October 3, 2011 2:52 am
Forget doing the ‘math’ and stick to proper English
By Lucy Kellaway
Last week, I was sent an email from a “work-life balance expert” offering tips on staying cheerful in times of financial strife.
What struck me most about this message – apart from its trite fatuousness – was the assumption that we need cheering up when the economy is down.
I have never seen any evidence that happiness moves in tandem with economic activity. I’m no less happy now than I was in the boom of the mid-2000s. And if I am upset, it’s not because of the economy but because the ceiling has just fallen down in my hall and so there is grit in my bed and in the fridge.
In fact, it’s possible that happiness may even rise in recessions. There was a study a couple of years ago that showed that people in work are marginally more content during hard times because they are grateful to have a job.
However, according to last week’s press release, the path to good cheer in recession lies through “living exponentially”. Just looking at this phrase causes my happiness levels to suffer a dip. The word “exponential” has taken a lot of abuse from managers who use it to describe any growth that is more than sluggish. Whereas in maths an exponential graph goes swiftly from almost flat to almost vertical, this pattern is seldom traced by any market I’ve ever come across.
But now the term seems to have slipped free of its mathematical moorings altogether: living “exponentially” involves having “quality time with yourself” and “living in your own truth”.
Speaking from the vantage point of my own truth, I find some things are truer than others. Truest of all are mathematical truths, and it is therefore upsetting to see them being pilfered shamelessly by innumerate managers eager to lend an aura of fact to what is usually a glob of guff.
Exponential is the least of it. Now every happening in business is called a “data point”, and change is increasingly known as “delta”, as in “what’s the delta on that?”
“Inflection point” is similarly debased. In maths, this is when the curvature goes from positive to negative but to managers it is a grandiose way of saying maximum or minimum. Last month, I saw it had been degraded further in a gung-ho article on the Huffington Post by a social entrepreneur entitled “The Inflection Point, The ‘Aha’ Moment” – in which it meant nothing at all.
Managers have a long history in playing fast and loose with percentages to make themselves look good. When it comes to effort, an impossible 110 per cent used to be regarded as a bare minimum.
Now hyperinflation has taken hold. A few weeks ago in Australia, the highest ever illegitimate percentage scoring was recorded when ex-cricketer Tim Nielsen said he was “100,000 per cent behind Australia being the best team in the world”.
All sorts of other things are just plain wrong when they are translated from maths to business talk. “To decimate” means to reduce by one-tenth; it does not mean to slash. “Infinite” means immeasurably large; it isn’t a general term to mean a lot. And “quantum” is something very, very small, not something very, very big.
More distressing than any of the above, however, is the phrase “Do the math”. This would be fine if it were a genuine invitation to whip out one’s slide rule. Instead it is a slightly threatening way of asserting: I’m right and I have logic on my side.
Last month, Barack Obama claimed that his tax package “isn’t class warfare. It’s math.” But it wasn’t math, really. It was politics. Yet at least President Obama is American, and so the phrase sounds better on his lips. On BBC Radio Four last week, I heard a Brit taking about the far right in UK politics, urging listeners to “do the maths” – which sounded even worse.
The strangest thing about all this misuse of mathematics is that when there is an actual need to discuss figures, managers go all coy, and proper numerical terms are nowhere to be seen.
Indeed, in business, numbers are not called numbers any more – they are called “metrics”. Which is a bit bizarre, when you think that metrics are about the study of metre in poetry. And in the mouths of modern managers, numbers no longer do anything as basic as go up and down: they go north and south as if they were points on a map.
Last week in a meeting I heard a finance manager say the following words: “We’re looking to see our metrics coming in north of the 3 mill mark.”
If he had done the maths before opening his mouth, he might have put it rather better and said: the number will be bigger than three million or X>3m.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011