Wishing well

Unlike most people, I rather like spam. I don’t remember acting upon any of it;  I have acquired no Russian spouses, nor African benefactors, nor enhanced body parts. But I do like to spot trends in the way spam is written, dig out unusual words, and ponder the ways in which it differs from legitimate business communications.

I am not talking about the crude sexual come-ons that use various typographical tricks to by-pass the internet providers’ spam filters and slip into the junk box on my computer. (I only get it from my gmail account, incidentally. I wonder why.) I’m really talking about spam that presents itself as cold-calling business email. Of course, untargeted business mail is exactly that; it’s a fine distinction.

Such emails make various attempts at creating a friendly, approachable tone of voice (the default mode of the Internet), while also appearing businesslike. There may be a bogus invoice number or similar call-to-action attached.

Anyway, I have recently observed an odd thing: the number of times complete strangers, or imaginary people, open the correspondence like this: “Hope you are well.” Clearly, this is an instance of business writing imitating the way friends begin emails to each other.

In that context, it’s perfectly natural and pleasant. It’s not new, either. The Romans greeted each other in the street like this: Salve, meaning “Be well”. In writing they used salutem, meaning “greetings” or “good health”. You might argue that the reason it is so common now is simply fashion: we like to respond in kind to the language we receive. Or perhaps it is symptomatic of some deeper anxiety in society about health, one of the few things we fear we can do nothing about.

The point, though, is context. “Hope you are well,” is fine among friends. It’s OK with genuine business contacts: people whose names you know, people who have voluntarily made contact with you, people with whom you already have a relationship. It is less so with strangers, especially the older generation, and to them it may appear impertinent, over-familiar, and plain cheeky.

As always, the secret of successful communication is knowing your audience. That takes a bit of thought and an acute awareness of the tone of voice projected by your writing. It is worth it.


Jargon we like, and jargon we hate

It is standard advice for any kind of writer to avoid jargon. It’s ugly, it excludes, it baffles as much as it communicates. And yet, people love it.

When training people in writing, I have had few delegates protest when I have suggested they remove the more nonsensical examples of jargon, particularly business jargon, from their work. I’m thinking of the ill-defined claims of so many companies that they offer “solutions”, or that they are “leveraging” something or other, possibly a “vertical”. I would advise my trainees to be concrete, be specific, and most people would go along with it.

It is not, though, as simple as all that. We hate jargon, except when we are using it ourselves, and then we find it indispensable as a shorthand and a way making ourselves feel part of a team. In that case we would be using our professional or specialist language – and we would be right to use it. No-one expects brain surgeons to use the same work vocabulary as nuclear physicists.

Jargon really means specialist language we dislike; it’s a pejorative term rather than a descriptive one. Originally the word meant the twittering and tweeting of birds. Human beings didn’t understand it, and they didn’t like it: it is easy to see how this transferred to the incomprehensible jabberings of other people. Foreign languages were often referred to as jargon, although they are not, of course. They are perfectly clear to those who speak and understand them.

The key thing, really, is to be aware of your audience. That is always the first principle in writing – who is this for? – and it starts with the language you use. By all means use the technical terms of your business or profession when you are writing for readers within the same world: but if you are writing for outsiders, you need to think about how they will receive it. Will they be baffled? Will they feel excluded? Will they dismiss what you have to say because of the thoughtless way you have chosen to express it?

So I would say this: when you are writing for your customers or the general reader, take out the jargon, except where you are sure they will understand and accept it. Be particularly rigorous about buzzwords and management clichés, which provoke a cynical response.

That said, not everything can be expressed in standard English. Other people’s technical terms and occupational slang can be pungent and authentic, and we love them when we encounter them in fiction or drama. Would The Wire, often acclaimed as the best-ever television drama series, have been the same without its relentless use of US Police jargon?