From sophistication to obfuscation: a story from a migrant

I was talking to a client from a Western European country the other day. He said it was refreshing to be writing in an environment where writers valued the reader more than their own reputation. He told me an interesting story.

He told me that in his country, the way you write says a lot about your intelligence. (‘So far so good,’ you say. ‘Surely this is the case in New Zealand too.’ Well, yes, but wait…) My client told me that in his country, someone who uses very long sentences and very sophisticated words is perceived as being intelligent and well educated. In fact, the longer the sentences and the more sophisticated the words, the more intelligent you are.

He explained that he and a colleague had realised this and exploited it for their own entertainment. What they did was create a game called ‘Bullshit Bingo’ — or rather, that was the translation he gave me for his title. They created a document with three columns and wrote headings at the top of each column.

Maybe you’ve already guessed what comes next? Yes, they wrote sophisticated (but plausible) words in each of the columns. They continued to do this until they had lists of maybe 20 to 25 words in each column.

Then they simply closed their eyes and ran the mouse down each column in turn, stopping randomly. They wrote down each word they stopped at in each of the three columns, creating three-word adjective/noun strings. Then from time to time, they would insert these strings into their writing. So, for example, when writing a report, they might write ‘a facilitative ramification endeavour will be used to resolve the resource shortfall’.

As time went on, they got bolder. Not only did they watch their adjective/noun strings go unchallenged in low-risk documents, but the cheeky pair even sat through board meetings of up to 150 people and watched their creative strings decorate PowerPoint slides! Of course, no one was going to challenge them as that would be revealing a lack of intelligence, wouldn’t it.

In New Zealand, our business writing style is different to this. It’s simpler and more focused on the reader. If you’re a migrant and would like to know more about how to shift your writing to a New Zealand style, check out our Professional Writing for Migrants workshop.

Find out more about our Professional Writing for Migrants workshop
Find out why we think simplicity is the ultimate sophistication

Written by Karen Commons, Write’s ESOL specialist.

2 responses to “From sophistication to obfuscation: a story from a migrant”

  1. elbee says:

    Those noun strings are still very prevalent, and much beloved by subject matter experts. Our business writing style in NZ has a long, long way to go before we can claim it to be different from the archaic, long-winded, pseudo-academic obfuscation you describe. I can picture the bullshit bingo working beautifully where I work!
    Sadly, I think this means that readers are far less inclined to actually read anything at all, unless they really, really have to. I have tested this when getting document signoffs, by leaving in a sentence that says “I know this makes no sense, but there you have it.” Not picked up by any of my reviewers…

  2. Poolo says:

    Lovely; anyone who has had a sniff of an academic journal would attest to this. Interestingly enough I came across a piece about how academics chose to embellish their writing around the 15th and 16th centuries as more and more people became literate. For the same reasons you wrote about in your article, and because longwinded embellished sentences were harder to discredit.

    I myself see academic writing in the same sphere as skateboarding. Young skaters love to show off with a new trick or two, maybe ‘young’ academics like to show off with the latest ‘cool’ term at a journal ‘park’. I guess it creates a bit of ‘yeah I am an insider’!

    Still depends on your game, literally. Communication or point scoring? Maybe people need a sphere where they can show off their linguistic airs to each other.

    Hmm maybe I have been a bit judgemental, it is hard to swim against a tide centuries in the making…

    Thanks for the article

    Paul C

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