The Pitfalls of Platitude

You may have seen Foreign Minister Penny Wong's address to the National Press Club last month on "Australia's interests in a regional balance of power." It was followed by a stinging attack by former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who accused her of running around the Pacific with a lei around her neck handing out money. He also accused her of using "platitudes" in her major foreign policy speech.

Keating, who is as notorious for his acerbic wit as his fondness for Italian suits, was just plain rude and disrespectful in his comments. However, leaving that aside, it is worth exploring what "platitudes" are and how and why we should avoid them.

Put simply; a platitude is a statement that has lost its original meaning because it has become over-used.

Historically, the word "platitude" originated from the French term "plat", meaning "flat". In French, "platitude" is a phrase that means dull or uninspiring. This term was adopted by the English language in the 18th century, keeping its original meaning as something rendered flat or dull due to excessive repetition.

Many readers will remember the phrase "moving forward", which was used excessively by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. In her election announcement speech, she used the words more than twenty times and continued to use them regularly in media appearances. That was back in 2010. When I hear that phrase today, I (and others I have spoken to) are reminded of its overuse by the former Prime Minister rather than the true meaning of the words. "Moving forward" means a shift towards future actions or plans. However, because of its overuse, it is now considered cliched and no longer effectively communicates the intended message. It is vague and doesn't provide specific information about the direction or actions being considered. It has become a platitude.

Similarly, the phrase "unprecedented times" was used incessantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The words are meant to acknowledge unique and challenging circumstances. However, because of its frequent use during this time, it eventually lost its impact and became a platitude.

The other context in which platitudes can be found is in correspondence, including letters, emails, and official documents from government agencies. We have all, at some point, received correspondence from a government department full of platitudes that don't address the issue we have raised. Statements such as "we are working to create jobs," "we support education," or "we are committed to fighting climate change" may sound good, but they do not provide any specifics on how the government plans to create jobs, support education, or fight climate change.

Here are five recommended strategies to use when writing to a government agency to avoid receiving a reply containing platitudes:

1. Be clear about the issue you are writing about and provide specific examples. For example, instead of writing, "I am concerned about the state of the footpaths in my suburb," provide details, including the name of the street, the type of damage you have witnessed, and when it occurred.

2. Back up your argument with evidence. For example, refer to data, such as statistics, to reinforce your point and make it more persuasive. Photos, videosor other documentation will convey the severity of the issue and the urgency of your request.

3. Write directly to the person or department responsible for the issue you are concerned about. This demonstrates that you have researched and understand the department's structure.

4. Offer suggestions for how the issue can be addressed. This demonstrates that you are not complaining; instead, you are actively engaged in finding a solution.

5. Follow up if you are still waiting for a satisfactory response and request an update. Be persistent. This will ensure that your request is addressed and increase the likelihood of receiving a substantive response.

Until then, “let me be clear”, “I wish you all the best in your future endeavours", and I trust these strategies will assist "in the fullness of time".

The pitfalls of platitudes

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