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:
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”.
But 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.”
“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?