Squaring the circle on jargon. Why do we speak in riddles at work?

From The Guardian Small Business Network

For anyone wanting to unsettle an audience with a turn of phrase there’s plenty to inspire in the lexicon of corporate jargon. Republican representative Jason Chaffetz did this to great effect when calling for Donald Trump to reveal his tax returns in the run up to the US presidential election last year, by telling him: “open your kimono and show us everything”.

Along with “open the kimono” the business world has brought us “one throat to choke” meaning the person ultimately responsible for a failed project and “punch the puppy” – doing something that’s extremely reprehensible but good for business.

“There’s often some sexual innuendo or violent component to corporate jargon, which is not good,” says David DeParolesa, the head of product for Give Lively, a company that creates digital products for social benefit. Having been exposed to business speak in previous jobs at big companies such as American Express, DeParolesa was inspired to create a piece of software called SwearJar to combat jargon. SwearJar, which ran on the group chat app Slack for a year, automatically donated money to charity on a company’s behalf whenever co-workers used swear words or corporate doublespeak while chatting together online.

“The firms that were using [SwearJar] tended to be smaller companies that were exposed to jargon from bigger clients,” says DeParolesa. Some of the commonly used buzzwords picked up by SwearJar included “synergy”, “ideate” and “circle the wagon”, according to DeParolesa. “There is something off about every one of them,” he says.

A survey last month by Londonoffices.com revealed phrases that annoyed office workers most included “blue sky thinking” and “ideas shower”. But if doublespeak is deemed so irritating why do we continue to produce so much of it? Andre Spicer, professor at Cass Business School and author of Shooting the shit: the role of bullshit in organisations, puts it down to the rise of meaningless work, or what anthropologist David Graeber has termed “bullshit jobs” A 2015 YouGov survey showed 37% of British workers think their jobs are meaningless. “When we move from producing goods and services to making things look good, an economy of persuasion, we often get this boom in jargon,” Spicer says. He also credits the increase in “pseudo experts” across sectors from recruitment to hospitality. “As a result, these groups develop their own jargon to show they are experts,” he says.

The larger the organisation, the more likely it is to be mired in jargon, which can be bad for business. Employees on the receiving end can feel confused and alienated. “It can be a way of avoiding an issue so key issues get covered up,” says Spicer. One notable example of this was former Nokia boss Stephen Elop’s 1,110-word jargon strewn email to staff which contained just two lines towards the end mentioning that the company was making 12,500 job cuts. “The organisation was so bogged down with its own jargon, it wasn’t able to adequately respond to what it was set up to do – produce mobile phones,” says Spicer.

All the more reason for organisations to stamp it out. Some companies work with the Plain English Campaign or external agencies to help them talk clearly to customers. Yet the Plain English Campaign is never short of candidates for its annual Golden Bull award for outstanding examples of corporate gibberish, such as a letter from Philips Lighting to a customer with this opener: “Dear Neil, did you know that technologies and standards are evolving rapidly in the dynamic smart city environment?”

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