Recently the phrase “soft skills” created a heated debate among the members of the PCS AdCom. The question was, should communication be referred to as one of the “soft skills,” or should some other phrase be used instead? And if so, what should that phrase be?
Let me start by saying that in my academic context, I am always fighting against the phrase, and I take every opportunity to replace “soft skill” with “professional skill” as the appropriate label for communication. The use of “soft skills” is long-standing, but by now the engineering, math, and science faculty I work with have learned that calling communication a “soft skill” will bring down vocal corrections from every member of the English faculty. For example, during recent interviews for a high-level administration position, the prospective candidate referred to communication as a “soft skill” during his public presentation to the campus. Immediately from the faculty gathered came the correction: communication is a “professional skill,” they intoned. Their response made my heart glad!
Why does the phrase “soft skills” raise such passions? Probably because of the unspoken but implied implications of “soft.” For many of us who are technical communicators, “soft” belies the difficulty of what we do. And any working engineer who has prepared a client presentation, a design report, or a regulatory document–any kind of communication piece at all, really–would probably agree that communication is simultaneously important and challenging. “Soft” also suggests non-technical, since the “hard” skills are those technical skills that are the engineer’s bread and butter. Finally, puppies and kittens are soft, pillows are soft, clouds are soft, ice cream can be soft. Communication isn’t like that, is it?