In a classic Dilbert comic strip, a co-worker hands Dilbert a “buzzword bingo” card before a meeting. “If the boss uses a buzzword on your card, you check it off,” the colleague explains. Later, the boss comments, “You’re all very attentive today. My proactive leadership must be working!” To which the co-worker replies, “Bingo, sir.”
Although published nearly 30 years ago, the satirical office comic still rings true today. While the corporate jargon may have changed, the compulsion to use pretentious, obfuscating office-speak hasn’t. Most of us have sat through a meeting or received an email in which we’re advised to “take this offline,” “synergize our core competencies,” or “leverage blue-sky thinking.” We might have only the foggiest idea of what these phrases mean, but we’re hesitant to request clarification for fear that we’ll appear ignorant or out of touch. And so, corporate jargon becomes an unfortunate social norm within our workplace.
A ‘verbal sleight of hand’
The Oxford English Dictionary defines jargon as “special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.” But even within a specialized group, corporate jargon can cause confusion: It’s rife with cliches, metaphors, and vague phrases that are open to interpretation. In a recent survey, 33% of employees admitted to using business jargon terms whose meanings they didn’t know.
Like slang, corporate jargon is faddish and evolves over time — for example, “bleeding edge” is now replacing “cutting edge” to signify the latest innovation. “Jargon is the verbal sleight of hand that makes the old hat seem newly fashionable; it gives an air of novelty and specious profundity to ideas that, if stated directly, would seem superficial, stale, frivolous, or false,” writes journalist David Lehman in his book “Signs of the Times.”
Even though 86% of employees in the aforementioned survey have used popular jargon, many of those very people find office-speak frustrating. In the same poll, the top five most annoying terms of 2021 were:
- Giving 110%
- I’ll ping you
- Think outside the box
- Low-hanging fruit
- Reinvent the wheel
A few years ago, Forbes created a “Jargon Madness” bracket that matched buzzwords head-to-head, and readers voted for the most annoying phrases. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” emerged as the winner, with runners-up “it is what it is,” “empower,” and “leverage.”
Although the surveys don’t include respondents’ reasons for why they find the terms so irritating, many have a common thread: ambiguity. For instance, when a manager tells an employee to “give 110%,” the employee’s left wondering what exactly constitutes 110%: Are they expected to work evenings and weekends? “Jargon masks real meaning,” says University of California-Berkeley management professor Jennifer Chatman. “People use it as a substitute for thinking hard and clearly about their goals and the direction they want to give others.”
If jargon’s so annoying, why do we use it?
If you’ve ever inwardly rolled your eyes when someone said “soup to nuts” or “change agent,” but then gone on to repeat those very phrases, you recognize the seductive power of corporate jargon. To be sure, in some scenarios jargon is helpful for efficient communication: When scientists speak among themselves, they often use highly technical words that convey concise meanings to other experts in the field. In contrast, most corporate jargon is so vague that it mystifies rather than enlightens. So why do people use it?
A recent research study found that people with low status are more likely to use jargon to compensate for insecurities. In one experiment, researchers scanned the titles of dissertations and master’s theses, discovering that authors from lower-ranked schools used more jargon than those from prestigious schools. In another experiment, participants were told they were higher or lower status relative to other competitors in a mock pitch competition. People in the lower-status group chose to use more jargon in their startup pitch, whereas those in the higher-status group were more strongly motivated by effective communication.
“Jargon is like a suit, a car, or a watch — it’s a status symbol,” noted the study’s primary investigator, Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School. “Those who are insecure ‘dress up’ their words, believing it will make them appear smarter or cause others to take them more seriously.”
Not surprisingly, another reason for using business jargon is to deliberately obscure meaning. Think of all the euphemisms for firing or laying off workers: “Cut capacity,” “streamline,” “restructure,” and “create operational efficiencies” all sound a lot better than speaking directly about the painful task of dismissing an employee. A more nefarious reason to use jargon is to hide unethical behavior, for example, cloaking compensation practices, financial disclosures, or scientific fraud in impenetrable language.
Strive for a jargon-free zone
With all the reasons people feel compelled to use corporate jargon, cutting it out completely might feel like trying to “boil the ocean” (office-speak for an impossible task). But there are good reasons why you should consider discouraging business buzzwords.
Jargon excludes people. If leaders are trying to create an inclusive workplace, the last thing they should do is encourage a bizarre language of office-speak that not everybody understands. Today’s workplace includes people from different industries, job functions, and experience levels, many of whom won’t be familiar with the latest and not-so-greatest examples of corporate jargon. In addition, corporate jargon risks alienating non-native speakers, who often find English idioms confusing. To avoid creating harmful in-groups and out-groups, leaders should model and encourage the use of plain, direct speech.
A study in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology showed that jargon in scientific articles intended for the general public shuts readers out. In addition, they found jargon reduced people’s engagement with the science community and their self-reported interest in and understanding of scientific topics. In other words, jargon alienates and disengages the very people you’re trying to reach.
Jargon creates confusion, harming productivity. The ultimate goal of communication is to promote understanding. But when a leader uses corporate jargon as a status symbol or mental shortcut, they’re not giving clear instructions to their employees, and as a result, productivity suffers. Rather than focusing on phrasing, managers should strive to deliver an easily understandable message that tells an employee exactly what they need to know to complete a task.
Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, provides a good example of this concept. He once explained that he composes his annual shareholder report as if he’s writing to his two sisters, who aren’t active in business — even beginning the letter with “Dear Doris and Bertie” and removing the salutation once he’s finished. Rather than attempting to show off his vast knowledge and insider status with the latest business jargon, Buffett is much more interested in making the report informative and accessible.
Jargon makes leaders appear untrustworthy. Many people believe that using corporate jargon will make them appear more authoritative, but this approach can backfire: It could actually make them appear less trustworthy. One study showed that using vague nouns and verbs instead of specific ones can make people doubt you’re telling the truth. Participants rated statements having exactly the same meaning more likely to be true when written in definitive rather than abstract language.
According to the researchers, our brains process concrete statements more quickly, and because of expedience bias, we associate quick and easy with true. Moreover, since we can easily create mental pictures of concrete statements, they’re both easier to recall and seem more plausible and, thus, trustworthy.
‘Moving the needle’ on corporate jargon
If you’re ever tempted to tell someone to “take a deep dive into disintermediating retail channels,” ask yourself if there’s a simpler, clearer way to communicate the same idea. Leaders can model unambiguous language with communications from the top, encouraging all employees to prioritize understanding over slick phrasing.
And the next time someone starts spouting office-speak during a meeting, instead of surreptitiously marking your buzzword bingo card, don’t be afraid to ask them for clarification. If you’re not sure what a phrase means, chances are you’re not the only one. Asking them to rephrase jargon in concrete language will improve everybody’s — including the speaker’s — comprehension.
Author: Laura Cassiday, Ph.D.