The Subtle Insidiousness Of Business Language

By Martin Bosworth

How often in a day do you find yourself reading, hearing, or saying any of the following phrases?

  • “At the end of the day”
  • “Lessons learned”
  • “Going forward,” “moving forward,” or “way forward”
  • “on the table”
  • “low-hanging fruit”

To me, these phrases stick out as particularly egregious examples of the corporatist/marketing bullshit that permeates every aspect of our culture. I hear them all the time when someone’s trying to justify a mistake, or some stupid business plan that has no bearing on reality, or why their view of an issue bears no resemblance to what really happened. I don’t understand why we need to say “way forward” when we can just say “plan” or “idea.” No one outside of an MBA or law program really talks like this–but the problem is that sort of culture is encroaching on our dialogue in every way.

Hell, you know things are bad when the editor of Marvel Comics–a comic book company, let me stress–talks like he just got rejected from Wharton in his interviews.

I do my level best to speak plainly in my discourse, and avoid these easy cliche’ phrases whenever possible. I’d rather listen to someone curse their head off and say something of note when doing it than hear any more of this suit-and-tie-guy nonsense.

What are some phrases/words along this train of thought that annoy you? Post ’em in the comments and let’s have a party!

8 replies »

  1. How many times a day? Hold on, let me go grab my calculator…

    I hear you, and have railed at the jargonization of corporate workplaces (although it’s all to easy to get sucked into the language yourself if you aren’t ever vigilant). And the academy is worse, by far.

    I’ll never forget the day where I got blindsided by “coopetition” and “merketechture” in the same meeting…

  2. Indeed! It really is like the plague–it affects you unless you’re actively fighting against it.

    A wonderful friend of mine taught me that how you describe something–the language you use–frames your thoughts about it. The more we let this bland business-speak determine how we view an issue, the more that we’ll see everything in those terms, and that’s just not healthy. Or acceptable.

  3. Well, I think the “spinning” language is most annoying. Like calling a troop escalation a “surge”.

    The most egregious example of this relates to firing. “Firing” sounded bad, so it was changed to “lay off”. But that still wasn’t nice enough, so it was changed to “down sizing”. Since down sizing implies that a company was bloated to begin with, the new word (I’m not making this up) is “right sizing”.

  4. Yep, precisely. The “rightsizing” thing is a huge slap, because it categorically implies that laying off thousands of workers was a good thing, because the company is now at the “right” size. Like they didn’t even matter.

  5. The first time I was startled by a corporate buzzword, longer ago than I care to remember, it was “action items.” I said, “You mean, things to do?” Much scowling.

    It is easy to be drawn in. After all, language is as much about social bonding as about information retrieval. In the corporate world, therefore, you don’t want to be seen as a mushy ex-academic, someone who deals only in theories, doesn’t care about “the bottom line” and is too wan to be on “the bleeding edge” or to accept the latest “paradigm.” By the next meeting, I had my own action items ready.

  6. About “firing.” This is similar to some observations I had some time back about why the accepted/preferred term for African-American has changed so often throughout history. The reason is simple – we have not culturally reached the point where being a member of that racial group is neutral or positive. By that I mean that all manner of racism continues to exist, so being black comes with some social baggage. Fewer opportunities, more perceptual hurdles to overcome, etc.

    Once upon a time it wasn’t so good being Irish in America, or Italian, or pick an immigrant group. Now “mick” is hardly a fighting word, right? That’s because being Irish no longer comes with a social load attached.

    We’ll know that blacks have attained some measure of genuine equality when we look up and realize that the accepted term for them hasn’t changed in 30 years.

    Meanwhile, losing your job is always going to suck, so expect the appropriate term to describe it to keep evolving. You attach a nicer word to it, but over time the reality of the event taints even the nicest of words.

    What was that thing Shakespeare said about a rose…

  7. The two I find most annoying come from business and advertising, respectively:

    1) “bottom line” – this is almost always used as a way of excusing screwing somebody – as in, “we’d like to, but the bottom line is…”

    2) “performance” – this is one of the classic “weasel” words – as in “performance” tires – what do tires have to do to perform? – hold air and roll…high performance, then means really holding that air and really rolling well, one assumes….

  8. It’s like the famous Squidbillie, Early Cuyler, who makes words up as he speaks, because he’s ignorant and shallow, mostly due to a combination of immaturity and toxic drug and alcohol intake. When I hear “corp-speak,” I always thing of Mr. Cuyler.