The Bureaucratic Style in American prose

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After Colin Dickey wrote about United CEO Oscar Munoz’s nonpology for the savage beating of Dr David Dao, he was taken to task for accusing the CEO of writing in the "passive voice."

The closer Dickey looked, the more he concluded that "passive voice" is not a good characterization of the style employed by corporate America; rather, the instantly recognizable "Bureaucratic Style" "makes use of both active and passive constructions, but its purpose is uniform: to erase and efface any active agent on the part of the bureaucracy."

Dickey’s essay on Bureaucratic Style is fascinating.

To begin with, the bureaucratic style works to erase cause. Here is Munoz’s description of the start of the incident: “On Sunday, April 9, after United Express Flight 3411 was fully boarded, United’s gate agents were approached by crewmembers that were told they needed to board the flight.” Setting aside the passengers for a second, in this sentence there are two named actors: the gate agents and the crewmembers. You might expect, then, that this all started when the crewmembers approached the gate agents and told them they needed to board the flight. However, a closer reading of the syntax implies this is not the case; the crewmembers themselves “were told they needed to board the flight.” Who told them? The sentence does not make this clear, even though it is this unnamed actor, presumably a supervisor, who set this entire chain of events in motion. Deliberately pushed back as far off the stage as possible, there is no one here to responsibly hold accountable for subsequent events.

Munoz repeatedly makes reference to established procedures: “Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.” Here we have what seems to be a nice use of the active voice: We have actors (“our employees”) and they are doing something specific. But the figures responsible for establishing procedure are nowhere to be found. Whenever possible, bureaucratic style will shift responsibility to immutable rules and directives that appear spontaneously from the ether.

When bureaucratic agency is absolutely unavoidable it will be couched in a simpering use of adverbs to clear any wrongdoing: “We politely asked” a customer to deplane, to whom “we approached… to explain apologetically,” and so forth. Only with the utmost reluctance does the state ever act, and even then it does so patiently, politely, apologetically.

Add to this the free use of obvious falsehoods. Munoz states that employees told Dao “was being denied boarding,” when in fact he was already sitting on the plane. Munoz claims employees were following United’s “involuntary denial of boarding process,” but their Denied Boarding Compensation rules cover oversold flights, and this flight was not oversold or overbooked.

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