Communication adaptation to Neoliberal society
The sound of people talking as if they are asking a question, when they are actually stating something, or telling someone else what to do, is normal to hear now. We’re aware of the rise in tone at the end of every sentence. It grates on many people, even as they find themselves doing the same.It is commonly suspected to be a trait borne in university student campus’s, that has spread throughout the rest of society once these students begin to look for work; or, even more unlikely, that it is an Australian import, due to the tonal similarities the trait shares with the quintessential Australian accent.
As I sit in a cafe sat with my back facing a table holding a conversation between ‘potential’ employee and ‘potential’ employer (or employer’s employer), with the tonal rise at the end of the employer’s most asking sentences, I suspect it is neither of these things. I suspect it is an unconscious adaptation of our communication skills to what is required to function in a neoliberal society, memetically spread onwards from those who are first to find this adaptation of value to (semi) succeed under this system.
The usual name given for a society under neoliberalism is the Post-Fordist society. Getting along in a Post-Fordist society means applying oneself in wholly different ways to the way those who came of age before it had to. Gone are the more predictable, and stable – if not tedious and restricting – structures of Fordist society, the preceding system associated with a strong welfare system, Keynesian policies of state ownership of large national assets and tight government regulation of the market system (periodically speaking, think 1940’s to late 1970’s), and in with a structure based on both individual adaptability and cunning, and much more freedom for market systems rather than social obligation. If Post-Fordism promised to do away with the tedium and alienation of Fordist structures, then it has more than certainly replaced them with endemic fear and paranoia, and has if anything exacerbated the biggest down points of Fordist society for the majority, who don’t have the opportunity to be ‘the winners’ in this world.
The way our working lives are structured feeds into all aspects of life. As Mark Fisher states in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism (Zero Books) ‘Work and life become inseparable. Capital follows you when you dream. Time ceases to be linear, becomes chaotic, broken down into punctiform divisions. As production and distribution are restructured, so are nervous systems. To function effectively as a component of just–in-time production you must develop a capacity to respond to unforeseen events, you must learn to live in conditions of total instability, or ‘precarity’, as the ugly neologism has it. Periods of work alternate with periods of unemployment. Typically, you find yourself employed in a series of short-term jobs, unable to plan for the future’.
The potential employee sat behind me in the cafe was obviously keen to get a job. Even before neoliberalism was further entrenched by the recession (that it caused), people were much more willing to accept jobs that included unpaid voluntary spells, minimum wage pay, and constantly changing shift patterns, just in order to get by. Of course, when in a predicament like this one must always communicate with positivity, and a willingness; they must create the impression that they are always employable. They cannot just ‘walk into’ a factory job like their parents, and parents’ parents could, they have to be willing to take what they can.
Simultaneous to this, management, or middle-management are constantly trying to make the prospective job in question sound much more inviting and worker friendly than it will no doubt be, maintaining the vision of a world laced with exciting opportunities, a vessel that Post Fordism sails upon. The sternness and straightforward authoritarianism of employers, thought of in relation to Fordist times, simply wouldn’t be in sync, whilst a no-smiles indifference from the employee, to his/her often exploited predicament, would be they would soon find themselves unable to find work.
In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher references the 1999 film Office Space, a comedy-based but also prescient film, to exemplify this new kind of relationship between employer and employee. He talks of management being in-keeping with the “being smart” ethos…’of shirtsleeves-informality and quiet authoritarianism’, and refers to a moment in the film when in the local cafe where ‘staff are required to decorate their uniforms with “seven pieces of flair”, (i.e. badges or other personal tokens) to express their ‘individuality and creativity’: a handy illustration of the way in which ‘creativity’ and ‘self-expression’ have become intrinsic to labor in Control societies’ (another way to describe Post Fordism, associated with french philosopher Gilles Deleuze). Fisher points out, informed by Paolo Virno and Yann Moulier Boutang, how this ‘now makes affective, as well as productive demands, on workers.'(2009, Zero Books)
Communication skills are now of utmost importance, Although often with reluctance, life under Post Fordism is one of constant ‘careerism’, where one can never miss an opportunity to sell themselves; and thus this isn’t only evident in designated workplaces, or in job interviews, but in all communication. Positive, friction-fleeing, good feeling communication is essential. To not maintain this runs the risk of falling out of employment, with the abandonment of welfare support, giving way to prevalent attitude that it is soley the fault the individual. As Ivor Southwood explains, from the position of looking for work, in his 2011 book Non-Stop Inertia (Zero Books) ‘the Job centre “customer” who is indifferent to the institutional charade of choice and positivity () tends to be viewed as having brought the situation upon himself…(I)t’s no wonder you haven’t got a job with that attitude’.
This seismic alteration, I would argue, is the cause of the rise in tone at the end of sentences. Asks of people, and statements of personal opinion need to maintain an air of uncertainty to them; the receiver understands what is being said without it having a negative effect on the appearance of the person speaking – this being harmful to the maintenance of an air of willingness, and perpetual-employability. And in the case of the demands the employer has of the employee, the ‘questionisation’ of an order, the ‘quiet authoritarianism’ of a shirtsleeve (casual) boss, outsources the authority to an unknown, a non-place even, from where all responsibility lands firmly back onto the receiver/employee. Thus the employee must then respond with the utmost enthusiasm.
This spreads to all ways of communicating. Electronic communication is now an extension of forced-perpetual careerism, or ‘social networking sites’, evident with the insertion of uncertainty or a jokey quality into many written messages which aren’t uncertain or joking. For example, the use of question marks at the end of messages which aren’t questions, and the use of ‘LOLS’ or ‘Ha’ or a kiss at the end of the message, when the message is actually a stern assertion. To appear to be an obstacle in the path of this sensation of moving in the right direction, can be damaging to ones own hopes of any kind of quality of life within these times.
Perhaps this communicative trait is more prevalent in students, at, or just leaving university, but this may be due to the predicament of the university student, of acquiring large debts, having to take any part time work they can, and being thrust into an anxiety-stoking environment of ‘careering’, who, for these reasons feel the tightening of neoliberal chains sharper than others, for the need to be reaching out for the fading middle class quality of life. Students/or recent students perhaps embody the existential anxieties of living in a neoliberal/Post Fordist society more than any other section of society. This is rather than the trait being embedded in university culture time immemorial.