It might sound like a service station from a Douglas Adams’ novel, but The Rhetoric-Reality Gap is an old chestnut of working life. I’ll spare their blushes, but I noticed that a module offered by one University’s School of Management has as its aim the intention to:

“develop students’ understanding of the rhetoric and reality of management practice in global firms”.

I read on for any mention that the two may differ or even diverge, but I read in vain. The existence of both entities is one of those things that usually just goes unspoken, I guess. Indeed, in some organisations the gap can be so large that the proverbial service station could easily be accommodated: the bigger issue would be how much of what it offered you would be prepared to swallow. But whenever the concept rears its (two-faced?) head, I always think there’s another ‘R’ missing: Ridicule. As Mel Brooks once said:

Rhetoric does not get you anywhere, because Hitler and Mussolini are just as good at rhetoric. But if you can bring these people down with comedy, they stand no chance.”

(Hitler himself once said that “The broad masses of a population are more amenable to the appeal of rhetoric than to any other force”, which simultaneously belies an unpleasant view of humanity and stakes a claim for one of this difficult figure’s undoubted talents.) There comes a time when too great a gap between rhetoric and reality puts a nasty rip in the speaker’s Emperor’s New Clothes. The resulting flash of Emperor’s Old Buttock understandably inspires the audience to either revulsion or, if the Emperor is more fortunate, satire and mirth. If you’re coming across as the last person in the room to have noticed how big The Gap has got, you certainly won’t be coming across as Inspiring Visionary. Indeed, people may be contemplating having a whip round to get you a white stick and a Labrador.

Barring the occasional evenings that we do our best to keep away from both Facebook and HR, reality will always be with us. Much as it’s tempting to escape it – and the potent intoxicants that anthropologists have discovered in almost all human societies and cultures suggest it’s very tempting – reality is always going to be there, lurking in the bank statement, the wrinkles, and the folds of the barmaid’s apron. As Tom Stoppard put it so beautifully in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead:

I can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and I can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and I can do you all three concurrent or consecutive, but I can’t do you love and rhetoric without the blood. Bloody is compulsory – they’re all blood you see.”

But as human beings, talking and speechifying are the warp and weft of our interaction, and most of us are suckers for a good yarn. It’s almost like fats or sugars in our diet: we know that we should make some effort to cut down on them even if we can’t avoid them, so the more suspicious amongst us are forever checking the sides of packets and tins for evidence of sinfulness. (We’re like Joni Mitchell’s “priest with a pronographic watch, looking and longing on the sly; Sure, it’s stricken from your uniform, but you can’t get it out of your eye.”)

It doesn’t take a lot of Googling to find examples of our suspicion: Chris Bryant commenting on government immigration policy, John McDermot commenting in an FT blog about a recent EU summit, or even the CIPD on corporate responsibility. Even where it’s yet to be proven, the suspicion lurks. In a Guardian Social Enterprise article about co-operatives, the risk of the concept of ‘stakeholders’ and the changing relationship between businesses and people, the wariness still lurks:

Corporate scandal gave rise to social accountability, which in turn saw us reinvented as ‘stakeholders’ – and our relationship reconstituted, theoretically at least, on to an altogether different footing – one in which we had a ‘stake’ in the success of a business, and one in which we were to be listened and responded to. Progress of sorts, even if the reality could at any moment unseat the rhetoric.”

As a species with a predilection for communication and for story-telling, rhetoric will always be with us. As we’re all too often eager or anxious to make a good impression, head off criticism or avoid condemnation, being a little economical with the actuality isn’t so surprising. Given that workplaces are hotbeds of eagerness and anxiety, is it such a shock that the phrase ‘talking a good talk’ is the stuff of buzzword bingo?

There’s a rather fine blog at Neil Morrison’s Change-Effect site, which makes a finely balanced argument that “Business is full of lies. FACT.” is not only an inevitable state of affairs, but also not as dreadful as that suggests – and that, furthermore, business is no worse an offender than any other social group. Birds do it, bees do it, people with immaculately tailored sleeves do it … It’s not that we do it, it’s the scale that we do it on that’s the issue. Think of every opportunity to be tempted to talk something up, embroider a situation, or find a way of showing the best profile of an awkward set of facts as a crossroads: one way lies trust, the other lies shame and ridicule. Get it wrong, and you can turn back if you spot the error soon enough, but it’s definitely possible to travel far enough to reach a point of no return.

A Rhetoric Reality Gap that’s small enough that we might occasionally snag a heel in it is one of those hazards of daily life: a sense of perspective and a metaphorical pinch of salt should be enough to keep us on our toes. A gap big enough for the elephant in the room to disappear down is another matter: by the time things have gone that far, the elephant’s not the only one in mortal danger.

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