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Language Arts: Pushback

First in a series.

Within the past six months, the term pushback, loosely defined as "resistance from an opposing force," has been used in association with phenomena as varied as the presidential campaign, the competitive domain of retail shopping, and Apple iPod customers.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, pushback is defined as "the name of a mechanical device used in motorized devices that serve the function of opening and closing a door or other object, e.g., 'the pushback on a subway door.'"

AHD also recognizes pushback for its military connection, e.g., "the forced movement of troops back from the line."

Along similar lines, Wikipedia links pushback to aviation, referencing it as "an airport procedure during which an aircraft is pushed backwards away from an airport gate by an external power." Note the inclusion of the word "external," emphasizing its origination from an outside source.

From the aforementioned definitions, we come to the conclusion that pushback's traditional meaning was based upon the idea of a physical act being performed by an outside force which, in turn, jostled someone or something from his, her or its chosen position.

Over the past couple of years, however, pushback has gotten a makeover of sorts and, thus, taken on a whole host of fresh and colorful alliterations.

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Grouped into the new pool of pushback meanings are: the friction caused by factious people (e.g., uncommitted voters), the residual effects of unhealthy behaviors (e.g., overeating, smoking) ,and the debate over troublesome environmental-societal conditions (e.g., global warming and immigration).

Within the English vernacular, "push back," written as two words, was formerly regarded as a verb, whereas the pushback of today appears as one word and is most often used as a noun, e.g., "the public pushback about the new policy is astounding due to the fact folks were previously so apathetic about the old policy."

The contemporized use of the pushback phraseology infers that the people of today have become both more knowledgeable and better educated on the important things in life, like current events, political issues, matters of philanthropy and shopping for the best deal.

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Indeed, it is within the retail environment where I first became acquainted with the term. Having recently taking on a part-time seasonal sales position, our training sessions included sessions on "dealing with customer pushback."

Basically the gist of the MOD's (manager on duty's) rhetoric pertaining to "working with issue-laden customers" was to provide examples of how and why customers may exhibit pushback and how we, as sales associates, were to contend with these potential maelstrom events.

As the MOD relayed, "We tend to see a lot more pushback from our regular customers than those who more infrequently visit our store."

Ironically, though somewhat synonymous with resistance, pushback is not often used to describe a physical act. Rather, its usage imparts a distancing of oneself from an action or sentiment; a rallying, if you will, in support of one's beliefs.

Quite literally, then, the use of the term pushback represents the figurative act of pushing back so that one can create the space needed to present their views on the issue-at-hand.

In rare cases, taken to the extreme, pushback scenarios have even escalated to the point of becoming full-blown pushback movements or pushback palettes, whereby unending waves of dissenting ideas and opinions are dispersed upon both pertinent and non-pertinent parties.

On the campaign trail, the pushback against Mike Huckabee began once he rose to the top of the Republican field, with rival camps scrutinizing his relatively moderate views on some major issues, leading, for example, to a headline on a New York Times political blog that read, "Huckabee's Pushback On Immigration."

Also climbing onboard the Huckabee pushback bandwagon, the BlognetNews website proclaimed, "The Huckabee Pushback Starts" in response to how the candidate was going to need to secure his lead in the polls against his rival candidates.

Not exclusive to domestic websites, but also within international circles, pushback has made front page news. As an example of the global employment of the term, the OtherIraqNews website recently posted an article titled "Kurdistan - The Other Iraq" that noted "the Kurds took the pushback in stride."

Moving from news-oriented websites to the world of mainstream media, pushback has also made its presence known. ABC News's Nightline anchor Terry Moran actually named his blog Pushback.

Designed to present conferring opinions on topical issues from politics to Hollywood antics, Moran's blog addresses the matters deemed pivotal to the lives of everyday people. Relying upon a somewhat confrontational tone intermixed with information-based content, the title for Moran's blog seems apropos.

And, seemingly inescapable, pushback has also turned up in possibly the most unlikely place of all, the spiritual/personal development realm.

Consider, if you will, the online blog of self-empowerment guru Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In laying out the ways in which people can learn to influence their boss, Covey trendily states, "With empathy and anticipation you can accomplish your day to day tasks with less pushback from your boss."

And, in a separate quote, although using push back as a verb, Covey makes the clever statement, "We are limited but we can push back the borders of our limitations."

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Non-discriminatory, the term pushback can be used in discussions on any topic with any and all types of people. Pushback comes in most handy when you are trying to explain a situation involving a grievance (usually shared by many) of some sort.

"I demonstrated a bit of pushback at dinner tonight," you can say, or to be more explicit, "The chef experienced some pushback from me as I told him he needs to include more items on his menu featuring locally grown ingredients or his long-time customers may be inclined to stop patronizing his eatery."

Given, then, its infinite range of versatility and innumerable modern day applications, you are apt to want to give pushback a test run yourself.

Bear in mind, it is best to start with simple topics. For example, you may want to start by using pushback in an easy-going conversation about the local cable company (e.g., "A lot of pushback has arisen from customers not wanting to wait at home for five or six hours straight just to get the hook-up.")

Eventually, you should be able to work yourself up to more complicated discussions involving proposed property tax increases (e.g., "Pushback is quite evident among homeowners"); recent cuts in benefits by your insurance company (e.g., "Pushback has taken the form of people not paying their premiums and/or switching carriers"); or the ultimate test, presidential candidates' stances on key issues (e.g., The pushback is on with regard to Republican Mitt Romney's alleged endorsement of religious discrimination in government.")

In today's world where being part attitudinal and part-nonconformist is all the rage, over time, you are most certain to become very sought out for your proficient, off-handed use of pushback.

Regardless of whether the term's contemporary use came from an increase in public demonstrations over unfair practices or from a highly paid advertising genius, the moral of the story is that when push comes to shove, perhaps the new, best thing to do is give a little pushback.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on January 8, 2008


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