Professor argues importance of professional language choices

Sanjay Paul April 30, 2014 0

The news that an Elizabethtown College graduate had received admission to the Harvard Business School was gratifying.

But a closer look at Harvard’s acceptance letter made Homer draw in his breath sharply. The letter began: “Dear K, Welcome to HBS! We are excited that you will be joining us as an MBA student in the fall of 2014.”

(The name of the alumnus has been concealed to protect his identity, but since K has done no wrong at all — and in fact has done wonderful things in the past few years, now culminating with his acceptance at HBS — Homer could be persuaded to spill the beans in exchange for the promise of a scone at the Blue Bean.)

The use of the exclamation mark is bad enough. “Welcome to HBS!” it says. Does Harvard really need to stress its welcome in this contrived fashion? Wouldn’t a matter-of-fact period do? How about this: “Welcome to HBS.” Wouldn’t that have done the trick in a sober, sensible, perhaps even businesslike, fashion?

Why add the exclamation mark? To whip up an exaggerated sense of excitement? As if just learning about being admitted to HBS is not enough.

Matters get worse in the next sentence, thought Homer. HBS says it is excited about K’s admission. Not just delighted. Or pleased. Excited.

Excited? Really?

Six-year-old girls get excited when they are promised a “Finding Nemo” DVD. (Homer knows about such things — he has a daughter.) Boys show a flicker of excitement when they are promised a funky T-shirt. (Homer also has a son.)

And that’s the last time they get excited about anything. Because, soon, they grow up to be teenagers and it is not cool to get excited about stuff. Especially if your parents have anything to do with it.

But here’s the Harvard Business School claiming to be excited about a new face in its 2014 MBA lineup. Who, exactly, at HBS is excited by such a prospect? The dean of the school? Yes, perhaps, because the promise of an imminent payment of MBA tuition fees would bring a smile to the face of even the most hardened dean.

In fact, HBS’s email goes on to ask K to “be aware that your admissions acceptance will not be complete until we receive and process your tuition deposit.” Aha! So money does enter the picture.

But HBS is not exactly starved for tuition. If K weren’t admitted, there would still be a thousand willing to take his place. So the source of excitement lies elsewhere.

How about the HBS faculty? Could they be the excited ones?

Unlikely. Faculty do get excited, but about things like merit pay and whether you can use professional development funds to buy a tablet and whether it is ethical to defile scones with sugary icing.

Could it be the janitorial staff at HBS? Or the chef who makes the sushi? Perhaps the director of IT was the one who got excited?

We do not know. The letter does not make clear who at Harvard is excited by K’s admission.

Why would the country’s premier business school use such sophomoric language? After all, they are not communicating with excitable high schoolers about to enter college.

They are dealing with fully-grown adults, people who have long graduated from college, gone on to successful careers in business, government and the military and probably are raising families of their own. To use vapid exclamation marks with this group — and to tell them they are excited by the prospect of seeing them on campus in the fall — well, that may be a sad indication of the state of our language today.

Can the day be far off, thought Homer, when we might see a message such as this: “Dear K, OMG! You’re in, dude! We at HBS are excited to have you join us in our MBA classes and stuff! Way cool, bro. But please be aware that your admissions acceptance will not be complete until we receive and process your tuition deposit.”

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