“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald, in All the Sad Young Men
The communication gap between the rich and the poor has been with us as long as the economic gap has.
The economic gap has grown over the last several decades, and has reached a point that U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is concerned about it.
The communication gap is growing too. Who will close it? Me, and you.
First, come with me and let’s behold the canyon, not just between the super-rich and the poor, but between the kind-of-rich and the working class.
Soccer parents think they have a right to regularly and severely berate waiters “because I worked at a restaurant in college.”
Well-heeled parents teach their kids about equality and democracy but think nothing of paying extra for “Fast Lane” passes at amusement parks, because they “can’t imagine” waiting in line with everyone else.
Speaking of imagination failures, six-figure Facebook friends seem to think they know more or less what it’s like to live and die in a ghetto made up of one class and color and policed by people primarily of another.
A new-money relative flies first class and jokingly looks forward to making “everyone in steerage feel as envious as I can while ordering as much food and drink and pillow fluffing as possible from the flight attendants. ;)” (Is that funny? Maybe it is, I don’t know.)
“Thank you for your service,” the derivatives trader warmly and automatically tells the soldier just back from Afghanistan, apparently not in the least bit inhibited by the fact that he knows no more about the size or shape of the soldier’s sacrifice than the soldier knows about derivatives.
Seven-figure corporate execs show up for a coat drive every Christmas at an elementary school in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Which is a nice thought, as many of the kids actually do need coats. But many teachers dread the inevitable specter of a horde of washed, waxed and polished corporate executives barging confidently into the building to hand down coats to the children. The execs are overheard referring to “the poor,” and remarking unselfconsciously about how “this is the nicest thing I’ve done all year!”
Speechwriters to the rich and powerful talk about their bosses less as colleagues whose ideas they’re helping to communicate, and more as exalted celebrities whose pools they are cleaning.
On Facebook last week, Writing Boots readers chortled loudly at Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure’s all-employee Thanksgiving memo. Sent "without the typical checking that's regularly done before a CEO sends a message to all of his employees,” the memo hovered between insensitive and insane. It prompted veteran corporate communicator Kristen Ridley to remark, not on the memo’s craziness, but rather its commonness.
“I had a conversation with a colleague just today,” she wrote, “in which I expressed my puzzlement at the utter cluelessness of these executives, whom, we are led to believe, are so very much smarter than the average bear, hence their big fancy offices, sky-high salaries, and bullet-proof parachutes. I keep waiting for one of them—truly, at this point, I'd be thrilled to discover one of them who is not a dunderheaded doofus like this dude!”
And that’s the point. It’s not that the rich are out of touch. That’s always been true: My dad used to tell how Harvey Firestone once refused a Sunday afternoon network slot for the flagging "Voice of Firestone" variety TV show by angrily bellowing that no one would watch it. “I know what people are doing on Sunday afternoons! They’re playing polo!”
But in those bad old days one heard many more stories of bosses who remembered everyone’s name, right down to the boys in the mailroom. Hewlett-Packard founder Dave Packard stood before the company’s top managers in 1958 and told them how important it was to “develop genuine interest in people.” Why? Because you can’t lead people “unless you have a sincere desire to like, respect and be helpful to others. Conversely, you cannot build genuine interest in people until you have experienced the pleasure of working with them in an atmosphere characterized by mutual liking and respect.”
Try to imagine such homely, humanistic thinking coming from the current CEO of Hewlett-Packard, or any other organization. You can’t.
Now, pretty much all leaders of American institutions—corporations and colleges, nonprofits and federal government posts—are either relatively rich or super rich. And the rich are more out of touch than ever. (Even the recently rich: My fundraiser sister has observed that the very first thing newly rich people spend their new money on is ways to avoid contact with the general public, from gated communities to private airplanes.)
These people are so fucking aloof that they won’t even deign to speak with the people who are hired to write their speeches. Yes, they are terribly busy and their jobs are incredibly demanding—much more so than yours or mine. But really. Try to imagine feeling so disconnected from the hoi polloi that you wouldn’t, you couldn’t, make 30 minutes to confer with the professional paid to write the words you’re going to bore a couple hundred poeple with. Imagine it!
Leaders reading speeches for the first time on the podium. It happens. It doesn’t always happen that way—as I hastened to tell my 10-year-old daughter who was morally outraged when she heard that important people don’t always say their own words. (“They should!” she said with authority.) But it happens a lot.
Speechwriters used to complain about not getting access to their speaker. Mostly, they don’t bother complaining anymore.
Here’s what speechwriters ought to do. Here’s what all people who help leaders communicate ought to do. They ought to do what the leaders ought to do. They ought to do what Dave Packard recommended: Develop their own genuine interest in people—all over the organization and all around its industry.
If they’re going to write speeches for out-of-touch CEOs, they ought to write speeches that are as in-touch as possible—seasoned with wisdom, quotes, characters, stories from the real world. You know, the one that feeds the organization with its employees, its customers and its social permission to operate.
A professional communicator, neither rich nor poor, can choose to be a discouraged and lonely dweller in the ivory tower. Or he or she can seek to know everyone in the organization, learn every interesting thing that’s going on, know and contemplate every impact the organization has on the human beings it presumably exists to serve.
And then translate as much of that reality as possible to bosses. When the chief reads the speech for the first time on the podium, he or she ought to learn something.
The communicator who merely begins the impossible task of closing the communication gap between rich and poor (and between comfortable and working class) is doing worthwhile work, not only for the organization and its lost-in-the-clouds leaders, but on behalf of our society, terribly sick from disconnectedness, distrust and the kind of ignorance that rhymes with arrogance.