“It’s so dark”—Communicating in the age of Covid-19

Communicating in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic is not making lemonade out of lemons. It’s more like making lemonade out of lemons that have been left in the back of someone’s pickup truck. In 90-degree heat. For three months.

If you’re not struggling with a loved one alone in the ICU, or the unexpected loss of your income, or four-year-old twins suddenly cut off from the outside world—then yes, you might be able to see a “bright side” in all of this.

But if you are struggling with any of those things—and Lord knows that’s only a partial list—then hearing some company yammer on about the bright side is not going to give you the warm fuzzies. It’s going to make you want to throw something. Preferably straight at the CEO’s head.

If that’s the tack you want to take, you’d be better off keeping quiet.

“It’s so dark”

person shining flashlight at the heavensI wrote a post-Covid-19 piece for one of my clients recently. They had a story to tell about some positives that might emerge from the rubble of the world as we know it. But my first paragraph acknowledged the damage that’s been done to people’s lives as well as to the business world.

The client returned the draft with a note: “This opening is so dark. Can’t we delete?”


You don’t have to tell people that the pandemic has happened—and please, please don’t talk about “these unprecedented times.” We know.

But you must acknowledge that people have endured a range of unpleasant things—from mild (disruption of their schedules) to catastrophic (deaths of family members and friends). If you want to speak to them, you must acknowledge that before you can say anything else.

To put it on a more human level: if your spouse’s sibling died suddenly, you wouldn’t come home from work and say, “So, what’s for dinner?” If a coworker’s child was hospitalized, you wouldn’t lead with, “When am I going to see that PowerPoint?”

Of course you wouldn’t (at least I hope you wouldn’t!)—because those would be in-person interactions. Your natural humanity kicks in when you have to look in someone’s eyes.

When you’re writing—whether it’s a company-wide email or a LinkedIn post or an op-ed in your local newspaper—it’s easy to forget that you’re not just writing for “readers.” You’re writing for people.

If times are dark, acknowledge that. And then flip on your verbal flashlight and show them the path out.

Barking mad — American life at the end of 2017

barking madI had some structural work done on my house last week—several men beneath my kitchen floor made scary noises for a day or two, while upstairs the dogs went barking mad.

They heard strange men’s voices, but they couldn’t figure out where those voices were coming from. They ran from the front to the back of the house, looking out the windows. Not a creature was stirring, not even a squirrel. But the noise—it was definitely real, definitely a threat. So: WOOF! WOOF! They ran in circles in the kitchen, barking at the air until a friend mercifully took them to her house.

I know how they feel.

Barking mad. Aren’t we all?

A threat you can’t put your finger on? A sense of real danger with little tangible public evidence? So many possible sources of danger you can’t keep track of them all? (And that’s probably a blessing, because if you could it would surely drive you crazy.)

Welcome to the United States of America in the first almost-full year of the current presidency.

California’s burning—but, hey, North Korea could nuke it tomorrow. Losing net neutrality could make it impossible for me to do business online—but, hey, the tax bill signed yesterday ensures that the entire economy will implode. Party at the protest or on the breadline—your choice.

Robert Mueller’s investigation continues to be one bright light at the end of the endless tunnel we’re slogging through. But he could get fired any day now. My guess is Christmas Eve for maximal Scrooge-factor and minimal news coverage. And then it’s goodbye turkey dinner and hello protest march. God bless us, every one.

Stock up on the comfortable shoes and warm outdoor clothing, folks. And don’t let them make you feel crazy. Stay barking mad.

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Meaningless words — politics today

I try to confine my political posts to Fridays, but due to user error, my Friday blog posted yesterday. I was just going to link to it again today but then I came across a Vox article about how the current political climate has become a collection of meaningless words.

“Republicans’ Obamacare repeal drive has revealed a political system where words have no meaning”

That’s a helluva headline. And the subhed isn’t any sunnier:

This is not normal, and it is not sustainable.

