At the end of the day, we need more proactive solutions going forward.
Chew on that puff pastry of a sentence for a second. Now imagine: your life’s savings vanish, a casualty of the financial sector’s wildly unbridled speculation in sub-prime mortgages. Your house is swept away by a flood that could have been prevented if government engineers had done their job. Your daughter at college is gunned down by a lunatic who bought a Glock pistol as easily as one buys a candy bar. Your son in the Army met his end in Iraq five years after his Commander in Chief announced “mission accomplished.” And as you struggle with your losses, a governor or a CEO or a president or a comptroller offers you heartfelt . . . cliches.
Everyone occasionally uses a popular catchphrase or buzzword, but no one employs them more than public figures in positions of leadership. From Wall Street to the Pentagon, and in every boardroom across America, the sentences of our so-called leaders are as bulked up with empty phrases as our athletes are with steroids.
No cliche gets bandied about with as much mind-dulling frequency as “at the end of the day.” In his remedial writing column, “Nuts & Bolts,” veteran journalist Bob Baker devotes an article to this pervasive platitude. He cites an informal survey conducted by Chris Pash, an executive at Factiva, the media database company. The survey scanned 1,600 American newspapers, finding “at the end of the day” the most frequently used cliche. How frequent? In the first half of 2006, U.S. publications printed it 10,595 times — about 60 times a day.
“You can hear politicians say it all the time,” Pash rightly notes. “It gets annoying because you know the kiss-off is coming; it’s code for: ‘I’m about to say something irrelevant.’” Baker perfectly captures what makes “at the end of the day” so insipid: “It’s a cliche that poses as wisdom, yet delivers none.”
Another catchphrase more often in the mouths of our elected elite than truth is “going forward.” When used honestly, “going forward” means “beginning now” or “from this time onward.” But the conjunction of the two words produces a fuzzy magic, giving “going forward” the sheen of political dialect; like “at the end of the day,” it’s a catchphrase that seems to impart a sense of hope and progress, but yields none. No more poignant example of the cliche’s emptiness can be found in recent years than in the comments of Virginia Governor Tim Kaine after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007: “The only magic thing [one can do or say] is just to be with people in the moment as they grieve and hopefully help them find some bit of hope in the situation going forward.”
In times of tragedy, there’s no better way to show heartfelt concern than by using cliches. “The situation going forward,” governor? Seems to me that for 32 Virginia Tech students and teachers, there’ll be no more going forward, backward, or anywhere. Like most politicians, Governor Kaine is wedded to stock phrases. When recently answering questions about his state’s liability in regard to last year’s shootings, Kaine said: “We’ve been looking at a resolution that will make family members feel we’re doing the right thing going forward.” The day after this interview, the governor discussed a possible settlement for the Virginia Tech victims and their families, saying: “It’s been very important, the work that we’ve done with the family members…. And we want to continue working with them going forward.”
Like most popular catchphrases, “going forward” serves as prosaic filler, superfluous verbiage. After all, in just about any context, what other direction can we move in? I suppose some things can be done retroactively, but last time I looked, the hands on the clock spin inexorably into the future. Since we haven’t figured out how to travel backward in time yet, by necessity everything we undertake must be done “going forward.”
Unless it’s done “as we move forward.” Say hello to the slick sibling of “going forward.” For years now, our government has been accomplishing all kinds of great things “as we move forward.” Doesn’t that phrase just hang a smile on your mug? Here’s President Bush in June 2005 assuring the families and friends of soldiers killed in Iraq that their loved-ones’ deaths were not in vain: “There may have been past differences over Iraq, but as we move forward there is a need for the world to work together so that Iraq’s democracy will succeed.”
How consoling. It’s like the wedding scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” where, after Sir Launcelot has killed the best man in a sudden paroxysm of knight errantry, the host quiets the crowd by saying: “This is supposed to be a happy occasion – -let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who!” Even a medieval host knows that things are more cheerful “as we move forward.”
Of course, the only way we can move forward is by being “proactive.” What an insidious piece of doublespeak! Like most clich‚s or buzzwords, “proactive” is redundant; “active” conveys the same meaning but it won’t make you sound as hip as your company’s newly- hired MBA. I had never heard the term until the early 1990s while serving as an infantry lieutenant in the Army. The military is the ultimate arena for jargon, acronyms, vogue verbs, and old saws. When it came to officers, the more stock phrases that spilled out of their mouths, the less leadership you could expect.
And for these officers, everything had to be more proactive: “we’ve got to be more proactive about sound and light discipline;” “you need to be more proactive in getting your men to chow on time;” “the battalion must be more proactive when it comes to utilizing indirect fire assets.” It all translates as “do your job,” but that doesn’t sound very sexy (nor does “mortars” when you can say “indirect fire assets.”)
