"Impact" as a verb and the decline of western civilization

Journal of Business Strategy

ISSN: 0275-6668

Publication date: 1 October 2004


Marren, P. (2004), ""Impact" as a verb and the decline of western civilization", Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 25 No. 5. https://doi.org/10.1108/jbs.2004.28825eaf.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

"Impact" as a verb and the decline of western civilization

Patrick Marren strategic consultant with the Futures Strategy Group. Clients he has worked for have included the US Coast Guard, NASA, the FAA, the Panama Canal Commission, various aspects of the US military, and numerous Fortune 500 companies. He lives in Crystal Lake, IL (marrenp@aol.com).

The author ponders that what is contemptible about the use of "impact" as a verb is the view of the world that is instantly implied by its use. That world view is devoid of nuance. It sees business as an environment composed of indistinguishable gobs of hard, insensate matter floating around in space, smashing into and crushing one another.

I must admit that I have long been a crank when it comes to jargon. I object strenuously to words and usage that cause normal people to yawn and scratch. I am enraged by the commonest verbal formulations. Neologisms can give me a migraine. A verb used as a noun, or vice-versa, can ruin my whole week.

I tried to get help for this, but it was no use. Before half the hour was up, I was correcting the therapist's Latin when he tried to diagnose this ailment. He shortened his diagnosis after that, to about four letters, and we agreed to suspend hostilities.

At any rate, I have reached an age where one's personality is almost entirely composed of various tics, syndromes, rank prejudices, and microscopic brain faults. Barring a car crash or a sky-diving accident, in a few years this presently jarring and off-putting compendium of afflictions will start to be enfeebled along with the rest of me, and will mellow into what many people mistakenly call "character."

I hope I can be forgiven if I jump the gun by a few years and allow myself a codger's rant against this, my ultimate pet peeve: the misuse and abuse of the English language by business, and consulting in particular. As well as a bit of theorizing as to just why businesspeople seem addicted these days to unimaginative and jargon-ridden modes of speech.

"Impact space"

Many are the weasel words and phrases in business. But one must win the prize, and I nominate the use of "impact as a verb."

What does "impact" mean outside the business context? It means to collide with something, and to crush it.

An "impacted" molar has been crushed into its adjacent jawbone by a heavy blow. A meteor "impacts" upon a planet, smashing and compacting both itself and its target. So "impact" is used in real life to denote collision and smashing and crushing.

Its use in such phrases as "this impacts the bottom line" is not illegitimate because it is grammatically incorrect. Language must evolve, and people have a right to adapt usage in order to describe new phenomena.

What is contemptible about the use of "impact" as a verb is the view of the world that is instantly implied by its use. That world view is devoid of nuance. It sees business as an environment composed of indistinguishable gobs of hard, insensate matter floating around in space, smashing into and crushing one another.

Such an environment never undergoes qualitative change. Things simply collide and crudely imprint themselves on one another. Collisions between these objects crush them, but do not fundamentally alter their natures.

Why do otherwise intelligent persons employ this phraseology?

First, because they see the world as a constellation of colliding rocks, speakers can happily describe the collisions, their locations, and their magnitudes. Dangerous qualitative judgments are out of bounds; not even positive or negative signs need be attached to the magnitudes in question. It is ordinarily enough to note that something has been "impacted," and leave it at that.

The world of "impacts" is as completely drained of affect as can be managed. If the manager sees his company and his industry as clumps of impactable but essentially unalterable and indistinguishable stuff, he need not fear any fundamental change in his environment. Things (including, from time to time, himself) get smashed into and crushed, but they do not ever evolve, alter their character, or mutate.

I do not use the male pronoun by accident. The world of "impact space" is a quintessentially male preserve. It is a cave man world (with apologies to Cro-Magnon man; his understanding of the universe was infinitely more subtle). It dispenses with description, emotion, uncertainty, and all other forms of unmanliness. In fact, the frequent use of this phraseology by female executives testifies to its dominance: this is the code one must speak if one is to be accepted into the cave.

But best of all, discussion in terms of "impact space" communicates as little as possible. Many analysts have examined the patterns of communication within organizations; most of these analysts have proceeded on the assumption that communication is something desirable that businesspeople want to do as well as possible.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Communication of opinion is very hazardous to the career health of mid-level executives. Only those who have grasped the brass ring can afford the luxury of opinions, because only they can be reasonably confident of surviving a serious disagreement.

What passes for communication in many business meetings is a tentative sounding out of senior management's views, followed by a no-holds-barred, frank, open, and honest discussion of how reality can be best adjusted to fit those views.

So "impact space" is a zone of safety for the mid-level executive. It allows numerous broad avenues of escape for the querulous. It is the theoretically determined lowest common denominator in business speak. It is a dank, cheerless but serviceable area.

Its only drawback is that the real world is not in fact composed of hurtling clumps of undifferentiated matter; it is composed of many things that badly need describing, that are undergoing constant evolution, that are uncertain, fluid, and threatening. In such a world, businesses that insist on inducing a pre-Neanderthal mental state in their employees run the risk of being "impacted" like a bad molar.