Writer Ezra Klein doesn’t pull any punches

“This has been a policymaking process built, from the beginning, atop lies. Lies about what the bills do and don’t do. Lies about what is wrong with Obamacare and lies about what the GOP’s legislation would do to fix it. Lies about what Republicans are trying to achieve and lies about which problems they seek to solve.”

Lying is immoral, of course. Think about that the next time these lawmakers piously try to restrict women’s access to abortion and defund programs designed to prevent teen pregnancy. But a bigger challenge than the havoc their policies are wreaking is the havoc created by their policy-making.

meaningless wordsAs Klein notes, the political system

“…is built around the idea that the signals sent by the central players are meaningful, even if the rhetoric is often slippery.”

Politicians may spin but we can generally count on them to do something approximating what they say they will do. Klein again:

“That is not the case here.”

McConnell’s meaningless words

Klein offers some choice selections from “Restoring the Senate,” a speech Mitch McConnell gave in 2014. It includes gems like:

“…if you approach legislation without regard for the views of the other side. Without some meaningful buy-in, you guarantee a food fight. You guarantee instability and strife.”

He also bemoaned the demise of the Senate’s “vigorous committee process,” and promised he would restore it, if given the chance:

“There’s a lot of empty talk around here about the corrosive influence of partisanship. Well, if you really want to do something about it, you should support a more robust committee process. That’s the best way to end the permanent shirts against skins contest the Senate’s become. Bills should go through committee. And if Republicans are fortunate enough to gain the majority next year, they would.”

If the Democrats got the opportunity to filibuster this healthcare bill, forged “in the Majority Leader’s conference room” (a practice McConnell decried just three years ago)—if we had the opportunity to filibuster, I think they should take the floor, one after the other, and read McConnell’s words into the record. Because the things he spoke out against are a blueprint for everything he is now doing.

Meaningless words, empty gestures

John McCain, former American hero, returned early from his taxpayer-funded brain surgery and spoke passionately on the floor of the Senate about returning to the “normal order” of things—the committee process, bipartisan cooperation—the kind of utopia McConnell laid out in his 2014 speech.

Opponents of the bill needed just one vote to stop McConnell’s Motion to Proceed. McCain’s vote. In an alternate reality, we might expect him to vote against the motion. Sadly, we’re living in the reality where words have no meaning. Of course he voted Aye.
UPDATE: Except to John McCain, whose 11th hour No vote struck the final blow. Had he signaled his intention to vote No earlier, his Republican colleagues might have had time to retrench and try again. “Wait for the show,” he told a Democratic colleague as they headed to the Senate floor.

Klein concludes:

“Skepticism is healthy in politics. But this era requires more than skepticism. This is a total collapse of the credibility of all the key policymakers in the American government. Our political system is built on the assumption that words have some meaning, that the statements policymakers make have some rough correlation to the actions they will take. But here, in the era of bullshit politics, they don’t. If this becomes the new normal in policymaking, it will be disastrous.”

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Masha Gessen & the Kakistocracy: Words to the wise

The other day, I wrote about my latest vocabulary word: Kakistocracy. It’s new to me, but over in mother Russia, Masha Gessen and her colleagues have been using the word for a long time.

Which makes her an invaluable guide to life in a kakistocracy for those of us who are used to truthful, competent leaders.

In “The Styrofoam Presidency,” her most recent article on the New York Review of Books website, she sums up the events of our new administration’s first few days. She also shows us how similar events played out in Putin’s Russia:

“Not only did the [Russian] government start lying, but did so in dull, simple, and unimaginative language. Putin’s government is filled with people who plagiarized their dissertations—as did Putin himself. The ministers are subliterate. The minister of culture, who has a doctorate in history, regularly exposes his ignorance of history; indeed, Trump might be tempted to plagiarize the minister’s dissertation, which begins with the assertion that the criterion of truth in history is determined solely by the national interests of Russia—if it’s good for the country, it must be true (much of the rest of the dissertation is itself plagiarized). Other ministers provide the differently minded Russian blogosphere with endless hours of fun because they use words the meaning of which they clearly don’t know, or ones that don’t exist—as when a newly chosen education minister invented a word that seemed to mean that she had been appointed to the cabinet by God. They also make ignorant, repressive, inhumane policy. But their daily subversion of integrity and principle is indeed aesthetic in nature. And it serves a purpose: by degrading language and discrediting the spectacle of politics the Russian government is destroying the public sphere.” (emphasis added)

