So, why can't the Americans teach their CEOs how to speak?

by Rhetorix - September 17th, 2001

The following quote is from the September 14th, 2001 message to the employees of American Airlines from Donald J. Carty, Chairman, President and CEO of AMR Corporation:

. . . .The complexity of implementing these security procedures, and our inexperience at operating in this new environment, is affecting and will continue to affect how much of a normal schedule we can operate. But, I want you to understand that the 20 percent reduction in service that we announced yesterday is something we absolutely have to do in order to ensure the best possible security for our passengers and our crews, without jeopardizing one of the freedoms that our nation values so highly - the freedom of movement. President Bush has challenged America to recover from this horrible offense by getting back on the move, and we are a critical part of that objective.
The operational challenges that we face are truly monumental, and they are aggravated by the serious financial hurdles we now encounter with what many project will be a further drop-off in traffic. Our schedule pull-down will do much to help address that drop-off by reducing the capacity we have in the marketplace. But, all of this will simply worsen what is already turning into a year of staggering losses.

There is no way we can meet these challenges without the extraordinary efforts of everyone at American Airlines. And I'm asking you to do whatever you can to help us get through this very difficult time. And, I'm confident we can pull through this together. We can emerge a better and stronger team when this is all behind us."

Inspirational? No, not at all. It is jargon-laden, verbose, and it contains obfuscation of terrible tidings. In simpler terms, it is wordy, dense, and holds hidden bad news. In rhetorical terms, it is filled with homiologia, euphemismus, and pareuresis.

Homiologia is the proper term for a "tedious, redundant style." The paragraphs above were addressed to the employees, a group of people whose level of education ranges from post-graduate to some high school classes (perhaps not taught in English). Communication to a diverse group should be written so that all can understand it. Long words and long-windedness (this originally was a company conference call) will not be comprehended by people whose education or command of English have not exposed them to unfamiliar words. The time to expand employees' vocabulary is not while the CEO is conveying important information.

Mr. Carty could have said: "We face a lot of hard work and the shut-down this week and a drop in ticket sales will hurt us. Cutting flights from our schedules will help, but this was a bad year for AA and our losses will get worse". Instead, he spoke as though describing a case study to a class of disinterested MBA students. He should have written for a group of hourly workers worried about their country, their company, and their jobs.

Speaking of being worried that one will learn bad news brings me to the next rhetorical device. Euphemismus is the act of using an euphemism, the replacement of blunt words with soft ones, or the use of evasive talk to hide bad news.

What truly is a "twenty percent reduction in service"? Is it the deletion of twenty percent of the scheduled flights, allowing the flight crews, gate agents, baggage handlers, cabin cleaning crews, etc., to twiddle their thumbs for 96 minutes each work day? No, the phrase translates bluntly as "lay-offs". To cut service, companies cut people from their payrolls, usually the same people whom have been asked to "help us get through this very difficult time." Mr. Carty did not mention this, although Rhetorix is certain that everyone listening was able to fill the gaps in his message, especially after Continental Airlines announced both a 20% reduction in service and the furlough of approximately 12,000 people in the same press release.

A question: what reasons do Mr. Carty give for the reduction in service?

An answer: " ensure the best possible security for our passengers and our crews, without jeopardizing one of the freedoms that our nation values so highly - the freedom of movement."

What Mr. Carty has committed is pareuresis, the offering of an excuse or reason that is false or so overwhelming that it cannot be countered. If done correctly, the listener will fail to see the falseness of the argument or its obvious importance will squelch all dissent.

Never mind that you probably cannot name the constitutional amendment guarantees movement-how can one argue against such a freedom? How can anyone argue against the now-obvious need for increased security on airliners? One may wonder how canceling flights increases the freedom of movement or why American Airlines can provide better security on 80% of its flights but not 100% of them, but debating these concepts is futile, which is why this rhetorical device is so effective. Perhaps Mr. Carty hopes that these soon-to-be-unemployed workers will feel downright patriotic when they receive their pink slips.

(note: American Airlines is a customer of the company that employs Rhetorix.).

W.C. Green is from good Republican stock--her grandmother used to render them down for soup. Since she can't grow up to be Cato the Elder, she takes out her disappointment on modern orators.

©2002 The Tocquevillian Magazine