Many years ago in a galaxy far far away I ran a series of improvement workshops with a big organisation. The final session was about developing an action plan and things were going swimmingly. The group had ‘taken ownership’, identified ‘SMART outcomes’, developed ‘success criteria’ and set out a ‘monitoring and evaluation framework’. What could possibly go wrong?
As we were about to close the session one of the senior figures, Vice Admiral Bufton-Tufton (retired) stood up to propose a vote of thanks, my moment of glory. I was happily basking in the limelight when he rounded it off with…. “In the immortal words of Sir Humphrey from Yes Minister,…. we will do everything we can to move things forward, without being seen to be directly helpful”. A mis-quote from Yes Minister, but it did really happen.
The room erupted into laughter and everyone left congratulating Vice Admiral Bufton-Tufton (retired) with a bit of back slapping. The carefully crafted action plans were forgotten and the hard work evaporated in a moment of self-indulgent humour…. or was it? Could it have been a bit of sabotage using some of the famous ‘Yes Minister’ Mandarin English?
Yes Minister was a 1980’s TV parody of the Westminster Government’s, ‘Department of Administrative Affairs’, and the relationship between the Minister and Civil Servants. One of the many memorable features of the programme was the obscure language used by the Permanent Secretary (Senior Civil Servant), Sir Humphrey Appleby, a form of Mandarin English. The ability of Sir Humphrey (a master of obfuscation) to block change in the Department of Administrative Affairs by using confusing language was astonishing. It was so effective that it has almost become the benchmark for this sort of behaviour. If someone is referred to as a ‘bit of a Sir Humphrey’ you know you’ve got trouble. Enjoy this clip of him in action.
It would be easy to have a cheap shot at the Civil Service and say that Sir Humphrey behaviour is typical of every Civil Servant, which of course is not true. However……. you might like a look at this.
How to be a Civil Servant. This is a website www.civilservant.org.uk a Civil Servant friend of mine told me to look at after I wrote about jargon used by the NHS. They were keen to point out that the Civil Service has its own set of jargon, known as Mandarin English. Before I get onto that, a few words about ‘How to be a Civil Servant’. Please, please do have a look at it. It’s possibly one of the most: hilarious / useful / honest / practical / subtly subversive things I’ve read. I just can’t work out which definition fits best. In a way it is like the extended, modern-day manual for Parkinson’s Law from the 1950’s.
Mandarin English. You will need to follow this link to the PDF as its difficult to find. I’ll just quote directly so that you get idea of what it’s about.
A Short Course for New Recruits Lessons 1-5: Vocabulary “It is no accident that Whitehall officials are known as Mandarins. Their language is often as hard to understand as anything spoken in Beijing. This document …. will provide you with the basic language you will need to get by and survive in Whitehall.”
Here are some of my favourites:
- Plain English. Words of one syllable, with subtitles for the hard of hearing. Civil Servants do not use Plain English. It is for civilians and half-wits.
- Surprised. Another classic senior official understatement. Signifies utter horror, disgust and fury.
- Hope This is Helpful. I am well aware that it is not helpful at all. Please do not contact me again.
- Draft Please! Graft for hours producing a coherent and impressive letter so that I can fulfil my teacher fantasy by needlessly amending it.
- Strategic Review. The same as a Review but marginally more superficial and likely to recommend the creation of a ‘Co-ordination Unit’.
I’d recommend a look at Mandarin English and some of the other guidance available at ‘How to be a Civil Servant’. Some of it feels uncomfortably familiar.
Finally, it’s probably no coincidence that the organisation I was running the workshops with (from the far away galaxy) made very little progress with the improvements after the Mandarin English episode (or I might have been me … who knows). I must also thank my anonymous friend who alerted me to Mandarin English.
So, what’s the PONT?
- Jargon, technical language and specialist terms do have their place and are useful where they help with communication and understanding in specific communities.
- Outside of these communities, jargon can cause confusion and exclude people, so beware when you use it.
- It’s worth checking if your own organisations needs a handbook of ‘Mandarin English’ for new recruits.
Full link to Mandarin English: http://www.civilservant.org.uk/jargon.pdf