Empathy begins with language

Lucy Kellaway writes funny commentaries on business in her podcasts for the Financial Times. On the 16th of June, in one called “Descent Into Drivel is a Sign of Apple’s Fall” she takes on the language of Apple’s recruiting ads as a sign of its impending demise.

Her point is well taken. Apple says they’re looking for a “thought leader” – an expression so overused we hardly notice it but as she says, “What IS that? I have trouble leading my own thoughts”. And, they have posted an ad that lists “22 bullet points for someone to design batteries”. Now, Lucy claims, Apple “has become at least as Kafkaesque as everyone else”.

For Steve Jobs, language was part and parcel impeccable design. He kept (or so we think) the corporate BS at bay. For large corporations, language is a big part of what customers or potential employees buy into. It’s character, trustworthiness, experience, values, consistency and likability all rolled into one.

On the other side of language as “let me tell you about myself while I pretend to be talking about you”, is language as a form of empathy. Oftentimes, as the place where empathy begins. Speaking in a way that includes “others” is the way to prove we want them to understand, to come along, to be a part of our world. It’s the way we demonstrate sensitivity to a different reality. It shows we’re capable of listening, that we care enough to learn to speak a language other than our own and really don’t want to be surrounded only by people like us, who think we’re smart and don’t mention when we have no clothes.

But what about in our world of social innovation? Shouldn’t our pure souls and lofty ideals be obvious to the like-minded people we want to understand us? And, certainly to those that we want to help?

The answer is no, of course. In truth, we’re as guilty as any group of lawyers or engineers (maybe more so) in our use of jargon and short hand codes that help us identify and evaluate each other’s place in the tribe. What is social innovation anyway? What’s impact investing? Human centered design? Changing the world? BOP? Mission-driven? Take any of those expressions out of context and it’s clear how unclear they are. 

Language can keep people out, creating barriers to understanding, support and collaboration. It can have exactly the opposite effect from the one that’s desired. Without knowing it, language can say, “We’re a special group, we use complex argot and if you don’t get it, you’re not one of us. Without meaning it, your way of speaking and writing can say, “You’re too poor”, “too uncool”, “too young”, “too old”, “you didn’t go to the right school”, or even, “you’re just too dumb to get what we’re talking about”.

Entrepreneurs with a mission tend to think of language principally as a way to explain themselves – to attract supporters, to stand out in a crowded funding frenzy. Or to get the attention of whatever key partners or team members they need to succeed. They’re right about that, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Expressing ideas in a way that people hear and understand them is a skill that takes time and effort to master. Just ask a few dozen social entrepreneurs what they do and why it matters and listen to them fumble for words. 

It may be entertaining to poke fun at something as seemingly unimportant as a recruiting ad from Apple, but Lucy is right, it can signal the beginning of downfall. Obtuse, bureaucratic language may result in Apple’s no longer hiring brilliant iconoclasts – the mavericks who don’t fit the mold. Without people who “think different”, Apple will be just like any other company. It will lose what made it great.

The lesson here is for all of us. As Social Innovation and Social Design mature, as we develop more short-hand language to communicate with each other, we risk making outcasts of those who are not like us; the diverse people we need to recruit if we are to be successful, and of those we hope to help.