A Pertinent Blog

I love it when a L&D Insight Chat makes me really think. Especially when it’s about the language we use, and our different understandings and assumptions about meaning. This happened last Friday. The questions was:

“How do you give clients what they need?”

Inevitably, this led to some discussion on exploring the difference between ‘need’ and want’. This included a concern about the trickiness of not seeing impertinent (thanks to David McAra @DavidMcAra). I admit, I was somewhat floored by this. There are many things I really don’t want to be in my behaviour towards others, and ‘impertinent’ is definitely on that list. My reaction was quite Dickensian. I imagined some sort of combined scene from Oliver Twist and a very strict old fashioned schoolroom where the very act of asking a question of someone in authority would be met with a tirade about impertinence. The horror!

But then the discussion turned to being ‘pertinent’, which I perceive to be a good thing. The question posed however referred to being less pertinent more often… Oh? And then Oscar Wilde was mentioned (thanks Julie Drybrough @fuchsia_blue) and whether impertinence was in the eye of the beholder. Again, Oh? Good question.

My mind was going into high gear by this point. Why exactly is ‘impertinent’ not the opposite of ‘pertinent’? Well, its formal meaning is that something is irrelevant or not pertinent to a particular matter, whereas its more often used meaning is that someone is rude or not showing proper respect. Look it up in a thesaurus and you get the following synonyms:

Arrogant, brash, brassy, brazen…ill-mannered, impolite, impudence, inappropriate… out of line, pert, presumptious… smart-alecky, uncalled for, unmannerly and many others.

I promise you this is not a KS2 SATS test and there are no subordinating conjunctions here (that I would recognise anyway) but this on line thesaurus, whilst listing 39 synonyms, only lists 6 antonyms. Six! These are:

Kind, mannered, nice, polite, refined and respectful.

Who doesn’t want, however deep down, to be all of the above?

Back to the 39 synonyms. It’s no surprise then that the word ‘impertinent’ was understood in a range of ways by different participants. Only 3 of these synonyms by the way, do I think matched the formal definition i.e. the exact opposite of pertinent.

So if working with a client (external or internal) to discuss, explore, define, refine and agree their needs, how important is pertinence? I would have said 100% before this discussion. Why would I want to waste their time (and ultimately mine) with irrelevance? 

But, the entertainment of a little impertinence? Hmm, well 36 negative synonyms aside, I was starting to think that this could probably be quite useful for the stimulation of ideas. Ideas or thoughts that might appear irrelevant at first, even if rejected outright initially, could well lead to a deeper and more genuine discussion of needs. It could certainly prevent a beige conversation…

I’m still processing a lot of these thoughts, so this is a bit of a stream of consciousness (adding Virginia Woolf to the literary references already made.) I am wondering about the appropriateness of being unfailingly pertinent, especially to clients we do not know, and who we treat respectfully due to their status. I am wondering about how this changes (if at all) with clients we know well, and who have earned our respect (or not). Do we use a little less pertinence in those situations? Does this get a more realistically based and successful outcome for them? So many questions… So much depends on our knowledge/experience about the topic and the client, our approach, style etc., and yes, the context. I would love to discuss this further. What do you think?


I tried to find suitable illustrations for this. At first my experience was as follows:

Then I noticed that most of the images in a search for 'pertinence' are in French, where it has the same meaning, but seems to be in much greater use in business diagrams:

This diagram is called 'efficacite', translated as efficiency. Interesting to see 'pertinence' here as as a key relationship between 'moyens' - means (wherewithal/resources) and objectives, which kind of brings me back to how much pertinence there needs to be in a discussion about 'needs' v 'wants'.


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