Quentin Shears, 48, is a partner in Newt UK, a Hertfordshire-based quantity surveyor that its US owner, construction giant Gator Corp, has never been quite sure what to do with. Quentin has recently been making excellent progress in his anger management sessions, which he was obliged to take after several “run-ins” with the local architectural community.
Having not bought any companies for nine months, our chief executive John Gatz Jr was in a restless mood. So after last week’s news that Laing O’Rourke had sacked 12 of its staff for forwarding an offensive email, he sprang into action, cracking down on Newt’s personal internet use.
“This monitoring software is really neat,” John Jr said to me, as he scanned the instruction manual of the SpionStaff 4.7 Executive Suite. “Its language filter and privacy settings have been personally approved by the leaders of seven different religious faiths! The Pope described it as: ’2011’s must-have office management tool’. No longer will the rogue element who abuse our precious bandwidth for so-called ’entertainment’ be able to pollute the system for the rest of us honest, hardworking folk who use it solely for its intended purpose: to present corporate information and transmit it efficiently between associates …”
Personally, I didn’t have a problem with this. I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that the global economic meltdown might very well have been avoided if the office workers of the Western world hadn’t spent most of 2007 updating their Facebook statuses. As he was talking, I was wistfully imagining a world where the language filter was set so ferociously high that I could get away with turning off my work email altogether (something I experimented with, to a certain amount of board-level disapproval, for three months in early 2009).
Two hours later my colleague Alan Quimby staggered over to my desk, wearing the suicidally irritated look of a man who has just done nine rounds with a corporate IT policy. “This email filter is insane!” he spluttered. “Apparently, I’m not allowed to say B********. Or B******. Or even B*************-****! How am I meant to make architects understand what it is they’re supposed to be doing?”
Perhaps he had a point. Swearing is something of a lingua franca in construction. And architects in particular need to be treated in a brutal and direct manner, or they’ll start talking about “typology” and wander off to do crayon pictures of space stations.
But I had a solution. Last year, as part of my ongoing anger management therapy, I underwent a course of intensive speech therapy. (So regularly had I begun to utter expletives under my breath relating to certain local architects that it was diagnosed as a verbal tic.) I was fortunate enough to be treated by a truly inspirational man. He was an Australian, not actually a trained doctor, but a failed actor, out of work since his character was bitten to death by a wombat outside Harold Bishop’s coffee shop. He prescribed what he called the “Reverse King George”, not quite as unpleasant a procedure as it sounds. It was simple: every time I was about to swear, all I had to do was start stammering.
Unfortunately, this turned out to be a terrible idea, so we tried something else: training my brain to replace all bad language with words that sounded similar but were less likely to cause offence. Blubby. Fumbling. Pollacks. Hull. That sort of thing.
It seemed to me that a similar approach could solve Alan’s problems with the language filter. “That’s brilliant!” he exclaimed, after I had outlined the general concept. “I’ll go and email the blubby architect about those fumbling costs right away.”
Twenty minutes later, Alan was back, his head shaking in enraged bewilderment. “It’s impossible!” he wailed. “It still bounced back! So I tried again, and again, and by then I was using language that would make Mary Poppins proud and that bounced back too! I’m going to have to blubby well send this data to Scunthorpe by post.”
“Ah. I think I see the problem Alan …”