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The Non-Language of Offices

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An article from the BBC lists fifty different phrases that permeate the modern workplace. But does this type of language actually help businesses be more productive?


All of the quotations come from brief interviews with frustrated employees:

“The one that really gets me is pre-plan—there is no such thing. Either you plan or you don’t.”

Another reads:

“The new one which has got my goat is conversate, widely used to describe a conversation. I just wish people could learn to ‘think outside the box’ although when they put us in cubes what do they expect?”

As well as:

“I once had a boss who said, ‘You cant have your cake and eat it, so you have to step up to the plate and face the music.’ It was in that moment I knew I had to resign before somebody got badly hurt by a pencil.”

One more exceptional example is:

“The particular phrase I love to hate is drill down, which handily can be used either as an adverb/verb combo or as a compound noun, ie: ‘the next level drill down’, sometimes even in the same sentence—a nice bit of multi-tasking.”

Business Meeting

© Flickr user Victor1558

These examples are amusing, but the use of such phrases can be destructive to workplace culture. Unlike jargon, which is the specialized terminology of a field, business speak has no value. It is helpful for doctors to use words with precise meaning, such as atherosclerosis or angioplasty. But the phrase “outside of the box thinking” merely means “creativity.” Long-winded substitutions of stock phrases for simple ideas only wastes time and frustrates the listener. Perhaps this style of language reinforces the points made in the last posting in The Methodology Blog, which questioned whether leadership roles are awarded for competence or just saying the most words.

For more information and examples, check out the excellent book Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide. Note, however, that word choice and tone at the office do more than inform or amuse, they may also inspire and frustrate. The resulting stakeholder satisfaction is a key predictor for workplace productivity. Productivity, in turn, is the hallmark of success.

A good measure of whether or not your business consultants are any good is if they use too many buzzwords. If they say it’s time to “drill down” on “core competencies” to “address needs” “in this space,” run the other way.

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