Business Gravitas and Language
Tech columnist Rob Walker questions whether anyone still has gravitas in the Internet Era.
gravitas (noun): high seriousness, as in a person’s bearing or the treatment of a subject; seriousness of conduct, bearing, speech, temperament, etc.
According to Walker, “if you want to be taken seriously in our post-gravitas culture, you must demonstrate that you do not take yourself too seriously.”
Walker makes his case for the disdain of gravitas in the entertainment media (and that includes much of what is called “news coverage”), but the pride in ignorance and love of vulgarity that dominates the popular media does not seem to apply in corporate America.
The Web teems with consultants and business coaches who list gravitas as a characteristic of “executive presence,” an elusive quality that leads to promotion and is required in positions of leadership.
According to an article at Forbes, the gravitas associated with executive presence comprises “confidence, poise under pressure and decisiveness.” Closely associated with this quality are speaking and writing skills.
Executives who possess gravitas:
- do not sprinkle their speech with vulgarities.
- do not mumble, but enunciate their words and pronounce them conventionally.
- do not let their voices rise at the end of sentences that are not questions.
On the other hand, they do:
- avoid nonstandard usage that would make them sound uneducated.
- speak in a pleasant rhythm and modulate their voices to avoid shrillness or nasality.
- express themselves coherently and grammatically, even in email.
Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, and founder of Dozuki, believes that carelessness with language is symptomatic of carelessness in other areas:
Grammar signifies more than just a person’s ability to remember high school English. I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts.
His policy of refusing to hire anyone who cannot pass a grammar test has stirred heated controversy. His critics feel that mastery of one’s native language should apply only to employees involved directly with written communication.
For example, contrary to Wiens, writer John McWhorter would require the ability to tell the difference between “your” and “you’re” only of those whose jobs require “taking dictation, writing technical directions and blog entries, teaching school, etc.” McWhorter even suggests that people who don’t demonstrate mastery of standard usage are not necessarily lazy, but are “more likely” victims of ineffective public education.
Whatever the cause, a large segment of the American workforce lacks basic writing skills. A survey of 120 American corporations conducted by the National Commission on Writing, a panel established by the College Board, concluded that a third of employees in these companies wrote poorly enough to require in-house remediation costing as much as $3.1 billion annually.
The tragedy of all this waste is that CEOs are not looking for people who can write like prize-winning novelists. All they want are people who can speak and write clearly enough to get their point across in a standard form of basic English skills that can be mastered by eighth-graders.
TV shows and car ads may get laughs by poking fun at gravitas, but speakers who want to get ahead in the business world will master a form of standard English and know when to use it.
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