A reactive defence of ‘proactive’

What is it about proactive that people hate so much? Some object to it on the grounds of superfluity, arguing (incorrectly) that it does nothing active isn’t already doing, um, actively. Others revile it as management speak, a corporate buzzword like leverage, synergy and incentivize (Boo, hiss! etc.).

COCA finds proactive commonly collocating with approach, role, stance, steps, management, and strategies, which points to its prevalence in business or academic writing. It’s been appearing in print since about 1930, but it didn’t take off until relatively recently. Its rise to popularity has been distributed evenly on either side of the Atlantic:

Google ngram viewer - proactive in UK and US English

Such swift sweeps into the general lexicon rarely go unpunished (ongoing, I’m looking at you). A few minutes of Googling delivered reams of proactive-hatred, of which the following is a small sample:

Proactive angers me greatly.

I really dislike the word proactive.

I convulse when ever I hear the word proactive.

it’s just plain ugly . . . it’s ambiguous.

I’ve got two major clichés that I hate, and those are “proactive” and “reaching out to the consumers.”

I hate the word “proactive” and started a movement to abolish the word in anticipation of it becoming popular.

I HATE THE STINKING WORD PROACTIVE!!!!

There is no such word as proactive. Please differentiate for me “active” and “proactive”.

Ah, the old “X is not a word” non-argument. Hatred of proactive is even a song, and presumably a T-shirt. All we need now is a musical.

Dilbert - Let's form proactive synergy restructuring teamsBut I don’t think the opprobrium is fair. The OED defines proactive as “creating or controlling a situation by taking the initiative or anticipating events; ready to take initiative, tending to make things happen.” (That’s as it relates to a person, policy, etc.; there’s a psychological sense I’m ignoring here.) Other definitions cover similar ground.

This is an altogether different quality to that of being active, which implies nothing about initiative or anticipation. Even Bryan Garner defends proactive, noting that although it’s “widely viewed with suspicion, it’s occasionally useful as an antonym of reactive. It seems to fill a gap in the language” (A Dictionary of Modern American Usage).

What prompted this post was a piece of dialogue in, of all things, a crime novel: Lawrence Block’s Hit List (which incidentally has several exchanges of linguistic interest). Though Block’s treatment of proactive here doesn’t really stress the anticipatory aspect, it covers the debate pretty sensibly:

“It seems to me,” Dot said, “that we’ve got two choices. We can wait passively for the situation to resolve itself, or we can take a proactive approach.”

“That’s a word you never used to hear,” Keller said, “and now you hear it all the time. I know what it means, but what’s the point of it? Why not just say active?”

“It sounds better.”

“It does?”

“Sure. Proactive, like you’re really getting off your ass and doing something, and being professional about it, too.”

The pro- of proactive doesn’t come from professional, but since the latter word abbreviates to pro, its appearance in proactive carries across connotations of effective business behaviour. This could be a factor in its popularity in office and corporate communities: “I’m not just being active; I’m being active like a pro.”

Add that to the word’s implications of preparedness and enterprise, and you see why Dot is right: proactive is used because it has a useful and particular meaning, and also because it’s felt to be forceful and impressive. That not every listener concurs is beside the point.

What say you: Are you an proactive user, abuser, or refuser?

[image from Dilbert by Scott Adams]
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28 Responses to A reactive defence of ‘proactive’

  1. Claire Stokes says:

    I’m totally into ‘proactive,’ but then I also am fine with synergy so my opinion may need to be entirely discounted accordingly.

    IMHO, the workplace today is rife with drama and intrigue, power itself is often the rule that needs to be followed, personalities win over principles. Survival is easier when one simply keeps their head down, does the established activities in the usual way, and focuses on their higher-ups well-being.

    For an employee to be proactive in a work situation, there needs to be decentralized decision-making, widely-shared information, shared purpose, and other workplace aspects that are not universal.

    Proactive = rocking the boat. Result: Endless range of damage and destruction, real and imagined. The horror!!

  2. biobabbler says:

    I’ve never heard anyone object to the use of proactive–so I’ve learned something new, today. I find it useful and an important distinction v. other types of activity. Esp. if you’re trying to talk about being efficient and effective in your life, work, etc.

    What I do object to is “pre-planning.” Makes my head explode–if you don’t do it ahead of time, IT’S NOT PLANNING. =) A very satisfying part of editing for $$ is creating an embargo against it.

    Also, not convinced “pre-order” is needed. If you submit a request for something and pay for it, you’ve ordered it. Not convinced “pre-” is ever needed. Even if the thing you’re ordering is not yet actually ready to be shipped (e.g. ordering a book before it’s out), you’re still just ordering it. What’s different is the anticipated shipping delay.

    • Claire Stokes says:

      I totally agree on pre-planning, that’s silly. But I have to argue on pre-order. What I’m thinking is that an actual ‘order’ for something is a binding legal contract between a buyer and a seller, carrying with it liabilities and exposures and so on. A pre-order is something less than that.. it’s an allocation of expected inventory to expected buyers based on some mutual agreement.

