Aloof and clueless

The Economist's "Johnson" blog had an entertaining, and all too true, post several days ago: "Airlinese." It pokes fun at the awkward butchering of the English language on commercial airlines.

To some extent, I think that the blog's author is too kind. Airline jargon has become pretentious, pseudo-authoritative, and generally bewildering to the millions of passengers whose first language is not English and who were not raised in a police station.

Here's a test: If you are a native English speaker, but bilingual, and the airline also has announcements in your non-English language, ignore the English announcement, but listen closely to the translation. You will usually find that the non-English announcement is simple and clear. In some cases, such as on some U.S. airlines, it can even communicate an entirely different tone.

"Airlinese" caught my eye as one who travels hundreds of thousands of miles each year on commercial airlines and hears hundreds, if not thousands, of announcements. However, it prompted me to think about how we lawyers sometimes misuse language.

Most professions (including journalism) have insider language that has a social value for its users.  Lawyers, consultants, athletes and others are no different. But anyone dealing with the public (especially when giving them bad news like a ground stop) is well advised to put aside the jargon...

Language is one of the basic tools of our profession.  As with mastery of any tool, there is sometimes a temptation to show off.  No lawyer is immune.

However, as clients and comedians frequently remind our profession, the temptation can sometimes take us too far.

For example:

  • How many times have you resorted to technical legal jargon - even Latin phrases - simply to impress a client with how smart you are?
  • Have you ever used unnecessarily thrown up a cloud of legal terms in order to persuade the client that the issue is far too complex for mere mortals to comprehend, and that the client should accept your advice without any deep thinking about it?
  • How often do you hide behind impressive language in order to try to mitigate a client's tendency to react unfavorably to bad news or other advice that the client does not want to hear?

Instead of appearing erudite and analytical, you might appear pompous, condescending, or evasive - probably just the opposite of what you intended.

Ultimately, it is often just bad client relations.  Consider the last sentence of the article:

It makes you look not professional, but aloof and clueless about what your customers are going through.

Aloof and clueless... not a great client service strategy, is it?

Read more on the Walker Clark Worldview 

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