People use jargon because they want to sound smart and credible when in fact they sound profoundly dim-witted and typically can’t be understood, which defeats the purpose of speaking in the first place. – Karen Friedman
I am usually able to tune out my sister when she’s yapping away on her phone in the office we sometimes share — her words burble behind me as I type and click about my own business. But every so often there is a distinct phrase that breaks through the sound bubble and jerks me to attention.
I was toggling between Twitter and Facebook the other day when one such cluster of sounds formed a jagged rock that hit me in the back of the head, causing me to turn around and stare in disbelief at the woman who threw it. “Really?” I said in a loud whisper, not wanting to disrupt Jane’s business discussion, but unable to stifle my irritation. Eyes wide, I mouthed the offending phrase with exaggerated enunciation so my sister would know the source of my sudden ire.
“MY ASK OF YOU?”
Jane suppressed a giggle, made some spastic movement between shrugging and waving me off, and returned her full attention to the guy on the other end of the line. But she knew I wouldn’t let it go. I never do.
As soon as I heard the telltale sound of Jane’s conversation coming to a close – a drop in the energy of her voice – I turned around and stared at her until she put down her phone. “What?” she said in an overly defensive way that told me she knew exactly what.
“What the freak is ‘My ask of you’ supposed to mean?”
“It’s, like, when you’re requesting something from someone,” Jane said.
“It sounds moronic.”
“I didn’t make it up – everyone says it,” Jane countered.
“Well, then everyone’s a moron. If you have a request of someone, why not simply say, ‘Would you?’ Please, Jane, promise me you won’t ever say that again. I can’t have a sister going around saying stupid shit like that.”
“You think that’s bad, you should hear the new one that’s going around – I almost texted you from my meeting yesterday,” Jane said. I braced myself and waited. Jane dragged out the silence for maximum effect. When she saw she was losing me, Jane finally said, “Servant leadership.” I raised my brows. “I know,” she said, “I didn’t understand it. They kept saying it throughout the meeting; it was even highlighted on the board. It means, like, you have to lead by serving, so ‘servant leadership.’”
David, who’d been down the hallway sorting laundry, poked his head through the door and said, “That makes absolutely no sense.”
“It’s what people say,” Jane argued.
“People in middle management make up terms for things they want to say, but it would be so much better if they would just say what they want to say. Corporate-speak drives me crazy. You’ll never hear an executive bloviating bullshit like that. They’re too busy making decisions and getting shit done. That’s why you’re so successful in everything you do,” I said to my sister. “You don’t pirouette around a point in some awkward toe-step — you pin it down with a spike heel.”
From what I witness and hear (not only from Jane, but also from friends who work for major corporations or smaller hifalutin’ offices) I’m positive I couldn’t survive in the corporate world. I had a friend in middle management at a major IT company. When I learned he insisted on having daily progress meetings with his staff, I was baffled. “Isn’t that a waste of time?” I asked. “To take an hour out of each day to micromanage what everyone did the day before?”
He insisted it was helpful and necessary, but I couldn’t help wondering if that was how he justified his position. On his conference calls, he used terms like “skin in the game” and “bubble it up.” In emails to both his team and upper management that he asked me to help edit, I flinched at the words “synergy” and “incentivize,” and phrases such as, “circle back” and “mission critical.”
The term “stakeholder management” came up enough times that I went to look it up online and found this: “The art of acquiring enough opinions from people, groups, or leaders within a company to deflect blame if a project doesn’t meet expectations and/or outright fails.”
When I’m helping a friend in the corporate world write an email or prepare for a presentation (something I am often called upon to do), I don’t have much patience for all the buzzwords and jargon. All those expressions with distorted verbs and made-up nouns make for an uncrackable code. But perhaps that’s the point. How better to appear smart and seem like you know shit than to baffle your coworkers with verbiage that they are embarrassed to admit they don’t understand for fear that they will come off looking unknowledgeable?
I’ll look to the muddled gibberish on the screen, then turn to my friend and ask, “What is it you want to say?” Then I spend half an hour trying to convince him that the clear, concise explanation he just gave to me verbally is way better than the imbroglio he created in an email containing all those empty phrases.
I’m not immune to business jargon – some words leak out of tall buildings and onto the street, where they get picked up and carried into coffee shops and tattoo parlors. I’ve heard myself say things such as “touch base” and “reach out” when what I really meant was, “contact.” But I see this as a minor infringement on straight-talk.
The next time I overhear my sister saying something asinine along the lines of “matrix partners,” I am going to bring her to the table, where I can demonstrate my best practices and showcase my centers of excellence so that she’ll realize how critical is the path she’s on and recognize her core competencies so that going forward she can reassess her metrics and monetize her minutes. In other words, I’ll tell her to knock it off.