I have a new, favorite pet phrase to use around the home. I learned it by listening to some politicians and business leaders speak at press conferences. The phrase is this:
“Mistakes were made”.
I’ve been using it a lot lately. Jokingly, of course, because this passive phrase abdicates responsibility to a preposterous degree.
For example, I individually foil-wrapped a whole herd of Vidalia onions and put them in my freshly-cleaned oven to bake. However, I put the onions on the rack instead of on a pan, and the juices leaked and made a hideous mess.
When my mate Oud discovered the caked-on goo, I didn’t need to fess up.
“Mistakes were made,” I said.
The passive voice. Dismissive. Arrogant. Oud backed out of the kitchen, wordless.
But Oud knows me well enough to recognize the joke. He did not to ask follow-up questions. He knows I made the mess. He intuited how and when, and he knows that I’ll clean it up. Oud also saw the look of embarrassment and frustration on my face, and knew enough to back off and let me have some dignity while I cleaned the mess.
Sensible journalists, however, need to have a trained ear for the trivializing tone of the passive voice in the press conference. They need to immediately jump on the passive “mistakes were made” with an onslaught of follow-up questions:
“What exactly were the mistakes? Who made them? What are you doing to prevent future errors?” And so on….
However, many journalists are like my Oud: they feel like insiders, so they don’t ask the necessary follow-up questions. They intuit and assume, leaving their audience uninformed.
We all need to work harder to make our audiences – and not the presenters -- feel more like insiders. And insisting on a clear, active voice helps us all communicate more clearly.
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