The cringe of corporate jargon

Friday 10 February 2023

Most of us have been there. You are in a meeting and you can hear it approaching. You are bracing for impact as you are about to be metaphorically hit by another corporate one-liner.

From a long list of business talk idioms, topping the list of personal dislikes is when asked to connect those proverbial dots. And I’m not alone. Run a quick Google search – or speak to your colleagues – and you will come across numerous stories about the unequivocal irritation corporate jargon inflicts on its listeners. First world problems, I know.

The question is why do people within organisations keep peppering their speech with such phrases, given the general dislike of them? More importantly, who benefits from the usage of the buzzwords? Is it the speaker who possibly wants to come across sounding more intelligent? Perhaps. But arguably, it does not work. If anything, it shows that the person lacks imagination – and appropriate vocabulary – to suit the situation. And it certainly isn’t the audience either who are left either exasperated or, in certain instances, perhaps more puzzled than anything else.

Academia have studied the area with keen interest over the decades and the findings and recommendations seem to be a mixed bag. Researchers at Columbia University found that those wielding less power within organisations tend to incorporate more jargon into their speech to make up for their lesser status within the structure. Another study, by sociology researchers from University of Basel and New York University, found that those people who use business jargon will generally have a harder time to be taken seriously by the audience.

However, there are others such as Anne Curzan, Professor of English at the University of Michican, who are vocal proponents of business jargon. She encourages its deliberate use within organisations to promote a sense of belonging. Indeed, creating the desire to fit in was how the business chat came about in the first place. The origins can be traced back to the post-WW II era when large corporations, particularly in America, started diversifying their propositions. Management were concerned that any loyalty towards and pride working for a particular firm would be lost as a result of the human melting pot effect the mergers and acquisitions would create. A uniting language was deemed a useful preventative measure.

Scientific theories aside, people would possibly have more sympathy for the usage of the ambiguous phrases if no other suitable and precise alternatives existed. But the last time I checked there were over a million words in the Oxford English dictionary to choose from. Undoubtedly, plenty of appropriate options to suit the case.

In the world of business, professional service companies pay close attention to any form of written communication. The outputs need to be to articulate, polished and succinct and there is no room for unnecessary waffle. Why do the same rules not seem to apply to verbal communication? The same white-collar organisations spend not insignificant amounts of staff training budgets on all manner of communication masterclasses where the one unifying message is the importance of using simple and easily understandable language during any form of communication, be that written or verbal.

Talking about the need to use understandable language, think about those who are just starting out in the world of work: ‘You what? Take a deep dive where, what?’. Puzzled looks all around. It is worse still for those whose first language isn’t English. Mastering the English language, with all its nuances and intricacies, is hard enough as it is without the added pressure of needing to learn the intended meaning of the gobbledygook. Spare a thought for the bright young to-be-investment-banker who has travelled from a far-away country to do a summer internship and is asked to touch base with colleagues. Here’s hoping the fledgling English speaker does not inadvertently take the suggestion the wrong way.

So, next time, without trying to reinvent the wheel, try going a whole week picking neither anyone’s brain – unless, of course, you are a neurosurgeon – nor any low-hanging fruit – unless you pick fruit for a living. By staying original with your choice of words is as refreshing to you as it is to the audience. In doing that, you might finally succeed at being on the same wavelength with said audience and become the gamechanger your organisation has been longing for.