If I hadn’t heard “proactive” before I joined the Army, it wasn’t my fault. In my 1984 edition Webster’s New World Dictionary, no entry appears for “proactive” (in fact, the only word beginning p-r-o-a is just that, “proa,” a swift Malayan boat with one outrigger). Admittedly, my dictionary is a little old. The Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary dates the term “proactive” from 1933. But it seems that the word has risen from technical obscurity to annoying omnipresence. I’ll stick with “active” and leave “proactive” for the youngsters with acne.
Ultimately, all these empty cliches lead us to “solutions.” For roughly a decade, nearly every product and service gets marketed at some point as a “solution.” There are business solutions, software solutions, information solutions, inventory solutions, ad nauseum. My favorites are foods labeled “breakfast solutions.” Mmm, doesn’t that sound appetizing: a hot cup of coffee and a breakfast solution. Who am I, George Jetson? In “solution” we encounter again a term that sounds meaningful but adds no meaning, a redundant descriptor. With all these solutions, though, one might get the impression that problems were a vanishing species. To douse that notion, just read a newspaper.
Every culture in every era has had its cliches, its tired catchphrases stripped of linguistic life through overuse. Most people fall back on stock phrases out of laziness. Boring as they sound, platitudes accomplish conversational ends, conveying the speaker’s intended meaning, however unimaginatively. In this regard, cliches are like colds: new strains make the rounds, perpetuated by speakers in moments of low mental resistance.
Another reason hackneyed phrases get hackneyed is peer pressure. Were you ever called an egghead or a bookworm for using a “big” word back in grammar school? Loath to demonstrate a large vocabulary, some turn to the security of the commonplace. Cliches have passed a kind of peer review: they’re safe. By using them, you’ve said what anyone else might say, which means you won’t raise the eyebrows that get arched in jealousy when an original, well-turned phrase is uttered.
Laziness and peer pressure influence everyday speech habits subtly, more by default than any conscious effort. But public figures deliberately use cliches — in fact they rely on them. So the question is: what can we learn, if anything, from an era’s cliches?
Perhaps our cliches exude impatience because we are so impatient with everything. Stroll the aisles of any supermarket or drugstore and count the labels boasting “high-speed,” “now even faster,” or “quickest ever!”
Decades of living in an instant gratification culture have made us thralls to speed. And why do one thing fast when you can do two or three? Welcome to multi- tasking utopia.
If we followed the news by screening out the facts and only listening to the cliche-riddled comments of our political leaders, corporals of industry, and economic prognosticators, we’d get the sense that we were humming along toward a bright, streamlined world of tomorrow (filled with proactive solutions going forward at the end of the day.)
There’s an unintended irony to our current cliches in the form of reality. Our sage economic overseers have blundered again, creating a dilemma that prompts even the well-spoken former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin to fall back on cliche; in recent interviews, Rubin has repeatedly called the sub-prime mortgage fiasco “a perfect storm.”
Speaking of perfect storms, when Hurricane Katrina burst the dikes around New Orleans in 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, seemingly re-energized in its mission post-9/11, responded with all the “proactive” alacrity of a Delta terrapin.
As of this writing, 4,103 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq while not a single “weapon of mass destruction” (talk about cliches) has materialized. The war’s initiation was certainly “proactive,” however, a clear violation of Article VI, paragraph 2 of the Constitution. And in the background, the oceans — true solutions all — quietly rise due to decades of “prudent” industrial management and fossil fuel use. Our leaders on Wall Street and in the White House got it backwards: “at the end of the day,” WMD is fiction, global warming reality.
How we speak is a reflection of how we think-the more cliches, the less thinking. The 20th century’s most important philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, wrote, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” By their nature, stock phrases and jargon limit meaningful communication. And yet even the cliches we use mean something, if only indirectly. It’s surprising, but these phrases that mean so little actually say a lot about our world.
Born on Long Island where the rubber meets the road, Walsh hit the ground running. After college, he implemented combat solutions for four years using the Army’s best practices as an officer in the 25th Infantry Division. Realizing war is not a win-win situation, the author downsized the military–by one.
Post-transition, he re-visited school, earning a Master’s degree in Anglo-Irish literature from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Since then, Walsh has dispensed value-added advice as an oenological consultant at the Corkscrew wine shop; written ad copy at Films for the Humanities & Sciences; and performed executive background checks at a Princeton due diligence firm.
In a paradigm shift, Walsh has put his core competency to use as a poet and freelance writer. His poems have appeared in Barrow Street, Chronogram, Cimarron Review, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Hudson Review, as well as in Irish journals, including the first issue of THE SHOp.
At the end of the day, he can be found sipping Burgundy and munching on low-hanging fruit.