The Language of Self-Promotion: Living in a world where people are increasingly expected to ‘sell’ themselves

by Craig Evans

We have probably all seen the adverts where handsome French man, unshaven and with luscious mane, announces he is going to be different, unexpected or some such. Of course what they don’t show us is what happens next, if we are keeping it real that is: handsome French man has grown a straggly beard, ripped all his hair and teeth out, and has decided to go walkabout across the desert in nothing but a pair of filthy y-fronts while screaming the story of his life into an empty tin can. Now that would be unexpected, although it may not induce many people to go buy the eau pour homme on offer.

 

The intention of these adverts is typically to convey a message of individual empowerment and freedom of identity in association with the product being sold. However, only within a closed sphere of limited cultural experience does this message have meaning. To the luxury consumer market, to be unexpected probably means trying out a different hairstyle. That’s fine: that’s how advertising works, and if we think it absurd, we are all free to point at and mock the stupid television or magazine or whatever. Unfortunately, the same is apparently not true with employers when these promotional principles of advertising are encountered in everyday life situations.

 

In breath and flesh real-life-land, the angsty obnoxious teenager who happens to be wearing the flesh-suit of a continental metro-sexual adonis (if you like that sort of thing) probably doesn’t cut it as a figure of individual empowerment and freedom of identity for most. Although, perhaps the overly groomed line manager with rolled up celebrity magazines poking up out of their hand / man bag is not ‘most’. She / he is here to review your performance in your near-to-minimum-wage job over the past quarter; and you’re here to ‘sell’ yourself as the best darn tap-tap data inputter person in town.

 

The problem is, data inputting was never your life ambition: it is just something you do because you need a day job. Now, though, you have to ‘sell’ yourself as if it was, and what is more, you have to conceptualise your role as though it were somehow integral to the success of a multinational company. I have optimised productivity by copying and pasting key data fields rather than typing these individually, which if we roll out across the business should see a 5% increase in annual gross profit. No?

 

Or, you could go for the empowering, self-affirming option of being up front and honest: Look, I come to work, I get on with my job, I’ve stopped stalking Barbara in Accounts like you asked… But wait! This isn’t the self-empowerment of doing something ‘unexpected’ to which the Mr-Miss-Ma’am-Mrs line manager can relate. Where’s the handsome face, new haircut and charming accent? Why aren’t you telling them that you are not going to be the person that they want you to be, before storming out of the room to a better life? Oh yes, that’s right: because you need this job to live. And so you fall silent, bury your pride, and take the barrage of criticism that follows, about how you’ve a negative attitude and are not a ‘team player’.

 

Welcome to the world today, a legacy of globalisation on a Western model, where everything is a commodity including you. That you were slow on the uptake or resistant to the idea doesn’t matter: you’re in it now whether you like it or not, and if you want to get on in life you’d better learn to ‘sell’ yourself and learn it quick. This is the age of self-promotion, where ‘the ideology of the market’ has seeped ‘into every facet of social life’¹, and those not willing to perform – perform monkey perform! – may find themselves facing a very bleak future of scant opportunity.

 

Well that is indeed a very negative attitude: maybe the line manager has a point. Andrew Wernick has a better point though: ‘If social survival, let alone competitive success, depends on continual, audience-oriented, self-staging, what are we behind the mask?’² The issue of the pervasive culture of self-promotion is not just about personal integrity or career prospects; more crucially, it is about who we are.

 

In my own near-to-minimum-wage glorified data-inputting job of times past, the ‘profound problem of authenticity’ was hardwired into the prescribed promotional language of performance reviews. Puh! To give you an idea of how ‘authentic’ these reviews were, the performance measures were based on terms that had been crowbarred into a word with positive connotations to create a seemingly meaningful acronym. FIRST: Focus, Respect for others, Striving for success, and Time management. It would seem that the intelligent, innovative, ingenious ideas-people couldn’t come up with a worthy measure beginning with the letter ‘i’ – oh well. Recalling these reviews now, it is frightening to realise with what ease I am able to reel off my stock responses. Here’s ‘respect for others’ (please bear with me, the horribleness will be over shortly):

 

I demonstrate respect for my colleagues by being a positive team player; by being personable but professional in my daily interactions with others; by exercising good time management so as to have the flexibility to provide support when it is needed; by being proactive and offering process and systems training for new employees; and by writing clear and comprehensive system notes so that they are accessible for other users.