But "impact" as a verb is not the only business usage that betrays this simplistic mentality, nor nearly the latest or most fashionable. One of my current favorites, or whatever is the opposite of favorites, is the whole family of words that has grown up around the word "bucket."

A "bucket" is the impact spaceman's word for a "category" or a "classification." Like "impacting," putting (or better yet, "throwing") things in "buckets" is a manly, harsh, reductionist activity. Sometimes it is further masculinized into "bucketizing."

"Bucketizing" – the word conjures imagery of devil-may-care, tough-minded consultants or managers flipping some of those undifferentiated rocks into crude wooden receptacles, where they "impact" with a dull, manly thud. They toss their gross working materials into whatever "bucket" seems most apt, without undue reflection or thought.

Now, I boxed and was a bouncer as a youth. And although I wasn't much good at either of these activities, I still consider myself to be as testosterone-poisoned as the next guy. But this penchant for using the word "bucket," when there are any number of good English words that do a better job of describing the thing in question – categorization, sorting, differentiation, grouping, classification, typing – strikes me as completely absurd.

It once again betrays the extreme terror many business people – especially male businesspeople – experience when faced with anything smacking of intellectual activity. They can't "classify" or "sort" or "group" things – why, that sounds just like housework! And if they have to engage in these sissy activities, they will make them sound just as ugly and soulless as they possibly can.

"Granularity" – this is another great impact-spaceman concept. "Granularity" is a quality of scale, or grossness, or obviousness, or clumpiness, of any phenomenon or problem or activity, that, if present in the correct quantity, will allow the impact spaceman to grapple with it, and wrestle it to the ground, and ultimately to subdue or kill it.

Of course, your English teacher might have chosen a word like "tractable," or "manageable," or "handy," but that would not do in the world of consulting, where Armani-clad people who would not think of drinking a non-value-added latté must speak in terminology that would more accurately describe activities surrounding a slag-heap.

Metaphors lost

Of course, there are two other even more obvious sources of potentially misleading manly metaphor in business. These are warfare and sports.

The application of war metaphors to business is so deeply ingrained in us that it is almost invisible. I think it is fair to say that it would be quite difficult to carry on a conversation about business without the use of warlike imagery.

We speak of "mission" all the time, and we almost never stop to think that we are essentially equating the sale of tampons or beer or auto parts to the systematic destruction of hostile nations, or, at the very least, to the forced religious conversion of aboriginal peoples. And the word "strategy," as I have mentioned before, comes from the Greek for "army-leading."

The most plausible immediate explanation for this warmongering mental model for business is that the military has been the most popular training ground for business managers and leaders over the past 50 years, dwarfing the major business schools.

As a result, history may record the second half of the 20th century as a period when it was almost impossible to achieve consistent success in a business career without humoring management's hopefully unconscious pretense that the secret end of all their endeavors was to kill somebody, somewhere. (Of course, I grew up in Chicago, where in certain business sectors this was not a pretense at all. But I digress.)

The striking overlap of sports metaphors with military ones renders them a sort of subset of the military analogy to business. But as the political correctness of organized violence has experienced an unfortunate downturn, and the number of people who have actually experienced combat has plummeted, sports metaphors have done yeoman work in taking up the slack for managers and consultants who seem desperate to find a way to pretend that they are doing something, anything, other than writing software code or selling plastics.

And here we come to the nub of the matter. It is apparently quite difficult for managers to think of business in its own terms, and not in terms of some non-business activity. But the recent influx of women and other persons who have neither stormed a beach under a hail of machine-gun fire, nor scored the winning touchdown for their college, has rendered war and sports less useful as descriptive metaphors for business.

Sensitivity training and increased diversity have rendered age-old patriarchal symbols and systems of metaphor, if not obsolete, at the very least difficult to maintain in the modern workplace. This is undoubtedly a good thing in many ways, for business was never war, nor was it ever really sport. Killing or soundly defeating one's "opponents" may not be the optimal goal in a business ecosystem where "co-opetition," the subtle co-existence in which each player is able to find a unique niche and all may prosper, is the rule. War and sports, whatever their other merits, are almost always zero-sum activities; one participant's victory must always be another's loss.

But banishing the military mindset has been a difficult process. And I think the reason for this is that we have yet to come up with a powerful alternative to it, one that can organize activity and create the sort of organizational cohesion that the military model once was able to provide.

This in turn is because the military model has been around for thousands of years, millennia over which a distinct, resonant and readily understandable warrior culture has emerged. Sport has in turn developed a distinct culture over the past century or so. And the culture of sport has in fact largely replaced that of the warrior in advanced societies, as warfare has become more and more dominated by a more soulless, less inspiring mechanization. Yet, as I have said, neither war nor sport suffices anymore as a way of thinking about commerce.

So business today is suffering a secret, subterranean crisis: the lack of an accepted guiding metaphor.

Remnants of the patriarchal war and business metaphors live on, of course. They no longer are allowed to rule, but in the absence of an alternative symbolic system, they have their redoubts, their caves in which they still lurk. Stripped of the elegant and complex symbolism of war, and the romance of sport, they have been reduced to cruder and less imaginative forms, much as the coherence and beauty of the medieval system has been replaced by the strip mall and "reality TV."

Thus are we left with "impact space"?

O tempora, o mores.