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Working in a business, no matter how big or small, you’re bound to come across certain phrases that really grind your gears. We’re all incredibly guilty of it, using business jargon and ‘management speak’ to avoid clearly answering questions or deflecting from situations that we don’t know the solution to.
Avoiding the real issue at hand by using complex phrases can be both confusing and downright annoying, especially when a simple statement will do. Some businesses even go as far as semi-ironically handing out ‘buzzword bingo’ scorecards at meetings.
When did we stop using Plain English in the workplace to describe our thoughts, feelings and responses to a situation?
Management speak and business jargon is cited as starting in the 1950’s, when the US found its businesses being taken over by conglomerates and corporations due to the mergers and acquisitions that took place post-World War II. A loss of office and worker identity ensued, and a connection to the workplace disappeared. Management turned to creating a unique, emotional atmosphere – essentially a clique that workers could feel a part of – and therefore office speak was born.
Throughout the 1950’s a new school of thought was occurring in regard to office environments. Entitled ‘management science’ the research conducted by three MIT professors – Douglas McGregor, Edgar Schein and Richard Beckhard – found a theory whereby managers could view their employees as ambitious self-motivators who thrive in an atmosphere of trust with Schein stating “This introduced the idea that effective managers believe in their people and trust them and don’t feel that they have to monitor them all the time”.
The trend for creating a mixture of exclusivity and team spirit continued into the 1960’s when philosopher Thomas Kuhn brought the term ‘paradigm shift’ into popular usage in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
The 1970’s and 1980’s gave way to Wall Street and financial terms such as leverage, risk and hard-sell, and the 1990’s is where Silicon Valley and the tech industry popularised synergy, bandwidth and download.
Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs became pioneers of businesses phrases in the 00’s. The former’s “move fast, break things” is reflective of the 00’s culture and shifting pattern of the digital age, whereas Jobs championed the notion of “fearless feedback” in his Apple empire – would the alliteration of constructive criticism not done the same job, Steve?
It’s not just in workplace conversation that this baffling array of dialect is taking place. Job boards are peppered with adverts for media distribution officers (paperboy/papergirl), horticultural transformer (gardener) and underwater ceramic technician (dishwasher).
In the US fast-food giant Subway ‘reaches out’ for Sandwich Artists to serve their customers, and technology giant Apple has long been ribbed for giving titles like Genius to their computer technicians.
Working for one of the world’s largest retailers subjected me daily to a wealth of corporate clowning around. Emails containing “We need to close the delta. I’d like you to collaborate and set a good cadence for the feedback. Why not partner with someone? It’ll be great for your development journey” could have just as easily said ‘sell more stuff to get a promotion’ and the message would have been a lot clearer.
Jargon is commonplace in the working world to create a sense of identity. How could we possibly all sing from the same hymn sheet if everyone spoke a different language?
Bernard Spolsky states in his book Socialinguistics (1998) “a specialised jargon serves not just to label new and needed concepts, but to establish bonds between members of the in-group and enforce boundaries for outsiders. If you cannot understand my jargon, you don’t belong to my group”.
It’s not only the workforce playing a mind game. Jargon often filters down from management and this posturing usually has two forms: to mislead or to impress.
Is jargon really the exclusive, harmonious conversation maker we all think it to be, or a way of excluding those not in the know? Could it be that management aren’t the clever know-it-alls we think them to be and more than likely covering up a lack of knowledge and ability to articulate clearly?
The next time you find yourself being asked to ‘put it in the microwave and see if it pings’, why not ask that person what they really mean? Try and shift the culture from avoiding real dialogue to an environment that embraces clear and concise communication. Your office will thank you for it.
Buzzwords, business jargon, management speak, corporate lingo or commercialese – however you want to put it, this way of communicating is taking over the workplace, and sadly shows no signs of slowing down.
With new lingo being invented (who’d heard of an ‘ideas fridge’ before jargon took over?) all the time, we examined some choice phrases that get us riled up at Crunch HQ:
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