Corporate Speak is Useful, Unless It Isn’t

There are lots of reasons to dislike jargon, and lots of reasons to use it.

Every industry has its own unique set of terminology. The same goes for every company, and often every department within a company. If you say “WINUS” to someone in Industry A, it’s likely going to mean something very different than when you say it to someone in Industry B. The result may be somewhere between confusion and actual problems, as the different definitions mean the two parties are literally speaking a different language.

It’s true that buzzwords and jargon are often annoying. And yes, it frequently devolves into “garbage language” that is overly simplistic and meaningless, but as with most things there are instances where such corporate, business-level terminology are useful and contribute positively to both productivity and culture just as there are times where it is, without doubt, the worst.

The Upsides

Words are, at their most basic level, simply a shared set of symbols we have agreed upon to convey different meanings. Just like a dollar bill represents some unit of value, the phrase “dollar bill” is how we’ve decided to share information about that physical object.

Many corporate or other work environments simply have their own sub-dialects, much like any region of the country or even city. A famous example is the usage of Coke, soda or pop in different locales to all mean the same thing: A sugary, carbonated drink, not necessarily the Coca-Cola brand.

These sub-dialects are in many cases extremely useful and aid in productivity. When someone says they need to go “check the T-8” it’s hoped most everyone understands they mean “the T-8B Hydro-bumper” or whatever the full name of the machine is. “T-8” has been developed informally as a shorthand because it saves a small amount of time and is easier to say while conveying the same general information.

Similarly, such jargon reduces the complexity of ideas within the community because everyone is assumed to be working from the same foundation of knowledge.

Imagine someone in an office saying “the index is up three indicators.” Such a declaration assumes the recipient understands what’s meant by “indicators” and has some context for how much of a change an increase of three is, as well as whether “up” is a positive or negative direction. There’s no need here to explain the taxonomy of each element of the sentence because there is, again, shared understanding and background, making communication more efficient.

Both of those help create a sense of community within the subculture. They are united in their mission and the language helps solidify that, creating a sense of being in this together.

Unfortunately, those same points too often are taken to such extremes in practice that they can become problems, leading us to

The Downsides

In the hands of some people, the kind of subculture-specific terminology that develops in a workplace has the potential to become a negative factor, one that creates more problems than it solves.

Instead of clarifying issues or ideas, specific jargon can obscure meaning and intent, using vague words and phrases that introduce uncertainty into the conversation and create confusion. This is particularly problematic when people from two subcultures are trying to communicate, and words that might be common between them actually have vastly different meanings in their unique contexts.

This is an issue even within a single environment because some people are no more careful about their use of jargon and buzzwords than they are any other form of language. An individual who throws around in-house terminology without a full understanding of what that means is creating problems and hampering other people’s productivity as they have to spend extra time deciphering or decoding what they’ve been told.

Sometimes the same kind of individual is trying to use that language to disguise their own shortcomings or issues. Throwing around a bunch of buzzwords – whether it’s from a common in-house taxonomy or from terms they’ve picked up in the press or elsewhere – makes them appear more informed and plugged-in than they really are. This becomes an especially serious issue because it can create such a sense of frustration in others, particularly if the offender is in a position of power or management, that overall job satisfaction takes a significant hit.

Finally, the very community it has the potential to create can quickly turn insular, using that shared language as exclusionary and divisive instead of unifying. Someone joining the community as a new hire can quickly feel they aren’t smart enough to be there or that they are too far outside the walls when they are bombarded by terminology they don’t immediately understand. This is just one of a plethora of issues that plague the new employee onboarding process, but is no less serious.

A Challenge Offered

Certainly (almost) no one has it in mind to actively engage in the kinds of negative actions or operate with problematic intent when it comes to using language in the workplace. Everyone (almost) wants to be understood and help others understand.

For writers in work environments, falling into the kinds of traps mentioned above is especially dangerous. We need to produce material that can be easily comprehended and absorbed by the intended audience, whatever their experience level and exposure. And in reality sometimes that’s easier said than done. Writing an email or report recap may not offer many opportunities to use confusing, jargon-filled terminology, but writing a technical document or how-to guide might be more difficult waters to navigate.

So here’s a challenge for you, one I’m in the midst of myself: Spend an hour writing on a piece of paper the most common insider jargon and terminology in your office or workplace. Don’t worry about specific product or tool names as those don’t count, but focus on the ones meant to convey ideas or messages.

Once you have your list, keep it by you, either in your pocket or next to your keyboard on your desk. Before you submit that document, send that email or finish that presentation, run a “Find” search and look for those words. Then ask yourself these questions:

  • How much of what you’ve produced is simply jargon?
  • Is that jargon being used correctly, or are you throwing it in just to show off?
  • Do *you* understand all of that jargon?
  • Are all the recipients or the intended audience going to understand all that?
  • What simpler, less unique words or phrases can be used instead that communicate the same ideas?

It’s not that specific jargon like that isn’t sometimes useful or important. It’s just that you have to be sure it’s being used effectively and correctly for all involved, otherwise you’re contributing to chaos, not aiding productivity in its usage.