Where is the sugar-coating, Brugga?
AS LONG AS it is accompanied by a tablespoonful of muscovado sugar, we Barbadians don’t mind hearing the truth. It helps the medicine go down – as the ditty goes – in a most delightful way.
Over 60 years ago, in my introduction to the French language, I learned that the word “de” (“some” in English) is a useful qualifierin avoiding misunderstanding. It suggested to me that the French do not take chances with meaning. English does not avoid that syntactical trap and assumes that no right-thinking person could expect that a statement like “Barbadian workers are lazy and inefficient” could possibly mean all Barbadians. Unfortunately, many people understand it – or choose to – that way!
Most people are careless with their use of language. It usually lands them in trouble and many pay dearly – some with their lives. An American ambassador once told me that many diplomats die (metaphorically) like fish – through their mouths. Some politicians too!
The legal profession – of which I know little, but whose modus operandi I notice closely – seems to go to great lengths to guard against the pitfalls of careless language. It does so at the expense of being pedantic as it tries to avoid redundancy, ambiguity and other forms of misinterpretation. It sometimes fails, opening up the way for appeals to higher courts and sometimes the repeal of laws, even constitutions.
Careless, poorly thought-out utterances – in praise or condemnation – can be avoided by use of a handy group of words that offer the requisite protection – words like some, many, average, most and several. Not to employ such protection often invites angry responses, most of which are themselves carelessly thought out.
Outspoken employer Ralph “Bruggadung” Johnson learned that hard lesson last month when – out of several years of sheer frustration – he sent off a clumsily worded letter to the newspapers and set off an immediate firestorm. Never mind that comments like his appear in the newspapers and talk radio every week.
Last Tuesday, columnist Sherwyn Walters identified some workers we criticize constantly: clerks, port workers, policemen, cashiers, lawyers, doctors, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, receptionists, security guards and more.
On reflection, after a touch of cold feet a few days later, writing twice as much by way of clarification, “Brugga” forked out a few thousand dollars to three media houses in damage control for whole-page announcements. Choosing one of those qualifying words does not always save you from the public’s ire; you sometimes have to go a little further.
Last month Minister of Labour Dr Esther Byer-Suckoo charged that some Christians were not “reflecting God” in the workplace, contributing to poor productivity and work ethic. Even though she used the word “some”, she still left herself open to the question: “Why Christians? What about Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, atheists?” And sure enough, one reader, Olutoye Walrond, commented: “I’m more than a little curious as to how Mrs Byer-Suckoo arrived at her sweeping conclusion that ‘Christians’ are not reflecting God in the workplace. How many private and public sector offices has she visited and spent enough time observing to be able to make a statement like that? And how many employers would have told her Christians are their laziest workers? Or does the office of minister come with the ability to perceive things that would otherwise only be known from the conduct of a survey?”
We must be careful with words: they not only make sounds, they make wounds.
In his book How To Choose Words Wisely And Well, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes: “One reason that many otherwise good people often use words irresponsibly and cruelly is that they regard the injuries inflicted as intangible and, therefore, minimize the damage they can inflict.” Intemperate language causes intemperate responses.
When we brush away the emotionalism, we have to face the reality that the Barbadian work ethic has gone awry and no amount of rationalization will make it return. Here’s a sample of the sweet things we prefer to hear. Trade unionist Orlando “Gabby” Scott: “Barbadians like work.” I haven’t met many, “Gabby”. I can count them on the fingers of one hand – minus the thumb!
Not for the first time, someone has put his finger squarely on the Barbadian malaise of the 21st century. Mr Johnson is right, but it’s not only the average Barbadian worker; it’s the average Barbadian employer, too.
It’s an exercise in futility comparing the employee of the middle of the last century with the employee of today. Niceties and semantics of language apart, the sooner we Barbadians face the fact that – not some – all of us, as a people (Mr Johnson’s phrase), must “take fresh guard” and learn to deal with the new realities of the 21st century, the better we will be equipped to face the future.
Another Barbadian employer, Chris de Caires, made this point the other day: “Any observation or criticism of employee productivity is a direct reflection on the management of the organization. Herein lies a major problem in Barbados. We lack effective management. Our systems of management are extremely poor. Our managers are poorly trained. We have too many technical people assuming management positions with little formal training in management. Engineers expect tolerances in millimetres, while accountants expect everything to balance. Humans do not respond in the same way and need other non-technical elements such as respect, understanding and encouragement.” Sir Courtney Blackman, first Governor of the Central Bank of Barbados, has been saying that for the past 40 years.
I agree with Mr Johnson when he wrote: “We must all realize that we as a country are facing a torrid future. This is mainly because we as a people have grown lazy and inefficient.”
And I will not be taking out any whole-page announcements to clarify that. Or to withdraw it.
• Carl Moore was the first Editor of THE NATION and is a social commentator. Email [email protected]