Business Gravitas and Language

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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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10 thoughts on “Business Gravitas and Language”

  1. Gravitas also implies a depth of knowledge about one’s field or area of expertise. It is difficult to comport oneself with dignity and a sense of importance when a sense of authority based on knowledge is lacking.

  2. I applaud Kyle Wiens. May his grammar-test policy spread. Perhaps students would take more seriously the need to pay attention when grammar is taught.
    I think that teachers should be expected to speak and write grammatically, too. A few years ago, I was a data collector for a study of the effectiveness of a new curriculum for preschools. Some of the teachers I observed had atrocious grammar.

  3. I somewhat agree, but most of all what gravitas uniquely implies to me is seriousness of character. More than expertise or avoiding vulgarities, gravitas is the opposite of goofiness, and having it is the reverse of being a chucklehead. I use the terms purposefully because gravitas by its nature deserves a term like gravitas. Goof and chucklehead likewise. Silly names for silly things. It doesn’t imply taking oneself overly seriously, or lacking a sense of humor. Those qualities detract from gravitas. Dignity is a similar-nym. It is an excellent word and one that needs to be guarded because it does express so well a concept that is very hard to convey generally. E.g., many people fail in leadership roles not because they are inept, ignorant, or inexperienced but because they lack this quality specifically.

    Wiens is exactly right. Laziness crosses all behavioral boundaries. Someone who speaks lazily will do other things poorly, too. If you don’t care that you say nucular, or that you say marine corpse, others cannot be confident you aren’t slipshod in all your endeavors. People like McWhorter who glorify such ignorance and slovenliness should never, ever be placed in a positions of authority. Not appreciating gravitas is one of the most un-gravitas-ish things of all.

  4. Oh, thank you, Kyle Weins! A man after my own heart. Blaming public education is a cop-out, like all blame. It’s a way to shift responsibility. If your grammar is lacking, fix it! Don’t expect the business world to “dumb down” to your level.

    And my favorite, or least favorite, depending on your POV. “Do not let let their voices rise at the end of sentences that are not questions.” Where did this habit come from? I thought it was “Valley Girl-speak,” but it’s everywhere. The minute I hear this horrible, unpleasant to the ear trait, I’m done. I can’t pay attention because I’m cringing, waiting for the next one. It’s nails on a blackboard and destroys the credibility of the speaker, no matter how intelligent, educated, learned, etc. Whether it’s ignorance, poor education or laziness makes no difference to me. It’s not acceptable. And it’s so nice to see that someone feels the same way!

    Oh, yeah! Nuc-u-lar! There’s another pet peeve (I have quite a few, unfortunately). Even Jimmy Carter, a U.S. President, said it! Real-a-tor, ath-uh-lete…it’s a long list. And poor spelling? Don’t get me started.

    This post is a breath of fresh air. Thank you.

  5. Don’t blame bad grammar (and the logical holes that come with it) all on schools. It used to be that children learned to speak and write well from:
    1. Their parents, who weren’t so busy being “buddies” to their children that they couldn’t be parents and teachers, too.
    2. Attendance in churches, synagogues, Buddhist temples, and so forth. Thus, they don’t learn language from the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., and distinguished rabbis anymore.
    3. Distinguished speakers on TV and the radio: Murrow, Huntley, Brinkley, Cronkite, Jennings, Brokaw, Frank McGee, Jim McKay, Carl Sagan, Bishop Sheen, Eric Severeid, Alastair Cooke, etc.

    Of course, so many children are not interested in the news anymore, and so many of their parents weren’t either, so that explains it. Also, the command of the language has really faded in the broadcast media. It makes me wonder WHAT DO they study in schools of broadcast journalism in colleges.

  6. Then why do English majors get passed over for being “overeducated” when they have transferrable skills, valuable transferrable skills: copyediting, writing, research, analysis/critical thinking etc.?
    And as per glorifying ignorance . . . I know a lot of educated people (people who have at least one degree) who are as anti-intellectual as they come and look down on people who like to learn, pursue intellectual pursuits etc.

  7. We shouldn’t blame the wrong things for wrongness lest the right ones not be fixed. People in general didn’t speak any better in the past than they do now. Listen to some archival tapes of normal, everyday working people from the early and mid 20th century. Their English is atrocious. As bad as bad is today. The difference is narcissism. Uneducated folks who couldn’t speak well back then didn’t expect to nonetheless be advanced to the high ranks of the professional world as if their illiteracy was inconsequential to anyone but insufferable snobs. Now they do, thanks to cultural thugs like McWhorter. So now even supposedly educated professional people can’t get their theres/theirs/they’res straight, say nuclear, use an adverb (aka those –ly words—“talk loud and drive slow down the street”), or a even a noun— “his cell phone is broke”. An unmistakable marker was in 1982 when NBC hired someone with a speech impediment to be its national news anchor. Today on the news, I heard a White House staffwriter being interviewed on national television who actually, no hyperbole, began a sentence with, “Dude…” Progress in slouching toward something-or-other. But it’s not just the schools. It’s the overall tolerance of mediocrity.

    Oh, yeah: These folks will be the first to point out that English is descriptive, not prescriptive. Somewhere they manage to pick up that little gem of standards-excusing propaganda.

  8. I think McWhorter was misrepresented. After all, he’s the first one who called out ebonics as BS.
    Voice rise at the end of sentences that are not questions – very Australian right now.
    Nucular – That was GWB, not Carter. He said nu-cle-ah!
    Realtor- a made-up word for marketing purposes. So what if it’s mispronounced. They should have come up with an easier gimmick.
    Ath-uh-lete – specific American “dialect,” like kee-uds [kids]
    1982 NBC new anchor with speech impediment (who also is so in love with the sound of his own voice) was just part of a trend behind a female news anchor with a speech impediment who, thankfully, will be retiring soon.
    In summary, I agree that the spoken language in the media has become atrocious.

  9. @Roberta B.: I don’t really know anything about McWhorter. I’m completely judging him by that one simian pronouncement. And it’s closer to lemur than simian. Carter and W both mispronounced nuclear in the same way. At the time (late 70s) other officials were somewhat embarrassed by Carter (they would say so in private), with W (00s) no one in govt even seemed to notice. That’s probably a decent indicant of the declining standards—mistakes aren’t even recognized or cared about anymore.

    Yes, Realtor is made up, but anyone who can read should be able to see that there is nothing between the L and the T. It’s really the same mistake as nucular—metathesis. You wouldn’t excuse it in a proper name, made up or not.

    I was thinking of Tom Bwocaw, not Babwa. She wasn’t an anchor so less “gravitas” was expected, but you’re right she is another good example of bad stuff.

    Ath-a-lete is dialectical (southern, is what you seem to imply). I hear it pan-regionally from the same people who say korter back, unpire, funamentals, basebw, and basketbaw. Maybe Jockian is a dialect.

  10. @venqax Obviously, you’re younger than some of us. Babwa was the first female news anchor (co-anchor) at a major network (ABC) in the 70s. In addition to The Today Show, that was her claim to fame. I already recognized the dude you were referring to and agreed with you.

    For the words with the extra syllables or missing letters, I was not implying southern. Pan-regional (or creole, as the next article defines) would be more appropriate.

    As far a proper names, I can think of dozen of proper names that aren’t pronounced the way they’re written, but you’re right. The one who made it up gets to decide how it’s pronounced!

    Lastly, I wouldn’t use the word “simian” or even “lemur” to refer to McWhorter. He’s a very interesting linguist in the current culture with some thought-provoking ideas….but you may not agree.

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