The Exclusivity of Language

Google defines “doublespeak” as “deliberately euphemistic, ambiguous, or obscure language.” I want to open up with this term because I am well-aware that there is some language used in the real estate business that is not only inaccessible to the people the realty agents sell to, but some of it is very deliberately misleading. There is plenty of discipline-specific terminology used in many varying fields, but not every field has any built-in need to deceive people. The average person might have no clue what enjambment is or what Plato thinks of poetry, but you won’t see anyone going around falsely claiming that there exists a line break quota for every one hundred words or that Plato exults the usefulness of poetry in The Republic (thanks Plato, for being so supportive). For salespeople, however, they have the potential to financially benefit from deceit. Sure the business of selling houses isn’t the only field for which this is true, but I’ll stick to what I know and have experience with.

My knowledge base is sourced through my mom, who began work as a real estate broker in the early 2000s when business was booming. I started working for her unofficially circa 2009, at first advertising and filing for my mom’s business, and then moving on to more secretarial work, i.e., answering phones, scheduling appointments, etc. It was and still is difficult getting a foothold on all the terminology the realty agents throw around when I have no personal experience investing in real estate or selling any houses myself, but I learned early on that there is some element of insider language that one usually only picks up if they spend time in the business. I think the key to doublespeak in real estate might actually be experience, just as it may also be true for the big players on Wall Street. We’ll take a man like Steve Eisman, who is presented as someone who quite suddenly finds himself in the midst of a business he has little experience in, and subsequently defies all expectations of failure and instead quickly rises to the top. Eisman immersed himself into a new environment, much like many of us, as the readers of The Big Short are doing now with all this economics business, and opened himself up to learning all the tricks of the trade. Experience followed involvement for Eisman (as it often does in the learning process of just about anything), so who’s to say where Eisman might have ended up if he had remained a lawyer like he originally planned?

I’ll circle back to doublespeak and experience. While it may often seem as though Eisman was inexperienced coming into the story, what with the way he constantly asks clarifying questions when conversing with other Wall Street big names, it can be easy to forget that he was raised by a couple who spent years working in the financial business for Oppenheimer. The man had some indirect experience with finance, just like I do with real estate. This is where doublespeak comes in as a technique employed for the purpose of tricking people out of their money. With direct exposure to the field of finance, Eisman came to learn how the banks were profiting off of deceit. People were encouraged to take out loans they couldn’t afford to pay back, and bankers/sellers did this by pitching their deals to easy targets, which was anyone who didn’t understand the value of what they were buying or how much they were being profited off of. Eisman was able to observe and then play into this game of tricking people, recognizing that this deceit was rooted in a lack of understanding on the part of the people being deceived, (or else they obviously wouldn’t be getting tricked). Refinancing, for one, was very common around the time of the crash, but there is danger in doing this, not that the banks would tell people this. A banker might try to tell a homeowner that refinancing is fine, that everyone does it, but there are associated risks with refinancing, chief among them being that banks aren’t just going to hand out money without ultimately getting more of it back. If a term like “refinancing” throws someone off, if a person doesn’t fully comprehend its meaning, then that lack of knowledge could be used to that person’s disadvantage. Eisman recognized these deceptive tendencies in the financial business, but refused to budge when it came to doing business with other people and their companies. Consequently, Eisman’s personality and manner of speaking comes off as refreshing, just as he is contrasted with all those other people in the book who seek to stretch the laws to their advantage and trick people for their own financial gain.

Going back to the time before the recession, business was booming and homeowners everywhere were eager to take for themselves a piece of that success. The banks would urge people to take out loans and mortgages for more properties than they could afford, and they were refinancing in order to make the necessary payments and thus theoretically giving the banks more money in the long run. In accordance with our mantra from King Lear, however, “nothing will come of nothing,” and if the people investing in all if this real estate didn’t have the finances to back their investments, then they would inevitably get foreclosed and go bankrupt, which would drive down their credit scores and perpetuate a cycle of poverty. Following that disaster sourced in the banks’ lack of regulation, no one could buy houses once the market crashed and the banks realized they needed to stop handing out loans left and right. In consequence, realtors became more desperate to sell so they could continue to make a living in the business, and a bunch of shady deals took place. Facts would get fudged so people could sell homes for higher prices, or so that an unsuspecting client might buy a home that didn’t quite meet regulation. My dad, for example, bought a house that was advertised as having three bedrooms when it really only had two and should have consequently cost less, but he was lied to about the number of bedrooms the house had. Looking back now, I don’t know why my mom never pointed out to him that a room is not allowed to be classified as a bedroom if it has no closet, but the point is that my dad is just one of the people who got the short end of the stick from a shady business deal.

I’ll wrap it up since I’ve been rambling on for quite a while. The key points in this post are that involvement in the economy and finance may feel inaccessible to us because many of us have little to no personal experience in it, and that limits our command over the lingo of the field and thus, our involvement in it. For everyone else who doesn’t have family to fall back on before buying a home or making another kind of investment, I encourage you to do your research. Buying a home is a scary thing, and plenty of sales people out there might attempt to sell you a “good” home when they’ll just as soon turn around and laugh with their co-listing agent about their insider code word “good,” which really means something more along the lines of, “in poor condition.”

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