But there is one corner of the English language that our culture seems to collectively disdain: workplace jargon. At their best, the trite phrases with which we fill our work speech are vapid and convey a false sense of urgency. At their worst, they are flat-out aggressive.
It'd be easy to dismiss empty language like value-add and deep dive as silly turns-of-phrase, but they're more detrimental than that. Just as thoughts shape language, the language we use has the power to shape our thoughts and actions. That's right: Empty speaking not only conveys empty thinking, it can promote it, too. George Orwell puts it best in an essay he wrote for The New Republic in 1946, lamenting the state of the English language:
It is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language -- so the argument runs -- must inevitably share in the general collapse... But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.
Orwell's essay outlines the issue with clichés, which he calls “dying metaphors.” While recently coined analogies present us with a visual that can further our understanding of a concept, trite phrases are lazy time-savers that pack a statement with letters but not meaning. He cites toe the line and hotbed as examples, and would surely take issue with the latest crop of fluffy speech padding. Streamline. 360-degree thinking. These phrases might've elicited a useful visual image at one point, but no longer.
Orwell goes on to condemn “pretentious diction” -- words such as utilize and categorical, which are still very present in the workplace today, and which give “an air of impartiality to biased judgements.” He writes:
The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose...
Vague expressions run rampant at work. Brainstorm.Synergy.Paradigm shift. Unlike descriptive (yet still irritating) sayings like low-hanging fruit, these phrases didn't begin as handy, evocative metaphors. So where did they come from? An article in The Atlantic outlining the origins of at-work sayings states that synergy (once a Protestant phrase referring to cooperation between God and the self) and paradigm shift were both coined by academics in the 60s, inspired in part by Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which describes the stages of psychological growth. The phrases were then employed by the consulting industry as purposefully instilled management tactics, and have since become muddied and meaningless. Think about how much more productive a so-called brainstorming session could be if its purpose were laid out more explicitly. "Let's look at why an article we wrote was successful, and use this information as the basis for new ideas for future articles" is a more pointed task than quickly articulating ideas that pop into our heads.
In addition to preventing clarity, vague language generates less trust. A not-so-shocking study conducted by psychology professors at New York University in 2011 concluded that abstract language leads listeners to believe a speaker is lying more often than concrete language does. This comes as no surprise; abstract language evades facts, and is sometimes intended to confuse. In a roundup of muddled corporate speak, PR Daily listed the following statement as a convoluted way for a company to acknowledge that it is in debt: "We are cognizant that we must address our debt situation and our pending line of credit maturity but we ultimately believe striving to improve our core business is a fundamental component of a solution for all parties in this regard."
That's not to say that all jargon-users are liars; some well-meaning language-manglers are just trying to fit in with their contemporaries. But that doesn't make it excusable. The use of a vapid verbal shortcut is an attempt to convey a point without pausing to consider whether or not the correct point is being conveyed, or whether or not the point is worth conveying at all.
The promotion of thoughtless chatter is noxious enough, but contemporary workplace jargon isn't always just trite -- it can also create an atmosphere of belligerence. Office speak can be aggressive, patriarchal and, when you really consider the language, remarkably unprofessional. Killing it and bleeding edge seem straight out of American Psycho, or at least a hyped-up workplace fueled by caffeine, testosterone and high fives. Offices (well, American offices, anyway) have long employed masculine ways of speaking, borrowed from sporty or militaristic language--consider teamwork, give 110 percent and take it to the next level. Or worse: targeting clients with guerrilla marketing.
A recent article in The Guardian highlights why this is problematic: It's necessary to use the vernacular of a workplace in order to fit in, but while men are viewed more favorably by colleagues when they speak assertively, women are valued more for speaking warmly and creating harmony. Writes The Guardian, "It is difficult to see how women can talk about "killing the competition" and be warm and inclusive... and because the use of military language is seen as inappropriate for women, women may never feel that they can fully participate in the boisterous exchanges that are part of organizational life."
Of course, aggressive language isn't just bad for women -- it creates a taxing environment for everyone. And we've taken notice. Workplace jargon, be it empty or stress-inducing, doesn't exactly have a big fan base. See impassioned rants against it here, here, here and here. If these phrases are as demonstrably disliked as they seem to be, why do we continue to use them? Most grumbling about jargon is met with a shrug; what else are we to say? These phrases save time, and we are all just so busy.
Or are we? There's a good deal of truth to Tim Kreider's piece in the New York Times about "The 'Busy' Trap," which claims that much of our supposed busyness is self-imposed -- a means of validating the importance of the work we're doing. The language we use at work only imposes it further. Rather than saying "I have some things I'd like to talk about," we say we must discuss action points; rather than expressing a need to reach an agreed-upon conclusion, we say we have issues we must hammer out. These kinesthetic phrases are just a notch shy of the aforementioned aggressive-speak. They imply that our work must be done quickly, and so we do our work quickly, only to be bothered with more unnecessary tasks, more action points.
When we replace a specific task with a vague expression, we grant the task more magnitude than it deserves. If we don't describe an activity plainly, it seems less like an easily achievable goal and more like a cloudy state of existence that fills unknowable amounts of time.
A fog of fast and empty language has seeped into the workplace. I say it's time we air it out, making room for simple, concrete words, and, therefore, more deliberate actions. By striking the following 26 words from your speech, I think you'll find that you're not quite as overwhelmed as you thought you were.
- touch base
- circle back
- table the discussion
- deep dive
- work product
- take it to the next level
- hard stop
- on your radar
- due diligence
- 360-degree thinking
- paradigm shift
- action item
- bleeding edge
- killing it
- low-hanging fruit