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Office Jargon, We Hate You. But We Can’t Quit You

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Let’s deep dive and unpack this emerging paradigm. We all know buzzwords have legs, but we all know stakeholders are seeking an exit strategy as well. But do we all use (but hate) office jargon?

Since podcasting is the new normal, feel free to listen to this drill down that leverages the hot concept brought to us via Bloomberg news.

And if you’re not feeling the synergy from this buzzword-rich content strategy, scroll down to find out why we hate jargon but why we keep doing it.

Bored at Work

© Flickr user Adreson Vita Sá

This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed the obsession with office buzzwords here on The Methodology Blog. But this time, let’s talk about where this comes from and why we use language this way. Plus, why it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

A Brief History of Jargon

Did you notice that subtitle? “A brief history of…” should remind you of countless published books. This is the basic notion of “jargon”, which is shorthand. (Although technically, the word originally meant “gibberish”, which is pretty funny.)

Within a particular industry or specialty, “jargon” is supposed to represent complex ideas more efficiently. Biologists rarely say “deoxyribonucleic acid” but instead say DNA. Attorneys might use the Latin phrase “pro se” instead of saying “a litigant who has chosen to represent themselves instead of working with an attorney.” Jargon is supposed to save time, and in specialized fields, it can be incredibly helpful.

Where Jargon Went Wrong

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment where insider lingo created to save time shifted into the nonsense buzzwords we have today. A long piece from The Atlantic points the blame at professors in the middle of the last century:

British psychologist Raymond Cattell re-purposed the word synergy, which was originally a Protestant term for cooperation between the human will and divine grace. The UC Berkeley philosopher Thomas Kuhn popularized the term paradigm shift in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. And, much later, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen coined the term disrupt, which has become a favorite in today’s climate of start-up worship.

But the idea of an “-ese” (think, “legalese”) goes back much farther. At least one set of references show it into the middle of the 19th century. There’s lots of disdain for people who speak and write this way, as if to say they are intentionally trying to “sound smart” rather than be clear.

This is where jargon went wrong. Instead of using it to save time, we started using it to wield power.

Why We Love and Hate Jargon

In a brief but painful piece for Inc. Magazine, Jill Krasny explains the sad truth about business jargon.

According to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the more vague words you use, the more powerful you’ll seem.

In an interview with New York Magazine, [lead author] Cheryl Wakslak explained this phenomenon: “People see the abstract communicator as a more ‘big picture’ kind of person,” which makes them appear more powerful.” So while you think it looks smart to drill down on specifics in meetings, chances are you’re only putting your colleagues to sleep.

“Our findings suggest that if you want to seem powerful to onlookers, it is important to demonstrate abstraction, to use abstract language to communicate the gist of the situation, rather than concrete language that spells out the specific details,” Wakslak added.

We love jargon because it makes us sound smart because we’re speaking in generalities. We seem like “big picture” people.

But we hate jargon because if we know the details, those silly words seem like a waste of time. We don’t need to refocus on core competencies and think outside the box. Rather, what we need to do is get back to work.

Jargon is here to stay. When Jack Welch took over at GE, he wrote that he wanted to create “a company where jargon and double-talk are ridiculed and candor is demanded” while at the same time promoting phrases like low-hanging fruit (tasks which are easy to tackle), rattlers (noisy, obvious problems), and pythons (major issues that stemmed from the bureaucracy.)

The best thing to do is probably to use jargon, and then make fun of it, and then get back to work. Details matter. If you want buy-in to gain traction, and you’re seeking kudos for thinking outside the box, stop. Or at least, acknowledge that these things don’t matter, after all.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


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