Authenticity and the corporate voice
I was on a train recently – a now familiar weekend experience – and I was left in a state of mild glee by a ticket inspector who relayed her initial announcements in a motherly, slightly patronising tone, dotted with casual and not unamusing asides. I had a similar shock of joy recently on the tube, when the voice crackling over the tannoy (is it still called that? probably not) became increasingly amusingly caustic whilst relaying non-information about an unexplained delay.
The corporate voice
Easyjet – another company I have had regular experience of recently (to the detriment of my ability to articulate what I think regarding the climate) I have found notable for the hurried I-am-intoning-this-because-I-have-to character of their mandatory scripted announcements – the ones about buying things from the inflight magazine and hiring cars when you arrive. I am not listening to the flight attendant, and she certainly isn’t – she is not inhabiting her words. I am presumably listening to a disembodied somebody in easyjet’s advertising-revenue department. Maybe that faceless he/she tried hard to invest the words with an inherent enthusiasm and life. If so, they failed. I am being efficiently imparted with emotionless information.
Most employees take it a step further than this quite naturally. When the script is not actually scripted – ‘greet and smile when the customer arrives’ – it is easier to let the script inhabit a part of you, and quite hard to divorce the script entirely from yourself (though some manage).
Many companies also take it a step further and prescribe a company voice, or a voice that reflects the corporate brand. Some are able to record it once and stick it on their phone-machine-mazes (can you escape? can you find the right exit? will you be find the minotaur?* And if you forgot to trail your silver thread along the path you took, you’ll have to solve it again two hours later…). Many require that you speak with it, use it in your emails, and hide your own away.
Many corporations and individuals take it further still, and immerse their employees/themselves in a prescribed character and voice. Some prioritise the text – politicians are among those required to say, often fervently, things that they do not believe. Some prioritise the character. Who we are is shaped by where we are, and the combination of will and immersion is a powerful one. We do all have a kind of ‘authenticity’ derived from cultures of which we are a part – but the workplace culture is rare in which the resulting authenticity is one to be proud of.
For sure, sometimes we need and want to speak words given to us by a body we are part of. Sometimes we need to be a certain way for others. Sometimes we emphasise elements of our identity because that is what required of us. Being polite, being helpful, being energetic and positive – we most of us have this in us, in our different ways, and different work requires us to develop, use, exercise parts of our nature and character.
To some extent, when a company seeks to attract those that ‘fit in’ with its internal and external identity (defined not be crude racism but by cultural fit) it is seeking those who can be authentic within it and yet still speak the corporate words in the corporate voice – fit comfortably inside the shared corporate costume. Some do this more explicitly than others, with many recruitment guides containing direct warnings to that effect.
From here we cascade out – to individual brands – the voice we wish others to see, be inspired by and do business with; to exclusion and the perpetuation of social division when a single ‘culture’ aligns itself with social class and spreads out to encompass an entire profession (take, for instance – and probably with exceptions – ‘working in the city’); to how our whole environment shapes and confines our voice, enables, restricts and directs it.
It is all a struggle for authenticity and definition, defining and preserving our identity within the context of needing to define ourselves in response and to fit in with the people around us.
As for organisations, companies and corporations, and individual-brands: There are little lines and gaping chasms, between allowing us our humanity and our character and stripping us of it; between encouraging us to develop and use our own voice and forcing us to deny it; between being an outlet for who employees are in the context of where they are and drowning us in voices warped into depressing cheerfulness or empty of life and humanity.
So it cheers me up that even within prescribed working atmospheres in which is is expected and commonplace to hide our character and our idiosyncracies until we get home, there are still flashes of depth and authenticity, strong people who hold their voices high and let others know that they are far more than their job. The delightfully nagging train inspector, the tube-driver decorating information with a degree of sarcasm – people amidst the corporate experience – this is what I love. And it is far too rare.
*Not quite sure what this is analogous to. Suggestions below.
*I haven’t worked out quite yet which is worse