A word in the ear of folk using jargon and buzzwords: Don’t!

Are you a slave to jargon and buzzwords, so asks Colette Sheridan in her weekly column
A word in the ear of folk using jargon and buzzwords: Don’t!

Businesspeople can be especially prone to using jargon, but it can be a sign of insecurity, says Colette Sheridan. Posed by models.

“THANKS for reaching out. I’ll circle back on that.”

Do you speak in such a way?

Have you found yourself uttering the word ‘pivot’, which signals oncoming change but leaves people confused and uncertain?

Are you a slave to office jargon and buzzwords that attempt to disguise a paucity of thought and ideas? Or, often, are a convoluted way of saying ‘no’ or putting something on the long finger because it can be dealt with ‘going forward’.

In other words, the proposal proffered isn’t quite grabbing your boss. So instead of signalling dismissal of it, there’s this dancing around with language that tries not to offend.

But it actually is offensive to use office-speak, because unless you’re up to speed on the latest phraseology, you can be left in the dark, wondering what the hell people are on about.

Or you may feel like correcting them, using plain and clear language instead of head-melting bullsh*t.

Hacks like me hate the kind of jargon that is spoken around boardroom tables or at the water cooler. We bristle when PRs over-use the kind of language that on a good day is risible and on a bad day makes our blood boil.

Scratch the surface of sentences laden down with phrases like ‘low-hanging fruit’ and what you’re dealing with is actually very basic. Low-hanging fruit is just a way of describing something that is ‘easy but still worth doing’.

So what’s with the stupid-sounding phraseology?

Instead of saying ‘I don’t have the time to do what you asked’, people hide behind the phrase ‘I don’t have the bandwidth’. Basically, it displays our terror of just saying ‘no’ to someone. ‘No’ is too negative, goes the thinking. But at least when someone uses the two-letter word, you know where you stand.

Always fear the request to do a ‘deep dive’. On the surface, it sounds positive, suggesting an exploration of a topic on a deeper level. But in fact, it’s more often a criticism of the work you’ve already done on the topic. It could just mean that you have to take a long and detailed look at the subject matter that may encroach on your weekend.

Using jargon can stem from insecurity and the desire for status in a person’s profession.

People often compensate for a lack of status by attempting to signal that they have more of it than they actually do, according to the Harvard Business Review. It explored whether having lower professional status motivates people to use jargon in the workplace.

Across a series of studies, the Harvard Business Review confirmed that “jargon sometimes functions like a fancy title, a conspicuously displayed trophy, or an expensive, branded watch - people use it to signal status and show off to others”.

In one study, MBA students were asked to imagine that they were entrepreneurs in a pitch competition, trying to get venture capital funding. They had to choose between two pitches describing their company.

Both pitches conveyed the same information, but one used lots of business jargon such as ‘leveraging’ and ‘competitive advantage’.

The participants were the told that they were competing against successful MBA alumni (which put them in a lower status condition), other MBAs (same status condition) or undergraduates (higher status condition.)

Overall, participants were significantly more likely to use the high-jargon pitch when they were in the lower status condition.

In other words, the lower status participants used more jargon because they were preoccupied with how they would be judged by others.

What was the most common phrase you first heard in 2020?

Chances are that ‘new normal’ would top the list, stemming from Covid-19. The ‘new normal’ refers to the state of the world and how we expect it to be, after the onset of the pandemic.

To ‘take this offline’ means that the topic in question should be discussed outside the current group meeting. But it took on a new irony last year.

With so many professionals working remotely because of the pandemic, you could ask what does ‘offline’ look like anymore?

It’s a reminder of the days when we could follow up a conversation over coffee. Not quite the same as booking another Zoom meeting.

Business jargon is ubiquitous in today’s workplace. 

While there’s nothing wrong with using specialised language for business-related concepts, buzzwords can become easy substitutes for clear communication.

A sexist and racist phrase, ‘opening the kimono’, is a new one on me, but apparently had a resurgence in the last couple of years. This old term refers to Asian women exposing their bodies. It has often been used in a business context, when a company exposes its inner workings to another party.

But it’s creepy and, like so many other buzzwords/phrases, it should be relegated to the bin.

Let’s all try talking properly!

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