  3. This seems like a case where a formally unobjectionable coinage is tainted by its substantive associations (“positive” in some uses is similar, or “going forward”) with corporate jargon, self-help books, and pop psychology. After one has begun to associate a word with any of these types of discourse, it is hard not to recoil from it.

  4. Proforma is the one that gets me. Why did it start be using instead of form. Have asked people many times to explain the difference between a proforma and what we used to call a form. Many have tried, none have succeeded. Can you?

    • Eugene says:

      It means “(just) for the sake of form.” I could see overlap with “formality,” but not with “form.” Also, it has a specific, technical meaning that is nothing like form, but somewhat like formality. Here’s what dictionary.com says.
      “The phrase pro forma, in an appealable decree or judgment, usually means that the decision was rendered not on a conviction that it was right, but merely to facilitate further proceedings.”

      • That is nothing close to how it is used by the companies I work with. They say “We have a proforma to be filled out” (ie a form), “We will need to draw up a proforma for that ” (ie a form); but they are using it as all one word “proforma” rather than the sense you refer to “pro forma”. Someone somewhere may have invenmted the all one word version in error, or to found fancy, but it is very much used nowadays in business and especially education to basically just mean a form that should be filled in.

  5. Forgive my hurried mangled language of course. “When did it start being used instead of form?” is closer

  6. All I have to add to the discussion, really, is the obligatory Pratchett quote.

    Claire: I think the first time I encountered Synergy it was actually the name of a university student political party that year.

  7. Joy says:

    I think proactive and synergy are fine, they mean specific things and are useful words – even if they are a bit of corporate jargon.

    On the other hand, the one that drives me NUTS is “liaise” as a verb. EEEEKKKK!!! Though network as a verb doesn’t bother me, so I guess I’m pretty inconsistent here. ;-)

    Oh, and “incentivize” is so terrible that I forgot to even add it to the list!

  8. Stan says:

    Claire: Very interesting; thanks for fleshing out the word’s connotations. I rarely use it myself, so it’s helpful to get insights from people who do. Many workplaces lack proactive behaviour (from a neutral observer’s pov), so you can see how it would be desired by management.

    biobabbler: Yes, I think it does fill a niche – without it we’d need a rather long phrase to convey what we mean by it. Strictly speaking pre-planning seems tautologous, but I suppose people like to break down the different phases of planning. Welcome, by the way. I love your nature photos.

    glassbottomblog: When I wrote this post I began with a paragraph on lexical priming but deleted it during editing. This theory assumes people “store the words they know in the context in which they were heard or read”, and I imagine it’s a factor in many people’s aversion to proactive.

    Don: Macmillan Dictionary, which is based on corpus usage and tends to be very up to date, defines pro forma (n.) as “a standard document with questions or information on it”. So although it’s traditionally an adjectival or adverbial phrase, pro forma is also used as a noun phrase meaning essentially “a pro forma document”, for example a pro forma invoice or balance sheet. The usage may have emerged as an abbreviation of “pro forma document” or similar, i.e. a document prepared or structured in a set or standard way, and been helped along by how formal or fancy it sounds.

    Eugene: Thanks for your help.

    Adrian: Google Books isn’t currently letting me view that page, but I found what I think is the exchange you’re referring to:

    ‘Pro-active, I think. It’s a word he’s using a lot.’
    ‘What does that mean?’
    ‘Well . . . in favour of activity, I suppose.’
    ‘Really? Dangerous. In my experience, inactivity sees you through.’

    Joy: I’ve noticed quite a few people objecting to liaise, so you’re not alone. In my dealings with research organisations and rights activists I encounter the word fairly regularly, so I’m used to it, and I find it isn’t quite synonymous with network or any other term. Incentivize raises hackles whenever it appears – Fowler might have called it a barbarism – but it is an economical word for something not always covered by motivate or inspire.

  9. ALiCe__M says:

    When I hear “proactive”, I hear a criticism (of a behaviour, an attitude), as if “active” was not enough,as if, what you are actually *doing* right now was not enough, does not produce enough, is not efficient enough. So here is a piece of advice : be proactive !

  10. Aidan says:

    We can all now use ‘proactive’ without apology, going forward.

  11. Proforma: “a standard document with questions or information on it”. ”

    Exactly what we used to call “a form” :)

    My point exactly. I still await any persuasion that the word “form” is ever inadequate instead of “proforma”. Just people thinking fancy words mean fancy procedures or fancy thinking, aka bullshit

  12. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:
    Your post incentivised me. Here’s my input: rather than take a pro forma prescriptivist position about jargon, I think that many words which take on the trappings of cliche help to proactively grow the language.

  13. Stan says:

    Alice: It can have that implication, but only in certain contexts, I think. If a company describes itself as “proactively engaging” in something, it’s just referring to its own enterprising activities, not casting aspersions on others’ lack.

    Aidan: Indeed we can. But be prepared for occasional negative reactions.

