On being … illegible

By Ingrid Sapona 

The other day I popped into an office supply store that I shop at regularly. There was a sign about a new membership for small businesses that offers discounts, free shipping, and so on. There was no cost to join and – though my business supply needs are pretty mundane – any discount is welcome, so I thought I’d ask about it. 

I found most of what I was looking for and headed to the checkout. Before the twenty-something clerk started ringing up my purchase, I asked her to check to see if they had in stock the item I couldn’t find. She was very attentive and helpful. She offered to check other local stores but I told her that wasn’t necessary, as I could wait for it to come in. I then asked her about how you sign up for that new small business membership. 

I was surprised when she handed me a paper membership application and a pen. I was expecting her to type my info into her terminal or maybe direct me to apply on-line. I don’t know if my surprise had to do with the fact that during “Covid times” no one shared things like pens – or if it’s because I’m accustomed to clerks asking for email addresses that they quickly key in. Anyway, I put on my reading glasses and quickly filled out the simple application and returned it to her. 

When she looked at it, she squinted a bit as she started to read aloud my business name: Good w (??) Word?? Ugh… she couldn’t read my writing. I’m embarrassed to admit how terrible my handwriting has become. It’s the weest bit more legible when I print (especially block letters) – and so I usually print. Indeed, I printed the answers on the application but she still couldn’t make out my business name: Good with Words. I told her the name and she then apologized to me, explaining she didn’t have her glasses on. It was very sweet of her, I thought, to assume the problem was hers. 

When the transaction was finished, I asked her whether I’d have a club member number or what. She explained that an account rep would email me with the details about the membership. I smiled and said, “Well, as long as you can read my writing and my email address.” She then, sheepishly, said, “Oh no – I can read cursive – I write in it all the time!” 

I left the store smiling, her comment tickled me so. If only she had known that I had printed (not written in cursive) and that the problem wasn’t her ability to read cursive – it was the illegibility of my hand. It was also funny to me to think – as I had certainly heard – that many schools don’t even teach cursive any more. A sign of our digital times? 

Then, a few days later there was an article by Amanda Morris in the NY Times about how American Sign Language (ASL) is evolving thanks to – you guessed it – digital media. Morris is the child of deaf parents and she learned ASL at home. The genesis for the article, according to David Leonhardt who wrote about it in his daily newsletter, was interesting. It seems Morris and her mom were on a train recently and they were having a conversation in ASL when another passenger, who also knew ASL, joined the conversation. 

Like Morris, the passenger learned ASL at home because his parents were deaf. The passenger, however, had gone through formal ASL training to become an interpreter. Apparently, during the course of their conversation he teased Morris about her signing skills, saying she signed like someone who was much older. As Leonhardt put it, Morris was using signs that had fallen out of fashion. 

Morris’ article was fascinating – at least to me, as I didn’t know much about sign language. Yup, rather like the current generation that isn’t learning cursive, many (most?) of us grew up not learning ASL – or even much about it. For example, I didn’t know that ASL relies on both hand movements and facial expressions to convey meaning. Also, as Morris put it, “signs are shrinking” – by which she means they’re being made compact to accommodate the tight space of video screens. I thought it was particularly sweet when the former president of the ASL Teachers Association admitted to Morris that she has a hard time understanding what her daughters are saying when they chat on FaceTime because “their hands are so crunched up to fit on the tiny phone screen, and I’m like, ‘What are you saying?’” Too funny… 

Given that Merriam-Webster defines illegible as meaning indecipherable, it’s clear that’s a thread that runs through these stories. But perhaps more on point, these stories remind me of the challenges that can be caused if we let our skills deteriorate (in my case, my handwriting, in Morris’ case, using outdated signs) or if we don’t take into account the ways times – and communications – are changing. 

© 2022 Ingrid Sapona


On being … a deep dive

By Ingrid Sapona 

A friend of mine went to a celebration of life last week for a colleague who passed away unexpectedly about six weeks earlier. Because the memorial was at the family’s home on a beautiful summer afternoon, my friend and I talked about what he’d wear. He settled on business casual: dark pants and a button-down shirt with a sport coat that he could take off if he felt over-dressed. 

Afterward, I asked him how the memorial went and whether he felt he’d dressed appropriately. He chuckled and said it was a pretty casual event. He explained that his late friend’s (grown up) kids were wearing black t-shirts that said: Eschew Obfuscation. Apparently, the deceased loved words and language and that was one of his favourite (tongue-in-cheek) mottos! 

I love that motto too and I sure wish it’d be taken to heart by more folks. Indeed, I’d love to find a way to get the consultants I’m working with on a project to adopt it. This project is on ways financial institutions can influence companies they invest in, and lend to, to adopt policies and take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

The work came to me unexpectedly and it’s really interesting. I’m working with three different teams or, as they refer to themselves: workstreams. Each workstream is made up of a team that includes consultants from a few different firms. Everyone is bright, hard-working, and committed. In other words, my kinda folks. My work mainly involves substantive editing of their reports. 

I’ve worked with consultants before, but it’s been a while. Given the subject matter, we can’t avoid scientific terminology altogether. But, one of my roles is to make sure we explain concepts in as plain language as possible. Sometimes I have to go a number of rounds with the technical experts before we land on a balance between technical/scientific jargon and plain language explanations the experts can live with. For the most part I don’t mind the tug-of-war. I get that their expertise was hard won and I think they think people won’t respect their expertise if they don’t use the jargon. 

But what I’ve been really surprised about is all the corporate speak the consultants use – or, as they’d probably put it: utilize. To them, examples showing the carbon emissions of two or three companies are “quantitative analyses”. I don’t know about you, but if I see “Quantitative Analysis” on a table of contents, I figure I better get a cup of coffee because it’s going to be a tough slog to get through. And for some reason, instead of saying “a company may use this data when deciding about (whatever)” – they want to talk about the “use case” for the data, for example: “the use case can inform the company’s decision about (whatever)”. Honestly. (Or should I say, really?) 

And then there are appendices labelled: “Deep Dive Into (name the topic)”. The first time I came across that heading in a document I was editing for this group the “deep dive” amounted to a half page of information – bullet points, no less. I just couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t necessarily expecting a doctoral dissertation on the topic, but I expect a “deep dive” to be a lengthy discussion or explanation of some topic that’s deemed worthy of additional detail. But then again, maybe in the age of Twitter – where you have just 280 characters to make a point – a bullet list IS a deep dive to some. Anyway, I (politely) explained that I didn’t think the bullet points really constituted a deep dive and that, instead, we could weave them into the text. In other cases, where their “deep dives” are a little more detailed – but not exactly profound – I usually re-named them: “A Closer Look at (name the topic)”. 

I can’t imagine that consultants intentionally want to sound like they’re trafficking in obfuscation, but I think it comes off that way a lot. I know that – when pushed – they can explain things in simpler terms. So sometimes, when they revert to corporate speak, I think it’s just laziness. But then, when they push back against attempts to re-phrase things, I wonder if it’s because of insecurity. Is it that they fear their advice won’t be as highly valued if everyone understood it? 

I don’t know… maybe it’s something I’ll take a deep dive into when this project is over. If you have any insights into this, let me know. If we pool our theories, I’ll bet we can come up with more than a half-page bullet list. 

© 2022 Ingrid Sapona