It’s only words

Soft, hard, touchy, feely. Don’t forget fluffy.  Words.

I am somehow irritated, annoyed, irked when I hear descriptions of the relational aspect of working together as soft.   Why does it get under my skin so much?

Soft – source free dictionary:

  • Easily molded, cut, or worked.
  • Yielding readily to pressure or weight.
  • Out of condition; flabby.
  • Not brilliant or glaring; subdued: soft colors.
  • Not sharply drawn or delineated
  • Mild; balmy: a soft breeze
  • a gentle disposition; tender.
  • Affectionate: a soft glance.
  • Not stern; lenient.
  • Lacking strength of character; weak.
  • Easy: a soft job.
  • Based on conciliation or negotiation rather than on threats or power plays: took a soft line toward their opponents.
  • a soft economy; a soft computer market.
  • Informal and entertaining without confronting difficult issues or hard facts: limited the discussion to soft topics.

Hard – source Free Dictionary

  • Physically toughened; rugged.
  • Mentally toughened; strong-minded.
  • Requiring great effort or endurance: a hard assignment.
  • Performed with or marked by great diligence or energy: a project that required years of hard work.
  • Making few concessions: drives a hard bargain..
  • Lacking compassion or sympathy; callous.
  • Proceeding or performing with force, vigor, or persistence; assiduous: a hard worker.
  • Real and unassailable: hard evidence.
  • Definite; firm: a hard commitment.
  • Close; penetrating: We need to take a hard look at the situation.
  • Free from illusion or bias; practical: brought some hard common sense to the discussion
  • Using or based on data that are readily quantified or verified: the hard sciences.
During a discussion exploring why we describe information as soft or hard, in particular in relation to understanding the impact of human on business performance I ask what are we really saying?
We say “soft” when actually, the relational part of our work is what gets in the way of our effectiveness, that’s what is hard, difficult.    Their irritating garrulity, my shyness, your irritation,  our seemingly irreconcilable differences.  That’s the tough stuff.
When we say soft skills, talk about soft data I think we are undermining the validity of what we are somehow.  Like when we feel a need to use our fingers to “frame” a word with quotation marks we’re giving a sublime message that we disrespect that context.  When we say soft, we’re offering a subtext.
I can hear you now –  it’s (soft/hard) simply a shorthand to describe tangible vs intangible, measurable vs immeasurable.  And yet, distrust is as tangible as the volume of sales I made.  Silent exclusion that impacts my confidence is like a stone.  Somewhere, somehow, we have got to the position where the data we value and trust is that which we can work out on a calculator.

In a tweet with Clare Haynes I wonder whether we use these terms  because “Old norms and values lingering.  Gender conditioning men tough, women tender, men clever, women intuitive etc” – is there something deeply locked in our language that is causing my reaction?

I see the term soft as a discount of the tough stuff,  it doesn’t say what is needed to be said. Why not refer to data as qualitative, quantitative; why not describe behaviour, interactions, relationships. What would happen if instead of saying soft skills, we said “human behaviour insights”.
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