Watching Our Language

As marketers and business people in general, we’ve been brainwashed. I’m as guilty as anyone, having done my executive MBA and learned all the lingo. Lingo that trains our minds to see people as things, instead of fellow humans. Here are a few examples I’d like us to consider, and reconsider, in terms of how business jargon influences our thinking and behaviour.

1. Consumer vs. Customer

The term “consumer” has been critiqued in many circles over the years, but old habits die hard. When we think intuitively, or just in common sense terms, about the term “consumer”, what does it conjure? It connotes a creature whose primary purpose is to consume material. It implies that someone else is the producer, and puts us in a binary consumer/producer mindset that is a) entirely inaccurate and b) insulting to those who choose to purchase our products and services.

In comparison, feel your way around the word “customer”, which is more old-fashioned. It conjures a person. Someone who walks into your store, makes decisions, and possibly builds a relationship with you, as in the expression “our best customers”. Would you ever say, “our best consumers”? Not likely.

2. Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

While we have great respect for those who are experts in CRM, the term itself has a fundamental flaw within it. Who would want an important relationship in their lives to be “managed”? Feels manipulative, even Machiavellian. How about “nurtured”? Or “developed”?

3. Human Capital vs. Humans and People

Recently I was in a corporate boardroom and I heard someone innocently use what is to me the most abhorrent term of all: “human capital”. Even worse than “human resources”, it implies that humans are merely interchangeable assets to move around. That we are quantities of “stuff” that has various levels of value.

This is not to say that certain people, with their respective talents or networks, don’t have greater relevance in certain professional situations than in others. Of course this is true. But to use a term like “human capital” implies, above all, that the person using the term is “subject” and that the “capital” he’s referring to is a dehumanized “object”.

This is why some companies have started to use language like “Chief People Officer” and are referring to their customers as “fans” or “advocates”. Business without human dignity, business without self-awareness and a basic code of human ethics – is exceedingly dangerous. In order for companies to have ‘license to operate’, one fundamental requirement should be that their language and behaviours never de-humanize. No amount of so-called philanthropy can make up for the misanthropic tendencies embedded in much of our business language.

Let’s watch our language, and clean it up. This century, and the new generations coming up, are demanding it, and it’s a good business decision to give our beloved customers what they want.

– W.