Saturday, September 29, 2012

FEMA's Unique Language: Softness and Strength

I want to talk a little bit about the power of words and ideas.

If you read through the FEMA materials that we were presented with throughout the last two weeks of training, nowhere in them will you find the word ‘bad’. It has simply gone away, as though it never existed. ‘Wrong’, ‘false’, ‘poor’ and other such terms have met a similar end, replaced by ‘negative’, ‘confusion’ and ‘learning opportunity’. If curses are the fine edge of a knife, FEMA’s language is the plastic toy saw: deliberately blunted, gentle, impossible to harm anyone with.

Chewing this peculiarity over in my head for the past two weeks, I was initially surprised at its presence in FEMA. “These people deal with disasters,” I thought. “I would have expected their language to be blunt, direct, to the point: these are people who deal with some of the most traumatic events (there I am, doing it too) a person can suffer in this country. Wouldn’t they exercise brevity, practicality and toughness in their language?” In this line of thinking, I wasn’t just barking up the wrong tree. I wasn’t even in the right forest.

It turns out, of course, that FEMA takes an essentially opposite approach to the one I described. Instead of matching the brutality of a disaster head-on, FEMA seeks to blunt its edges. They’re taking these massive, desperate, chaotic things and sanitizing them, sanding them down, restoring order with bureaucracy and sanity. I should have seen it sooner. It’s right there in the name: Federal Emergency Management Agency. Their entire job is to take the devastated communities that these huge, scary, horrible events leave behind and get the people living in them back to normal. Of course their language would tend towards the harmless and bureaucratic; that’s the entire point! Normalizing the event is how FEMA helps places recover, and their language reflects that mission.

In that sense, FEMA stands as one example of the power of language and how it can evoke the culture of an organization. FEMA has adopted a very specific mission and mindset, and their softening of their language is a by-product and, probably, a driver of that effect. Here, language is strong and meaningful and full of information, however little one might glean from individual words or acronyms. (It’s a peculiarity of acronyms that they encompass so much meaning within their component words, but the acronym itself is often meaningless; what’s a NPSC or a JFO but alphabet soup?) The whole approach, language-wise, is heavier with significance than all the individual words that go into it.

Now we are officially part of that mission, speakers of a goosedown language in a world of rubble. FEMA Corps officially graduated from FEMA training this afternoon. Starting tomorrow morning, we’ll all fly off in different directions for our first spikes/disaster deployments (depending on the lingo). My team and two others will go on station in Atlanta, GA. Two teams are heading back to Vicksburg, and three are apparently going to Clinton, Mississippi; others are headed for Harrisburg, PA or Richmond, Virginia or points unknown (to me). I can’t speak to everyone’s mission, but in the present absence of disasters in Atlanta, we will be working in FEMA’s administrative section as, it seems, public relations and data folk. Community Relations is typically the face of FEMA, but this time around, we will be part of its voice.

FEMA’s style, obviously, is not my own. I don’t shy away from bluntness and I dislike the twisting, often torturous roads that politically correct language inevitably must traverse. But my central issue with sterilized language—that words are less important than the concepts they get across—can also be turned into a personal challenge. As we’ve learned over the past few days, FEMA’s policies and procedures and acronyms and euphemisms can seem labyrinthine to the uninitiated. It is the job of Community Relations to relate to the community, to parcel out and receive information in an understandable way. We will act as translators, fluent in both Bureaucratic and Ordinary English. And although we’re not going to be going door-to-door, at least not yet, this is still an opportunity to get the word out about FEMA’s mission. There’s a balance to be struck between jargon and information, and part of my job will be wielding concepts, words and acronyms to do so. I can't wait to get started.

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