‘CorporateSpeak’ and Condescension in Business Letters

A business letter

In his novel 1984, George Orwell wrote about Newspeak,1 which “Big Brother” — i.e., the totalitarian government — wanted to substitute for Oldspeak (everyday English). In 1984’s dystopian society, the objective of Newspeak was to strengthen government control of the populace by shaping and limiting its vocabulary.

I’ve begun this piece by referring to Newspeak simply as a way of putting into context a phrase that is found with distressing frequency in business writing, which is too often written not in everyday language (shall we call it Talkspeak?), but in needlessly awkward phrases I think of as CorporateSpeak.

The world, I think, would be a somewhat better place if we could minimize CorporateSpeak. I have one annoying example particularly in mind.

Enclosed please find
How many times have you received a letter containing the phrase Enclosed please find? I can’t imagine a colder, more impersonal way of saying I’m enclosing.

If you were giving something to someone in person, even to a stranger, would you ever use such frigid phrasing?

Of course not. So why use this bloodless language in a business letter? Why not say I’m enclosing… or, less informally, Enclosed with this letter, you will find …?

Why, in short, should business writing be cold and unfriendly? When you meet a business partner or prospect, don’t you smile and begin with a firm handshake? Why should written communication be any different? Projecting warmth and a friendly, open attitude should be instinctive in business. And not just in person.

So let’s banish Enclosed please find from the letters we write. Why use CorporateSpeak when we can say it in plain English?

Please feel free
CorporateSpeak is not the only pitfall in business writing. Another one is inadvertent condescension,2 which can be a stumbling block to establishing rapport with readers.

Here’s an example of inadvertent condescension — a letter or email that ends by saying Please feel free to contact me if ….

It sounds innocuous, right? Well, as far as it goes, it is rather innocuous. But isn’t it also a bit condescending?

Let’s look a little closer at feel free to contact me. Who might say that to another person? Someone who enjoys equal status with the person being addressed? Or someone higher in the pecking order who is generously offering to allow a person of lesser rank to call on him or her? Here’s a specific example: A ship’s captain tells a crewman who has reported a problem to feel free to speak to him again if the problem is not quickly resolved. The phrase carries a distinct odor of rank — You’re my subordinate, but you can still feel free to trouble me with your concern again if it’s not resolved.

If, in a business letter, you’d like to avoid making your reader feel spoken down to, write Please don’t hesitate instead of Please feel free.

Please don’t hesitate is what people say when they want to be accommodating and thoughts of rank are entirely absent from their mind. Example: And by the way, if you have any more trouble with that gizmo, please don’t hesitate to contact me at any time. A statement like that feels free of condescension.

I hope these two examples will help strengthen your writing, by making it (1) friendlier and (2) less likely to leave vaguely uncomfortable feelings in readers’ minds.

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  1. Back in the early 1980s, when I was working at the headquarters of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), I’d sometimes talk with a counterpart in the Washington, D.C., offices of the European Union. A Brit, he had previously spent years at the EU’s headquarters in Brussels. With typical British humor, he’d refer to French, the EU’s lingua franca, as “Frogspeak.”
  2. I’ve discussed inadvertent condescension in a previous blog post about the difference between educate and inform, pointing out that if you say or write that you want to educate your audience about something, you could be conveying the impression that you, the know-it-all, seem to think you’re addressing a group of children.
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