 

That was me, my value as an employee, although in practice usually more fleshed-out and in a conversational style to make sure they didn’t detect that I was faking it. Or was I faking it? After years of regurgitating the same self-promotional noise, it’s hard not to start believing that some of it might actually be meaningful, and this is the real danger of such language. After a time, the line between the performance and the real you becomes blurred, and in true Orwellian style the prescribed language becomes the only language, and people’s ability to express themselves in any other terms is lost.

 

But there is hope, right? There are plenty of people among us who are masters of their own destinies, aren’t there – not to be swept up by the tidal wave of a techno-communication revolution where every individual and organisation is only as good as how well they brand themselves on twitter or facebook or linkedin or flesh-face or tongue-wagger-connect?

 

I naturally find myself looking to those venerable centres of light, liberty and learning – universities – for resistance to the stealthily spreading tyranny of promotional culture. What I find: a few lone voices pretty much observing how defeat has already been conceded. Among them, the linguist Deborah Cameron, who describes in her 2001 article ‘Language: Mission Impenetrable’ the situation in British universities.

 

According to Cameron, ‘mission statements’ are at the heart of the problem:

 

(They) have a promotional function. They are like corporate advertising, or in the case of the short formulaic type, like the slogans that advertise brands. They are a symptom of the promotional culture in which everything and everyone is required to define and then publicise a ‘USP’ – unique selling proposition … In a marketised system, self-assessment is a mechanism through which institutions compete for scarce resources, and there is pressure, therefore, to accentuate the positive … A whole generation of academics has become fluent in a public language of self-promotion which has, in most cases, about as much relation to our private opinions about the state of Britain’s universities as the ‘quiet optimism’ of Winston Smith has to his real views on Ingsoc. We have, indeed, been induced to create our own propaganda, on behalf of a system that most of us have doubts about.³

 

This assessment paints a rather bleak picture for the future. If universities cannot resist the indoctrinating effects of marketisation, then where can? What corner of public life is left for people to express themselves freely, without feeling the need to package what they want to say to fit with a particular promotional purpose?

 

Resistance, debate and action are needed.

 

 

Notes:

¹ Axford, B & Huggins, R (1998)’Anti-politics or the triumph of postmodern populism in promotional cultures?’ from Telematics and Informatic vol.15 iss.3 p181

²Wernick, A (1991) Promotional Culture, p193, London: Sage

³Cameron, D (2001) ‘Language: Mission Impenetrable’ from Critical Quarterlyvol.43 iss.2 p99-103

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3 comments

  1. Oh, brings back memories of 20 years in administration in the public sector doing useful but ordinary work that gave no scope at all do anything ‘exceptional’. Yet, somehow or other, ‘low-man-on-totem-pole’ was expected to do just that. Just ridiculous.

  2. It is crazy. I think everybody should be entitled to work a job which allows them to come and do what’s required of them without the expectation that they should give up part of their soul for low pay. The problem is that more and more jobs are in the service sector, particularly financial services, where no matter how efficient you are at your admin job, if you’re not using the right lingo with the right people to ‘raise your profile within the company’, then you’re quickly seen as a non-team player with a negative attitude and few prospects. One of the most depressing things I’ve experienced in my years working in open planned offices is listening to a manager speak positively and at length, with favoured colleagues, about reality tv characters and how much they admire some shallow, shameless self-promoters, before then proceeding to conduct a review with me where no praise is forthcoming. It really is quite degrading… Thanks for the comment about that phrase – I felt I needed to emphasise what I mean by ‘real-life’ 🙂

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