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Looking under the bonnet of annoying management speak

Brave new world? We should embrace language that gets things done. Shutterstock/

Poking fun at corporate jargon is on trend. Newspapers and online publications get a kick out of compiling extensive lists of the most egregious examples and the overarching narrative is that we should puncture the pomposity that this “management speak” is deemed to represent.

To its critics, this new language of business is seen as a tool for making things seem more impressive than they are. Phrases are dismissed as “meaningless lingo” or “lame euphemisms” and we are offered simplified, plain speaking versions instead. Sometimes, we are simply forbidden to use them.

But before we throw the baby out with bathwater – see what I did there? – we should stop to reconsider. What is the problem with this form of language? Why are we so annoyed by it? And why do so may of us keep using it?

You wouldn’t … would you? Shutterstock/Jason L. Price

Drilling down

The first problem is a semantic one. There is a big difference between the various labels so liberally used in the media, so let’s get it straight. “Jargon” is the technical vocabulary used specifically in a particular organisation or within a specific community. Idiomatic language – or management/corporate speak – is a fixed set of expressions used typically in business contexts.

The latter are figures of speech which are normally recognised by everyone, if not enjoyed. I say “recognised” because it is not hard to see how the actual meaning of these words and phrases might be hard to grasp on the basis of their component parts. If we don’t understand them as a phrase, they simply will not make sense. We will be puzzled by “blue sky thinking”, “low hanging fruit”, “peeling an onion” or “drilling down”. Unless, of course, we make the effort and learn these phrases.

Ripe for the picking. waferboard/Flickr, CC BY

And doing just that shouldn’t be too hard. We use idiomatic expressions all the time, from metaphors such as “spill the beans” to phrasal verbs when we “put up with somebody”. We use sayings such as the old favourite “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” and more subtle formulae such as “having said that”. Maybe the real question is why we expect the office to be an exception.

Is it at all possible that the blame for causing annoyance shouldn’t be on those who actually use these phrases?

No ‘I’ in team

The bigger issue related to annoying office phrases is that we tend to ignore the role they play in human interaction in the office. You might very reasonably ask why someone would use the metaphor “drill down” or “helicopter view” when they could perfectly happily say “explore in greater detail” or “broader view of business”?

But the alternatives I offer, “exploring” and “broader view” are also metaphors – much more conventional and therefore less recognisable than “drill” and “helicopter”, but metaphors nonetheless. This just goes to show that some concepts are so complex and abstract that our only way of capturing them is through metaphors.

The view from above. Kris Arnold/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The second issue is the imagery that the key word in a metaphor evokes (drill/helicopter). By using these particular words, we activate areas in our mind that are linked to drills or helicopters – in these particular cases machines with high power and efficiency. These metaphorical expressions therefore cannot be adequately replaced by their simplified version: we would lose the intensity and the force communicated by the images they evoke.

But idiomatic expressions do much more than just intensify a message. Research has found that they help to express intimacy and closeness, or the opposite – to emphasise differences. Idiomatic expressions highlight the common ground between the speakers because they “activate” knowledge that everybody shares.

It is not surprising that researchers have found that internal meetings use far more idiomatic expressions than those conducted with people from outside. Using jargon and group-specific expressions is one of the strongest cohesive forces that can help to strengthen a team.

Going forward

Finally, using formulaic expressions makes our life in the office easier. Off-the-peg language comes in handy when we need messages conveyed efficiently, when the main purpose of the communication is to get key information across, or when we have no time or space to rethink formulaic phrases such as “keep me in the loop” or “pick your brains”. Apart from being ready-made, many of these phrases also help us to express our messages in a polite way and show consideration for our colleagues. Would you, for example, react differently to “I need you to come into my office now” instead of “can I pick your brains?” Surely, you would.

When I see articles like the ones cited above, I am always amazed by the dismissiveness and unjustified anger against “office phrases”. We use figurative language all the time. Formulaic phrases make our work easier. Metaphors add a level of expressiveness and intensity. Idioms help us bond. So what is wrong with “corporate speak”? Nothing. I think we should stop being annoyed and instead embrace how varied and expressive our language is. At least, we should run it up the flagpole and see who salutes…

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