Is office jargon really a problem?

Posted on 21 February 2014 by Lucy Gregory

Every couple of months a new book or article pipes up about jargon and management speak. And each time the online comments flood in.

My favourite comment comes from someone who was asked to ‘drill down into the data matrix and provide the key deliverables for the policy customer by COP (close of play).’

The recipient of this instruction was not impressed. In fact, most of us love to hate this type of language.

Going forward, let’s deep dive and synergise

We complain about making work sound fun:

Close of play

Touch base

Level playing field

Get the ball rolling

We complain about euphemism:

Annual leave (holidays aren’t allowed)

Blue-sky thinking (coming up with new ideas sounds tricky)

Decruitment (no one wants to talk about sacking staff)

We complain a lot about nouns that should be verbs:

The takeaways

The learnings

A big ask

And of course we complain about verbs that should be nouns:

To workshop

To incentivise

To solutionise

>To dialogue

To action

But so long as our meaning is clear, does this language matter? Is our irritation justified or irrational?

Not all jargon is harmless

I think you can split office jargon into two groups: (1) annoying, but harmless; and (2) offensive.

Group 2 is a problem.

In this group I put all the language that dehumanises us. We now have capacity (like a fridge), we can take something offline (which has nothing to do with the internet) and we can be upskilled (with just a little training I can become Lucy 2.0).

My personal bugbear is human capital.

This phrase suggests utter contempt for staff, who are clearly just another asset sitting on the balance sheet: exploited when needed, rationalised in line with expenditure, balanced against ROI (that’s return on investment). Is it any wonder that employees feel undervalued and employers have problems with staff loyalty?

Cause and effect: does language shape our culture or represent our values?

We need to identify the cause of this offensive language.

If it is shaping our work culture, then perhaps we are right to oppose it. Let’s act before the rot sets in.

But, more likely, this language reflects society views and values; we’re just too busy at work to treat people like people rather than like computers. If this is case, we should stop complaining about office jargon, as if it exists in its own right. We use it, in our jobs, with our colleagues. And we can choose not to, if we want.

So let’s all choose our words more carefully and treat our colleagues with more respect. We might find that clear speaking has its own ROI.

For more on this topic:

Lucy Kellaway (of the FT)’s brilliant pod casts

This incisive and funny guide to language in the Civil Service: How to be a civil servant – Mandarin English part 1

A whole website dedicated to office jargon and other gunk: