Idiomatic juggernauts

Wednesday, 26 August 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


  • A tongue in cheek exaggerated look at language change in times of crisis

The COVID pandemic has shaken corporate life as never before. And all such life-shattering events tend to leave its mark not only on life as we know it but also in language and lexicon of sayings and metaphors that have either been modified or new ones that have been created as a result. 

Obviously, the first big saying is with reference to ‘home’. It’s often said poetically and wistfully that “Home is where the heart is”. If ever a saying has been dealt a body blow, this ‘one saying’ would have to be it. As more and more companies shift to ‘work from home’ mode, this particular saying has undergone a sea change. A deep-thinking employee of an ad agency is heard to have said “home is now where the PC is” and someone added “home is where the work is”. The sad thing is in such cases, the person making such a far-reaching statement is unlikely to fully comprehend the long-term import of the sentence. No less than the creation of a new saying that will be repeated as often in future as the original one from where it came. 

The other new phenomenon is the zoom call. Officially and socially everyone’s zoom calling someone all the time. A CEO who requested me to do Zoom classes for his team complained “It was like talking to a brick wall” referring to the need of training his team to interact better on zoom. Then after a moment’s reflection, he changed it to “It was TALKING to a brick wall”. Apparently, some employees felt more comfortable with the camera facing the wall in their homes rather than they themselves facing the camera. 

“Behind every successful man is a baby and a cat”. The spawning of video calls has meant a certain unexpected merging of lines that one seldom crossed before – where babies and cats or dogs would interrupt a politician or journalist while he/she was on live TV. In the past, this kind of behaviour would not be tolerated. But videos of such nature have gone viral with amazing regularity imbibing the perpetrator with likely imagined virtues of sensitivity and caring. It’s now time for the wife to take a back seat to the baby and cat as being the reason for the man’s success. Wonder what the wife feels about the whole matter? The lockdowns have had its own impact, thus enriching lexicon. 

A particularly miffed senior gent who deprived of his daily tipple despite being ‘austere to a T’ for a whole month is said to have modified a completely unrelated saying to something that reflected his predicament. He famously modified “One swallow does not make a summer” to “Even one swallow would make my summer”. Obviously, he was not going to be happy just with a gulp of his drink, he wanted a full swallow of it to satiate his ‘sagging spirits’. He is said to come up with all this while “Strenuously scraping the bottom of his barrel”.

We all know the boss who is never satisfied with his team’s attempt at cutting a supplier’s cost ‘down to size’. These Giant Pygmy archetypes (Giant role with Pygmy vision) are legendary for their communication of the philosophy in team meetings. One particular boss is said to thunder “Beat it to the ground” while thunderously banging the desk to emphasise the point with vigour vitality and conviction. Post-COVID, this particular boss is said to have come up with a new slogan. He says “Now beat it underground” and stomps his feet instead of thumping the desk! The replacement of ‘Beat it to the ground’ with ‘Beat it underground’ has a thundering resonance in virtual board rooms globally. Besides creating new lexicon it’s also said to have caused knee issues to many senior executives who have stomped their feet too hard to make the emphatic point!

Corporate leadership styles don’t change in crisis

A not so surprising development has been the realisation that corporate leadership styles don’t change in crisis. It flowers in colourful ways. The story of a pessimistic leader who would always say “What goes up will always come down” as a doomsday prediction to ensure his team is “always on the ball” or does not “take their feet off the pedal”. He has replaced it with another saying that’s likely to be in vogue for a while. He now says “what goes down will stay down”. This way, the team stays taut and tense. And never relents on the goal ahead which is “to keep one’s head above water”. 

Playing ‘good cop, bad cop’ is a strategy used in police stations as a means to extract a confession from a bad guy. Or gal. In corporate circles, certain HR teams use this to break up teams who are playing havoc with political games, etc. Post-COVID the same HR bunch are playing ‘cops and robbers’ – making sure the employees are actually working from home and earning their salaries.  A particular board member is a big fan of diversification for growth. His favourite quote is predictably “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. He is an aggressive profit maximiser with vast experience in creating long term visions for corporates. Post-COVID he has gone from being a profit maximising credo to a new quote reflecting a more defensive one. He apparently now says “let’s save this basket from changing into a funeral casket”. An original quote and a bit of a scary one reflecting the year 2020 has turned out to be in some people’s eyes. 

There’s a famous sales guru in an organisation who believes nothing can beat on the ground intelligence. His oft repeated mantra would be “Have your ear to the ground”. Over the years, many of his team members have delivered excellent results by staying low to the ground and grabbing the first new client or consumer that emerged. Ever since March, this guru has been frustrated and is now known to adopt a more of a ‘carrot, stick approach’ and has begun adding “Have your ears to the ground and if you hear nothing, don’t you dare come back up!”

A believer in the approach of focusing on existing clients and his mantra “Bird in hand is worth two in the bush”. A strong believer in consolidating existing businesses for organic growth is said to have privately complained to a friend “The fat quails in my hand have become tiny sparrows. It’s time to raid the bush”. Rich expression of how all philosophies or dogmas are being reinvented and so new language and thinking is being created. 

An optimistic manager who would calm employees who came to him with their imagined issues with an assuring “Let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill”. He continues to be an optimist but recognising the sheer inadequacy of his favourite mantra in these times of unprecedented change he now in a calm reassuring way says “Let’s make a mountain out of this molehill”. A positive twist to his line with a tongue in cheek appreciation of the way his business is now like a molehill. 

Some sayings have got further strengthened. A team leader who hated and ran away from confrontation would always end the meeting with “I wash my hands off the whole matter”. Now he feels utterly empowered with COVID granting the ‘hand washing’ regimen such awesome powers. This gent is now known to lay special emphasis on the words “wash my hands” as he continues to duck resolving confrontational issues. 

A particularly philosophical boss would tell his team to “Go with the flow”. Post-COVID, he apparently even puts his hand in yogic mudra and shuts his eyes in an exaggerated fashion as he repeats his now utterly meaningful mantra again and again.  Of course, the ‘one that takes the cake’ as it were is a boss who has been a champion of recognising talent and rewarding them financially so that they stay motivated and driven. His mantra of “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”, is not too common place in work places. Sadly, post-COVID it’s rumoured that he now refers to his team members as ‘monkeys’. A clear sign if any that soon only peanuts will be on offer.

(Santosh Menon is a marketing communications expert with 20 years of experience in multi-national locations. He can be reached at [email protected].)


Recent columns