Helping without being directly helpful – Mandarin English and Sabotage

20130920-074458.jpgMany years ago in a galaxy far far away I ran a series of improvement workshops with a big organisation. The final session was about developing an action plan and things were going swimmingly. The group had ‘taken ownership’, identified ‘SMART outcomes’, developed ‘success criteria’ and set out a ‘monitoring and evaluation framework’. What could possibly go wrong?

As we were about to close the session one of the senior figures, Vice Admiral Bufton-Tufton (retired) stood up to propose a vote of thanks, my moment of glory. I was happily basking in the limelight when he rounded it off with…. “In the immortal words of Sir Humphrey from Yes Minister,…. we will do everything we can to move things forward, without being seen to be directly helpful”. A mis-quote from Yes Minister, but it did really happen.

The room erupted into laughter and everyone left congratulating Vice Admiral Bufton-Tufton (retired) with a bit of back slapping. The carefully crafted action plans were forgotten and the hard work evaporated in a moment of self-indulgent humour…. or was it? Could it have been a bit of sabotage using some of the famous ‘Yes Minister’ Mandarin English?

Yes Minister was a 1980’s TV parody of the Westminster Government’s, ‘Department of Administrative Affairs’, and the relationship between the Minister and Civil Servants. One of the many memorable features of the programme was the obscure language used by the Permanent Secretary (Senior Civil Servant), Sir Humphrey Appleby, a form of Mandarin English. The ability of Sir Humphrey (a master of obfuscation)  to block change in the Department of Administrative Affairs by using confusing language was astonishing. It was so effective that it has almost become the benchmark for this sort of behaviour. If someone is referred to as a ‘bit of a Sir Humphrey’ you know you’ve got trouble. Enjoy this clip of him in action.

It would be easy to have a cheap shot at the Civil Service and say that Sir Humphrey behaviour is typical of every Civil Servant, which of course is not true. However……. you might like a look at this.

How to be a Civil Servant. This is a website a Civil Servant  friend of mine told me to look at after I wrote about jargon used by the NHS. They were keen to point out that the Civil Service has its own set of jargon, known as Mandarin English. Before I get onto that, a few words about ‘How to be a Civil Servant’. Please, please do have a look at it. It’s possibly one of the most: hilarious / useful / honest / practical / subtly subversive things I’ve read. I just can’t work out which definition fits best. In a way it is like the extended, modern-day manual for Parkinson’s Law from the 1950’s.

Mandarin English. You will need to follow this link to the PDF as its difficult to find. I’ll just quote directly so that you get idea of what it’s about.

A Short Course for New Recruits  Lessons 1-5: Vocabulary  “It is no accident that Whitehall officials are known as Mandarins. Their language is often as hard to understand as anything spoken in Beijing. This document …. will provide you with the basic language you will need to get by and survive in Whitehall.”

Here are some of my favourites:

  • Plain English. Words of one syllable, with subtitles for the hard of hearing. Civil Servants do not use Plain English. It is for civilians and half-wits.
  • Surprised. Another classic senior official understatement. Signifies utter horror, disgust and fury.
  • Hope This is Helpful. I am well aware that it is not helpful at all. Please do not contact me again.
  • Draft Please! Graft for hours producing a coherent and impressive letter so that I can fulfil my teacher fantasy by needlessly amending it.
  • Strategic Review. The same as a Review but marginally more superficial and likely to recommend the creation of a ‘Co-ordination Unit’.

I’d recommend a look at Mandarin English and some of the other guidance available at ‘How to be a Civil Servant’. Some of it feels uncomfortably familiar.

Finally, it’s probably no coincidence that the organisation I was running the workshops with (from the far away galaxy) made very little progress with the improvements after the Mandarin English episode (or I might have been me … who knows). I must also thank my anonymous friend who alerted me to Mandarin English.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Jargon, technical language and specialist terms do have their place and are useful where they help with communication and understanding in specific communities.
  2. Outside of these communities, jargon can cause confusion and exclude people, so beware when you use it.
  3. It’s worth checking if your own organisations needs a handbook of ‘Mandarin English’ for new recruits.

Photo Source:

Full link to Mandarin English:

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

7 Responses

  1. Another thought-provoking post. The Mandarin English, I have to inform you, has crossed over to the private sector as well, including abroad. I have personally witnessed it being used by senior people with official titles that often contain the words “strategy”, “advisor”, “consultant” or “deputy”… 🙂

  2. “If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.”
    ……….. Couldn’t have said it better myself……Confucius

  3. Hi Chris,
    Slight aside but I wonder if all such “improvement workshops” are doomed to a similar fate. When I eventually get round to sorting my blog I plan to write up something about whether such improvement events, staff away days, team get togethers etc take place in what the anthropologist Van Gennep called “liminal space”. Essentially, liminal space is a sort of ritual space, outside of time and place. It is, in traditional societies, a space where the spirits can enter, one can commune with the ancestors and generally a space where magic can happen. In some instances the social rules are turned upside down – the tribe gets to mock the chief “jokers” play out obsecene acts that would never be acceptable. In essence, the world is turned upside down and anything is possible.

    The problem is that the main function of such events is probably to dissapate tension – to consider the possible alternatives if we change the rules and release the frustrations with the current order. But by the time the ritual ends and the liminal space is closed, the effect is really to dissipate the tensions and impulses that could threaten the existing order. The end result is to actualy reinforce and strengthen the old order. I suspect your Admiral Bufton-Tufton was just playing the part of the Master of Ceremonies calling the ritual to an end and announcing a return to the old world. If not him, someone else would have done so in some other way. My theory is that these events probably serve an important social release function in organisations but probably aren’t really the way to change the existing order. Eventually, I’ll write these ideas up coherently but until then hope this helps provoke some thoughts!

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