Degrading the language, discrediting politics, destroying the public sphere. Nice alliteration there, Masha. And I ask—not for the first time and, sadly, not for the last—if we degrade our very language, how can we communicate the truth? How can we connect with our fellow citizens? How can we fix what’s broken?

Dream Team: Masha Gessen & Samantha Bee

I suspect Masha Gessen would agree that these are fine questions. But I also suspect she’d say they’re beside the point.

Masha Gessen was interviewed on Full FrontalSamantha Bee interviewed Gessen on her excellent political comedy show, Full Frontal, last week. A writer I love and a satirist I love–what better to give me the lift I needed the night before the inauguration? So I watched it. Just before bed. (Big mistake.)

Nope, Gessen isn’t really worried about saving our language from degradation. She said—more than once:

“my biggest worry is nuclear holocaust.”

I know what you’re thinking: Comedy gold there, right?

So read the article—read everything she writes—and watch the interview. But clear some time in your schedule to lie down with a hot compress afterward.

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Kakistocracy: My newest vocabulary word will get quite a workout

I learned a new word this week, courtesy of the invaluable Russian-born writer Masha Gessen:


Middle East scholar Amro Ali defined it:

Kakistocracy is the government of a state by its most stupid, ignorant, least qualified and unprincipled citizens in power.”
He wrote that shortly after our last election. But surely that was a coincidence.

Looking into the word further, I found two surprises:

  1. It’s been around for a long time. Longer, even, than the president’s comb-over.
  2. It’s derived from two Greek words

I’ll take that second point first: We shouldn’t be surprised to trace words to Ancient Greek words combine to give us "kakistocracy"the original Greek. Especially not words ending in -ocracy. The Greeks invented democracy, after all—government by the demos, the common people.

Clearly—as the tobacco company used to say—we’ve come a long way, baby, from that ideal.

Anyway, “ocracy” yes, but I was surprised to find that the “kak” part of the word also came from the Greek. Once I found out what the word meant, I assumed it derived from kaka, the Hebrew word for shit. (Or caca, which Dictionary.com says also has ancient excrement-related origins, including the ancient Greek kakke.)

But no, it’s from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst.”

A brief history of “kakistocracy”

American Exceptionalism being what it is, many of my fellow citizens  assume that surely ours must be the worst kakistocracy the world has ever seen. (“We’re #1!”)

I don’t know if we can judge that fairly yet, not while events are still unfolding. But I do know that our new kakistocrats have joined a club with a long history. Because the term dates all the way back to 1829 and a British novelist named Thomas Love Peacock.

The word traveled across the pond to America about nine years later, when a U.S. Senator named William Harper used it in a book about slavery.

“Anarchy is not so much the absence of government as the government of the worst—not aristocracy but kakistocracy—a state of things, which to the honor of our nature, has seldom obtained amongst men, and which perhaps was only fully exemplified during the worst times of the French revolution, when that horrid hell burnt with its most horrid flame.”

Harper believed the “honor of our nature” would prevent kakistocrats from taking the reins of government. A noble thought…but then we went and invented Twitter. Note that Harper positioned kakistocrats as the opposite of aristocrats. This would probably offend our Kakistocrat-in-Chief. Then again, Harper advocated for slavery, so they might find some common ground.

Modern kakistocracy

The first mention of a kakistocracy that we might recognize today came from the poet James Russell Lowell in 1876:

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone. Is it or is it not a result of Democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people,’ or a Kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

After Lowell, the word went into hibernation for over a century, until liberal commentators trotted it out to describe the government of Conservative saint Ronald Reagan. But it’s a bipartisan insult. Apparently Glenn Beck used it to describe the Obama Administration.

