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Why Do “Verbal Potshots” in Business Make the Front Page?
On Friday, September 30, 2011, the Wall Street Journal’s interesting “Marketplace” section featured a 1/3 page spread entitled “War of Words” airing the dirty laundry between Oracle (the giant IT company) head Larry Ellison, Hewlett-Pakard, and a company H-P bought, Autonomy. The particulars of the argument over a deal are not relevant to this discussion, although if you’re interested, they can be found online at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405297020413820457660102067151279....
What is relevant is some of the language the men involved in the dispute used. Aside from the “war of words” title and the comment of “verbal potshots,” the WJS characterized the language as: having “reached a new level”; “hostile rhetoric”; and “choice language.” The WJS said “Oracle has been taking shots at H-P.”
Now for the kill. Now I’m going to really excite you. What exactly was this hostile language that was sizzly enough to make the front page of a major section in this paper? Were foul words used? – No. What exactly was it that made the Wall St. Journal believe verbal abuse was going on? Well, Oracle suggested that his rival at Autonomy “has a very poor memory or he’s lying.” The opponent at Autonomy, responded to Oracle’s description of events as, “Interesting, but not true.”
What? You’re not excited? This isn’t getting you gasping for breath? Why in Heaven not?
Oh. Because it’s no big deal – is that it?
Then THAT’S the problem. I mean that’s YOUR problem. You see, it really is a big deal. This is not the way people should be talking to each other, whether in business or at home. If you are underwhelmed by what all the fuss is that means you have developed too thick a skin. And that’s no good.
Okay, I’ll grant you that there are places where a thick skin is useful: Working in the military or in the police. And yes, in corporate America, unfortunately. In the military or police, it may be a matter of life and death to not be overly bothered by what is bad. Oh, another case: maybe working in the coroner’s office. Yes, I can see where a thick skin there would definitely be useful.
But here’s the thing. If you are too emotionally calloused, you lose the nuances.
Let me explain. Once upon a time, I took guitar lessons. No one laugh. Well you don’t know me. Suffice it to say I am a much better therapist than a musician. But here’s the thing. You have to develop callouses on the tips of your fingers. Now, one day I was shopping for some clothes with a friend. “Ooo,” she said, “feel this silk.” And I couldn’t. My fingers were calloused just enough for my guitar lessons (which were pitiful anyway) but way too much to be able to feel the texture of anything. At least not at the tips.
So if you have a calloused soul, it’s the exact same thing. It’s very protective. It builds a strong barrier to being hurt, but that barrier prevents any other emotion from being touched either.
The writers of the WSJ know this. They play with language all day long. They’ve developed an acute sense of what language does; they can “feel” the difference between silk and sandpaper. They know that when one company head accuses another of lying, it’s a very serious thing. They don’t take such words lightly.
Give some thought to what your goals in life are. Regarding emotions, do you want to “feel” all of them, or not? Don’t opt for callousness and miss out on the rest of life.