    Don: Emphasis on standard document. It may serve as a template, prescribing layout and content in advance of reproduction or delivery. In such cases it’s not the same as any old form, though no doubt there is some overlap owing to the human proclivity for fancyisms.

    Marc: They can, so long as they’re used with restraint and good judgement. Time will tell, but I’m pretty sure proactive is here for the long haul.

    • Don QuiScottie says:

      Yeah I have had that one tried on me before, and disagreed. because we had such standard documents years ago and we called them the forms. As in “You should use the form”. Administration much more formal than we ever use nowadays managed to thrive and communicate just using the word “form” long before proformas began to be talked about.

      Anyway, thanks for considering. I will desist now:)

  14. John Kelly says:

    It’s easy to dislike the abuse and misuse of this word, but such is (or can be) the case for any word, isn’t it? The buzzwords of corporate-speak are obvious targets, of course, but vehement opposition too often takes a puritanical approach stemming from prescriptive attitudes, as your blogging so often cogently points out. In the big picture, a cliche that I am sure is causing a reader of this comment to cringe, abuse and misuse can be mechanisms of language change. Cf. “awesome.” Words serve us, not the other way around.

    In the specific instance of “proactive,” I have vivid recollections of my father, an attorney, using the word. Sure, he would use the word when lecturing me about some failure to demonstrate punctuality, planning, or some such, but indeed used it quite effectively, emphasizing the pro-qua-before-in-time-ness of the word. So, I’m with you on this: “proactive” has its place.

  15. Andrew Doty says:

    It would have been great to have never heard that song.

  16. rcayley says:

    I don’t have any objection to ‘proactive’, but your post did make me wonder how much the broader sentence matters. Consider this example: “Institutions … must play a proactive role to encourage the use of these resources.” Here, I would very much want to get rid of ‘play a proactive role to’. That is, playing a proactive role and encouraging the use of resources are very closely connected, making the sentence seem wordy: it’s hard (although not impossible) to encourage people to use resources reactively. I’m just wondering whether, as in your example, it’s more natural to contrast proactive and passive approaches; when we go on to characterize the proactive approach, perhaps we run the risk of redundancy. Thanks.

  17. wisewebwoman says:

    I deal a lot with addicts Stan so tend to shorthand these words when it comes to personal dilemmas and challenges.

    i.e.

    “Do you want to be proactive or reactive in this situation?”

    As reaction is the norm for many addicts, proaction is a new concept.
    And I find the word empowering.

    XO
    WWW

  18. Stan says:

    John: Well said. Yes, it’s easy to take against words, especially when they spread quickly – and function prominently as business buzzwords. Glassbottomblog put it well in an earlier comment: “a formally unobjectionable coinage is tainted by its substantive associations with corporate jargon” (or other maligned domain). Maybe these associations will begin to fade as the word is used more generally. Thanks for the personal report: it sounds as though your father used it effectively.

    Andrew: Once was enough for me too. But if nothing else, it’s a novel way to get a point across.

    Rachael: A useful point. Reading your example, I felt the same editor’s twitch, and would be inclined to remove the redundant phrase. Even reducing “play a proactive role to encourage” to “proactively encourage” is unsatisfactory, for the reason you describe. Such wordiness is common in business writing, and though the problem doesn’t inhere in the word proactive itself, it’s something readers, writers and editors might all be mindful of.

    WWW: I can see how it would be especially useful that way, as a ready-made converse of reactive. And proaction is snappier than proactiveness, which is how I’d have been inclined to nominalise it.

  19. mollymooly says:

    liaison>liaise is a different noun>verb conversion paradigm from network>network. It’s a kind of back-formation, but perhaps more exceptionable than most in that the part being omitted is not a noun-forming suffix (-on in liaise; similarly -iasm in enthuse).

  20. Stan says:

    Molly: That’s true, and it’s probably a factor (unconscious or not) in some people’s dislike of the word. In other cases I think it’s mostly about the word’s ubiquity in a certain community; it comes across as a fad or vogue word.

  21. liz says:

    I have a question explain occasionally reactive person my boss said I was one

    • Stan says:

      Liz: Without knowing the context, I can’t be sure. Macmillan Dictionary defines reactive as “reacting to things that happen, rather than making things happen yourself”, so in that sense it contrasts with proactive. Similarly, Merriam-Webster has “reacting to problems when they occur instead of doing something to prevent them”. But it can also mean “tending to be responsive” (American Heritage Dictionary).

  22. rdww says:

    Illiterates use the word “proactive” as an antonym of “reactive.” They seem to think it means “pre-active.” The “Pro-” prefix actually means in support of. When someone says “proactive” they’re really saying “I’m in support of being active.” And they’re still illiterates.

    • Stan says:

      Actually, Ralph, the pro- prefix can also mean “before in time, place, order, etc.”, from Greek pro meaning “before”. We see this in prohibit, provide, prophet, and so on. You could have looked this up instead of mislabelling people as illiterate for using a word you just don’t like.

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