEO of Maslansky, Luntz & Partners, a firm that turns a profit by telling clients how to win and keep customers. Toward that end, Maslansky and his colleagues always recommend being a little more godlike (in the beneficent sense, of course) or prepare for more skepticism and fewer customers.
At the conclusion of his book–which I recommend reading before day’s end–Maslansky preaches the gospel of basic change for the better. My mother used to call such behavior “being decent.”
“The mentality of saying whatever is expedient, creating false urgencies, making a sale of killing a piece of legislation at all cost, and scurrying back to our holes will eventually destroy us,” he warns. “We will get crushed under the weight of public opinion by a new public. And once we get kicked out, we may never be let back in.”
But the crisis, as Orwell pointed out a half-century ago, is reversible. “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.”
At the heart of that reform is honesty: saying what you mean and meaning what you say. (Incredibly, I suddenly find myself channeling a cadre of Sisters of St. Joseph and the Brothers of Holy Cross. I guess I did learn something in school.)
Professional communicator Maslansky is likewise hopeful, saying that “we are starting to embrace values that should have mattered in the first place. Honesty. Transparency. Empathy. Acknowledgement. Traits that build long-term relationships. Traits that send out signals that people can trust you, and that it is safe to do business with you. But more important, traits that define us as human beings.”
Don’t worry if you can’t find the time to read Maslansky’s book or to dig out Orwell’s essay from the bookshelf. Just don’t delay building or maintaining a AAA rating for the bond you call your word.
J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications consultant. Reach him by email at jf_mckenna.com .