“Our financial performance this quarter was respectable considering the substantial headwinds posed by economic conditions and our ongoing investment in strategic transformation initiatives.”
Translation: Our results sucked.
Why is it that so many people start talking a strange, foreign language when they walk in the doors of an office? The peculiar jargon of business has become part of daily discourse, adopted knowingly if unwillingly in many cases.
Yet evidence suggests that many of us find it intensely annoying. Jargon is a “pointless irritation”, according to nearly a quarter of 2000 managers interviewed for the UK’s Institute of Leadership and Management survey.
It isn’t simply that jargon irks; research by Deloitte in the US points to a negative commercial impact. Deloitte looked at companies that made up the Dow Jones Industrial Average and analysed the clarity of their reports, speeches, press releases, and more against the performance of the companies’ stock.
“What we found was that clear-speaking companies consistently outperformed [stock market performance] companies that were vaguer,” says consultant Brian Fugere.
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“And why should that surprise anyone? All it takes is just a few minutes inside a company to get a sense of how direct and straightforward the culture is. And if you were a customer, a supplier, an employee—who would you rather do business with?”
But trying to get rid of what has been called “jargon monoxide” in the US isn’t easy. In a light-hearted but meaningful attempt to introduce some straight talking, the Australian Institute of Management has created a jargon Buzzword Bingo card to debunk the management-speak used in meetings. The first person to shout “Bingo!” when all of the phrases have been (inadvertently) used, wins the game.
A more concrete attempt to weed out jargon resulted from Fugere and colleagues’ research, resulting in the development of “Bullfighter”, a software program that detects and eliminates business jargon. Online site Un-suck It performs a similar service, offering straightforward alternatives to terrible business jargon.
“Bull has become the language of business,” says Fugere, who has some theories about why people resort to jargon.
“When obscurity pollutes someone’s communications, it’s often because they have nothing to say or the speaker/author’s goal is to impress and not to inform. The low road to impressing an audience is to make them feel inferior by using words they won’t understand.”
Tossing in a few phrases such as “value proposition”, “mindshare” and “ecosystem” makes the speaker seem to be a kind of intellectual powerhouse says Fugere.
“There’s a strange insecurity at work here, where someone tries to overcompensate by trying to sound smart.”
But David Brown, who works for Deloitte in Australia, contends that business jargon “is the nature of the world we live in” and that every professional group creates its own language to enhance meaning, act as shorthand and to reinforce the group.
“The language of accounting is different to the language of marketing and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Where we have fallen down is when you move outside that little world and expect others to understand – or where people are feeling excluded because the language is setting the rules.”
The antidote to jargon monoxide
Both Primo Levi and George Orwell wrote about the use of language as an instrument of power. Levi said that language that defies normal understanding is “an ancient repressive artifice” and some contemporary commentators would agree with him.
Don Watson, Australian author of Weasel Words and Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language says that managerial language is mechanised language that removes the need for thinking and also the memory of what feeling, notion or need inspired the thing in the first place.
“My guess is that the people in power in organisations are the main beneficiaries of this language and the most corrupted,” says Watson. “I knew one CEO who admitted he no longer had a comprehensible language that any outsider, and doubtless many insiders, could understand; he couldn’t speak what he thought. He no longer had a verb in his repertory; his language was entirely abstract. But people don’t listen to abstract, they only listen to concrete.”
At the invitation of private companies, Watson has given talks on the value of plain speaking.
“People flock to these sessions, and women in particular laugh in recognition, but there are always a couple of men who look surly and it is easy to work out why they feel threatened. You can tell they are thinking: who is this guy sending up the way we talk?”
In an age when political correctness and litigiousness are rife, it may be understandable that senior executives are careful about what they say – or don’t say. Fugere agrees that these are real and legitimate concerns but says that companies should achieve a balance about what can and can’t be said.
“Too many companies let lawyers run the joint – and you can guess how unimaginative the language then becomes.”
CPA Australia Senior Policy Adviser, Dr Mark Shying, tends to agree.
“In-house lawyers, along with financial teams, will look at what is being written and after going through that process, the communication value can be reduced.”
There’s also the problem of deluging people with information he says.
“For example, HSBC has just released its 598-page annual report, which includes 160 pages of financial statements. The sheer volume of information is a cause of clutter. You can’t easily find the message in that, let alone understand the workings of the HSBC business empire.”
Too much obscure, abstract language makes people believe a company is less trustworthy, according to researchers at New York University. And recent case histories support that view, says Fugere.
“As Enron sank deeper and deeper into the depths of their fraud, the language in their annual reports, press releases and speeches grew more and more obscure. Gee, I wonder why….”
Most lies are told by people who are actually truthful but work in organisations where the language is used to obscure the truth, thinks Watson.
“It takes guts to speak plainly as it means going against the flow and is evidence of a lack of complicity – and potentially that makes someone vulnerable. But we owe it to each other to speak in ways that are interesting and informative and to make ourselves engage, excite and even laugh.”
Is there a phrase or word that gets under your skin? Share your least-favourite examples of office jargon in the Comments section below.