If the Obama Administration was a kakistocracy, then call me a kakistocrat. To be continued on Monday (it’s too depressing for a Sunday blog).

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Of crises and corporate culture

I opened up my Facebook feed earlier this week and found this story, written by a JetBlue flight attendant named Kelly Davis Karas. I don’t know Kelly, but her story has been shared widely at this point and even made it to CNN. But I’m going with the Facebook post here, because it’s everything a personal story should be: detailed, emotional, resonant.

I hadn’t intended to make this post about comparative literature, but if you compare Kelly’s Facebook post with the CNN article, you’ll see a perfect example of authenticity vs. objectivity. If I were writing this up for JetBlue—either for an in-house communication or for an executive speech—I’d be quoting Kelly, not CNN.

Kelly Davis Karas
June 14 at 3:23pm · Kennebunk, ME ·

Below is a picture of Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo. Omar, as his friends and family called him, was a Latino man gunned down at an LGBTQ bar in Orlando last weekend. He was 20-years-old.

Today my dear friend Melinda and I had the sad privilege of attending to his grandmother on our flight as she made her journey to Orlando to join her family during this unspeakable time.

Knowing she was making this hard journey alone, JetBlue employees made sure to be at her side every step of the way. Melinda stood quietly by her wheelchair while we waited until it was time to board. Kellie, the gate agent, boarded with her and helped get her settled. Melinda and I gave her a blanket, a pillow, a box of tissues and water so she could be as comfortable as possible. She was understandably distraught, but met us with kindness and gentleness. And gratitude.

But here’s where our flight got truly inspiring. I had the idea to pass around a piece of paper to everyone on board and invite them to sign it for this grieving grandmother. I talked it over with Melinda and she started the process from the back of the plane. As we took beverage orders, we whispered a heads up about the plan as we went.

Halfway through, Melinda called me, “Kel, I think you should start another paper from the front. Folks are writing PARAGRAPHS.” So I did. Then we started one in the middle. Lastly, running out of time on our hour and fifteen minute flight, we handed out pieces of paper to everyone still waiting.

When we gathered them together to present them to her, we didn’t have just a sheet of paper covered in names, which is what I had envisioned. Instead, we had page after page after page after page of long messages offering condolences, peace, love and support. There were even a couple of cash donations, and more than a few tears.

When we landed, I made an announcement that the company had emailed to us earlier in the morning to use as an optional addition to our normal landing announcement, which states “JetBlue stands with Orlando.” Then with her permission and at the request of a couple of passengers, we offered a moment of silence in Omar’s memory.

As we deplaned, EVERY SINGLE PERSON STOPPED TO OFFER HER THEIR CONDOLENCES. Some just said they were sorry, some touched her hand, some hugged her, some cried with her. But every single person stopped to speak to her, and not a single person was impatient at the slower deplaning process.

I am moved to tears yet again as I struggle to put our experience into words. In spite of a few hateful, broken human beings in this world who can all too easily legally get their hands on mass assault weapons – people ARE kind. People DO care. And through our customers’ humanity today, and through the generosity of this wonderful company I am so grateful to work for, I am hopeful that someday soon we can rally together to make the world a safer place for all.

I will never forget today. ‪#‎Orlandoproud‬

I had intended to write here about empowering employees to embody the corporate culture in their interactions with clients and coworkers. But I think I’ll just leave you to contemplate the power of words. Excuse me while I hunt down another box of Kleenex.

Talking About “It”

I don’t talk about “It” – the corporate earthquake I wrote about yesterday. In fact, yesterday’s post is the most I’ve ever said about the experience. But I was prompted to write about it by two things – first, the mess Eliott Spitzer has created, and second, a luncheon I attended yesterday.

