Workplace jargon: Why do we speak like that?
Business blather is running rampant in the office. Maybe we should all take a rain check.
Picture the scene: It’s Monday morning, and mom, dad and their two kids are eating breakfast together before they all set out for the day.
Suddenly dad pipes up: “Say, kids, about that front lawn. Could you two maybe synergize your resources after school and action that mowing plan I ran up the flagpole yesterday? I really need your buy-in on this guys, so let’s make sure you implement those key grass-cutting deliverables.”
Doesn’t sound likely, does it? And if Dad did start talking like that at breakfast, his family would think he’d lost his mind. But after a short drive to the office, he could talk like that all day – touching base, shifting paradigms and pushing envelopes to his heart’s content – and no one would bat an eye-lid.
Business jargon is a strange monster. It turns nouns into verbs (leverage) and verbs into nouns (learnings). It willfully sticks ‘ize’ on the end of pretty much everything (actualize, productize) and lumps together words that really should stay apart (idea showers). Sometimes, it gets outright gross. (Open the kimono? Really?)
And yet millions of American workers can’t help but speak a slightly different language as soon as they get behind an office desk. Why?
“Frankly, its main use is as an evasion technique,” explained Apryl Brodersen, management professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “If you don’t have an answer, it’s easy to fall back on the ‘safe words.’ For people in leadership roles particularly, to whom the thought of admitting they don’t know something is terrifying, jargon provides a useful get-out-of-jail-free card.”
Business-speak also acts as a kind of social glue in the workplace – a way of both fitting in and impressing your colleagues. (Are you ‘brainstorming a rapid ideation session to harmonize your team’s key objectives’? Hey, you’re clearly part of the club!)
And much like high street fashion, workplace speech is very susceptible to fads.
“Right now, for example, the notion of ‘core competencies’ is all the rage in the management world,” Brodersen said. “But I’d be surprised if a fraction of the people using the expression could define what it actually means. And that’s obviously not great for business.”
Recent surveys of office workers indicate more than a quarter use jargon every day. Worryingly, 88 percent of workers also admitted they often pretend to understand words and phrases they are clueless about.
Pushing the weird-o-meter right up the dial, almost half then start using those expressions themselves. (Yes, you read that right. People who don’t understand words are repeating them authoritatively to other confused people, who also pretend to understand them.)
“This is the real danger,” according to Brodersen. “Not only is most jargon empty and meaningless – it also creates genuine misunderstanding and a lack of direction. If four people in a meeting literally don’t have a common grasp of the words they are using that spells real trouble.”
Corporate speak also has a dark side. Many businesses deliberately employ innocuous and even banal words (‘rationalization’, ‘downsizing’) to cloak bad news, which fosters a distrust of language itself.
A few years ago, for example, Citigroup notoriously announced “a series of repositioning actions that will further reduce expenses and improve efficiency [leading to] streamlined operations and an optimized consumer footprint across geographies.” It’s fair to assume many of the 11,000 people who had just been fired didn’t immediately realize it.
However, this is not to suggest all jargon is always a bad idea. In certain fields – such as the finance, technical and medical professions – people with expert knowledge genuinely benefit from having their own shorthand to simplify complex language and concepts. And this is no new phenomenon. As far back as 1782, the French philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac observed that “every science requires a special language because every science has its own ideas.”
But that’s kind of the point. Unless you’re a technical whiz or surgeon or Wall Street supremo, your job probably just doesn’t need a complicated second language. What you really need is plain speaking and clear communications.
Brodersen couldn’t agree more. “Have you seen those popular ‘buzzword bingo’ games, where office workers covertly check off all the nonsensical words they hear in meetings? That shows you how workplace jargon is starting to become perceived as a joke.”
However, millions of workers clearly still haven’t got the punchline. So what should graduating college students do if their first job lands them in a jargon-fuelled environment? Humans are essentially pack animals, after all, so the pressure to join the herd and start spouting gobbledygook will be strong.
Break the cycle
Brodersen has a better idea. “Ask, ask and ask again,” she explained. “If you don’t understand something your supervisor says, just keep politely asking them to define what they mean in specific and actionable terms.”
And avoid using jargon yourself at all costs: “Instead, spell out everything clearly and concisely. Break the cycle.”
Because ultimately, the road to clear communication in the workplace will be paved with the positive examples of a new generation of workers – many of them college graduates. True change will only come when a majority of American workers finally say: “An optimum point has been actualized and a process of reverse leveraging is now required.”
Or “Enough is enough.”