Illustration: Ashley Siebels
When reports came out today that Ford Motor could lay off 20,000 workers in North America and Asia, the company denied any plans for “people-efficiency actions.”
Excuse us? “People-efficiency actions”?
Ford is not the first, or even the most creative, to find new euphemisms for firing people. In the United Kingdom, layoffs are routinely called “redundancies,” a chilly dismissal indeed. Bank of America once termed its executive restructuring as a “de-layering,” implying some kind of executive-level exfoliation.
You know the drill: efficiencies, workforce rationalization, pivots. Call it corporatespeak, business garble, office gobbledygook, whatever. The peculiar affliction that causes otherwise professional people to say “circle back” instead of “check back later.” Or “at this juncture” instead of “now.” Or my personal favorite, “touch base” instead of “speak again at a later date.”
It’s bad enough to go through corporate changes; why must we also be lost in translation? Would it be so bad for managers to just say what they mean?
Hiding behind words to protect ourselves
In the same way that men’s shirt collars represent ways to protect the throat from attackers, obfuscating language protects us from the consequences of our speech, shielding us from the blast of emotions through chilly, dry words.
For example: “We use strategic foresight tools to identify clients’ previously unseen opportunities. Then effectively communicate that differentiation to their stakeholders, using our proven thought leadership methodology.”
Or how about: “We bring deep, functional expertise, but are known for our holistic perspective: we capture value across boundaries and between the silos of any organization.”
Not even job descriptions are immune.
“Serves as a point of contact for functions relating to the social impact mission; may negotiate at all levels of management to secure input from an array of diverse units to achieve particular social impact goals.”
I’d think about applying for that job, but I don’t actually know what I’d be doing.
The cocoon of meaningless words
I once worked in an office where “touch base” got used a lot. To amuse myself, I pretended that it was a euphemism for having sex. It made the conversations I overheard a lot more entertaining.
Eavesdropper entertainment aside, corporate communications professionals have mixed feelings about corporatespeak. Barbara Coward is the founder of Enrollment Strategies, a company that helps MBA candidates get into top schools and top schools recruit the best MBA candidates. She said that corporatespeak can be a quick way to get a message across.
“We’re living in a real fast-paced environment,” Coward said. “Corporatespeak is a shortcut.”
When corporate jargon hurts us most: in the job search
The problem arises when the language shortcut leads straight to a communication dead end. This is a particular danger for people who are changing careers, Coward said. Job-hunting can quickly become fraught.
“If you’re working in an emergency room, ‘stop the bleeding’ means something different than if you’re working at Amazon,” she said. “If you’re switching sectors, that’s something you need to keep in mind.”
Elizabeth Tarner, president of Tarner and Associates, said that corporatespeak can help build rapport among people internally, but using buzzwords with people who aren’t familiar with them can mean they’re trying so hard to figure out what you’re talking about that they’re not hearing what you’re actually saying. That’s a huge barrier that could cause misunderstandings later.
The cloudiness is especially apparent when it comes to abbreviations and acronyms.
“Clarity is a big issue – it really is,” she said. “Even people who have really good communication skills aren’t really clear all the time.”
Even communication experts get tripped up sometimes. Tarner said years ago one of her students used “LOL” in an email. She thought it meant “lots of love” and was baffled by the excessive affection.
And after seven years as a stay-at-home mom, Coward was once in a meeting with executives from Northrop Grumman, who were talking about “C-level executives.” She thought they were discussing “sea-level executives,” which makes sense given Northrop Grumman’s naval products.
The real problem: we don’t ask what it all means
When you don’t understand something, “You feel silly or stupid asking what that means,” Coward said. “It’s all about taking the time to really communicate and really understand one another.”
Let’s be completely honest here. I contacted a couple of linguists expecting that they’d back up my own personal thesis that corporatespeak is awful and terrible and nobody who wants to be understood should ever use it.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
In fact, I learned that terrible corporatespeak actually serves the almost tribal purpose to allowing experts to communicate easily with each other.
“Corporate speak falls under the category that linguists would call jargon. It’s the specialized language used in a field or area of knowledge, and it applies equally to rocket scientists and surfers,” said Carmen Fought, a linguistics professor at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. “Anybody who has a specialized knowledge of an area has a specific way of talking about particular concepts that are important.”
Kirk Hazen, linguistics professor at West Virginia University, agreed. He said it’s completely natural that groups develop ways of talking that are specific to that group – and also completely natural that other groups complain about it.
“This is a process that all humans do,” he said. “Every generation develops new slang. … It’s very old in Western culture to complain about teenagers making new slang.”
The annoyance people feel is probably due in part to the discomfort of being part of the “out group,” Hazen said. He said it’s not so different from when an eager 18-year-old heads off to college. They might come back for Thanksgiving break bearing not just loads of literal dirty laundry, but also new words, opinions and experiences, which can be alienating to parents or others at home.
“It’s more than just words. It’s about community and culture,” he said. “If those differences are highlighted, then sometimes people can react negatively.”
There are no new language complaints under the sun
Hazen said that concerns about corporatespeak and other language trends tend to come in waves. He said he’s noticed an uptick in hand-wringing over workplace jargon in the past year or so. In previous years, the controversies were around texting, or “ebonics.”
That doesn’t mean that jargon never causes problems, Hazen and Fought both said. In particular, cross-cultural communication is more difficult if people are using corporatespeak, because idioms – or expressions that can’t be deciphered through words alone, like “raining cats and dogs” – are notoriously difficult to translate.
“An expression like ‘time is money’ makes perfect sense to us but might seem strange in, let’s say a South American culture where the idea of time is more flexible,” Fought said.
And even linguists – who understand its utility and appreciate how languages evolve – admit to being annoyed by corporatespeak occasionally.
“Not being a member of a corporation, the whole idea irritates me, and I could see how an outsider to that culture might find it annoying in the sense of wanting people to just say what they mean instead of dressing it up with these fancy words,” Fought said.
Still, she’s not judging.
“Despite what others might think, linguists are the least judgmental people on the planet about language,” she said. “We can have personal opinions like anyone else, but when we’re in a professional capacity, we know that everything that happens with language happens for a reason, and our job is to understand it, not judge it.”
You can say that again.