What a linguist “sees while she is listening” to Greg Smith’s public resignation from Goldman Sachs

Last month, Greg Smith wrote a battle-cry of an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times entitled: “Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs” In this piece he speaks to a toxic and destructive working environment and culture, painting a picture of factors that contributed to this very public expression of his disenchantment. Using an approach that deeply resonates with our ethnographic approach to career exploration, He portrays instances of listening during which he increasingly did not like what he was hearing.  In his words: “if you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was not part of the thought process at all.”  So, what does this linguist “see while she is listening” to Mr. Smith?


The noisy silences

What struck me the most in this piece was Mr. Smith’s awareness of the questions which he does NOT hear being asked: “I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients” for him this noisy not illuminates exactly how “The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.”  For him, what is not said tells volumes about the current cultural climate. And how about what is?

Referring expressions

Twice in the piece, he cites shocking examples of clients being referred to as “muppets,” depressing to him for what it demonstrates to be an utter lack of humility and integrity for what ought to be the center of the enterprise.  The client ought to be treated with respect instead of having their “eyeballs torn out.”  To refer to clients as muppets shows just how far the firm has veered from being organized “around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients.”


Deictic shifts

I am struck by the rhetorical shifts throughout this essay, reflected in the deictic choices embedded in his use of pronouns.  These serve alternatively to reinforce his dissatisfaction and sense of distance from the organization, at other times to invite you into his recollection of a better time, or finally to share his experience of pain at the changes he has observed in the organization’s culture, as I will now explore.


The piece begins with Smith’s declaration that today is his last day at the company, where throughout this first section, he consistently refers to himself in the singular “I” and refers to “the firm,” Goldman Sachs” and “it.”  These choices take on meaning when he shifts to describing when he first joined the firm.  Speaking of the past, he refers to the organization as “this firm,” “this place” and he uses the inclusive pronoun “our.”  When explaining “how did we get here?” he shifts again to using “the firm” and “it,” and what is for me most telling, when he comes to a description (dripping with irony) of “how to be a leader” currently,  we have his  first use of the pronoun “we” and the referring expression that I was most familiar with when I was an employee of the firm “Goldman.”  Here in this section, this rhetorical shift invites you into his perspective, to share his horror, and own in his pain, a sense of complicity, and an understanding for what is motivating this drastic measure


Talking about culture

In this section, we are invited into a day-by-day through use of insider referring expressions for products and practices ”any illiquid, opaque product with a three-letter acronym.” He cites examples of Goldman-speak including “axes,” (he stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit) and “hunting elephants” (get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman)


I suggest that this piece provides a compelling illustration of how we should carry our “ways of listening” throughout the navigation of our careers

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