It was at the New York Speechwriters’ Roundtable, a group of mostly corporate scribes who gather three or four times a year to share a brown-bag lunch and listen to a speaker. Speaking to a group of speechwriters must be a daunting proposition, but the gentleman we heard from yesterday seemed personable enough. What bothered me, though, was his topic.

He has written a book. Good for him. But it’s a book about his former employer, the man for whom he wrote speeches for 20 years. Which, in my opinion, is not so good. Now, I understand why he did it – his old boss’ name on the cover will sell books, no doubt about it. But I can’t help thinking that it’s a betrayal of trust.

The author asked us that question: As speechwriters, did we think he’d broken “the seal of the confessional” (he’s an Irish Catholic – can you tell?). I was pretty surprised to hear the two or three people who responded to the question say, basically, that his boss, being a public figure, was fair game. I didn’t say anything because I haven’t read the book – and I doubt I will – but judging from the kinds of stories the author said he put in the book, I think I would have made a different decision.

In fact, I have.

I, too, have a former boss (maybe more than one) whose name on the cover would sell any book I wrote. I could have written about the “earthquake,” but instead I don’t even speak about it. (You’ll notice that yesterday’s post deals only with my experience, not anyone else’s.) One of my old bosses (not the one who caused the earthquake) once introduced me to a woman who said, “I’d love to talk to you about [the earthquake]” and I immediately said, “Oh, no. I don’t talk about that. Because I don’t know how much of what I know is privileged information and what (if anything) has made it into the public record.” And with that (and – actually it’s funny to remember this detail now – after I made some comment about Eliott Spitzer), the woman went away. Months later, I found out she was writing an authorized book. So not only will I not write about “It,” I also lost my opportunity to be a footnote in the definitive history of “It.” Which is just fine with me.

Hire me, and I figure that whatever I witness from the time I walk into the lobby doors in the morning until I crawl back through them at night, that’s your business – and nobody else’s. That may be an old-fashioned attitude. And it may keep me off the best-seller lists. But I sleep like a baby at night.

The Governor’s Staff

There’s a lot to be sad about in this Spitzer mess. (Including the fact that the perfectly straightforward headline above can be taken as a naughty double entendre.) Everyone focuses on the collateral damage to the innocent victims in his family, especially his lovely wife and children. But I can’t help feeling sorry for his staff, the people whose work enabled him to become – and (so far) stay – governor.

It’s about as disorienting an experience as one can have at the office. One day everything is normal and all you have to worry about is the usual headaches of work. You know your boss isn’t perfect – far from it – but he does his job and you enjoy doing yours to support his work. Then “It” happens – whatever nasty revelation “It” is – and it’s like you’re at the epicenter of an earthquake. All of a sudden, you’re dodging chunks of acoustical tiles as the ceiling caves in; every time you try to grab hold of something solid, the ground seems to shift right under you. After the shock passes, you’re left – if you’re lucky – to clean up the mess. If you’re not so lucky, you salvage what you can from your desk and beat a path to the nearest unemployment office. And although your world has crumbled, once you step out the office door you’re shocked to see that as far as the rest of humanity is concerned, the sun is shining, the grass is green, and there’s not a cloud in the sky.

At least in an earthquake caused by geological faults, the survivors get help. People flock to donate money, food, shelter; the Red Cross flies in with blankets and emergency supplies; strangers halfway across the country pray for you. But when the earthquake is caused by human faults – hey kid, you’re on your own.

If it sounds like I might know what I’m talking about, it’s only because I do. My boss was undone by the same thing that tripped up Governor Spitzer: Hubris. I don’t know if it was a learning experience for him, but it certainly was for me. Living through that mess made me a better person, I think (if a less trusting one), and a better writer. It also gave me a new appreciation for the people I’d worked alongside all those years, as I saw them toughen up under fire. But I wouldn’t wish such a growth experience on anyone

It’s been nearly 20 years and just thinking about that period in my life makes me very sad. A few years ago, I unexpectedly came across some news footage of the event and burst into tears. Can you get Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from working in an office? Ask the Governor’s staff in five or ten years.