NO CHILD ASPIRES to a life talking the kind of nonsense that many executives speak. But it seems that, as soon as managers start to climb the corporate ladder, they begin to lose the ability to talk or write clearly. They instead become entangled in a forest of gobbledygook.
The first explanation for this phenomenon is that “jargon abhors a vacuum”. All too often, executives know they have nothing significant to say in a speech or a memo. They could confine their remarks to something like “profits are up (or down)”, which would be relevant information. But executives would rather make some grand statement about team spirit or the corporate ethos. They aim to make the business sound more inspirational than “selling more stuff at less cost”. So they use long words, obscure jargon, and buzzwords like “holistic” to fill the space.
Another reason why managers indulge in waffle relates to the nature of the modern economy. In the past, work was largely about producing, or selling, physical things such as bricks or electrical gadgets. A service-based economy involves tasks that are difficult to define. When it is hard to describe what you do, it is natural to resort to imprecise terms.
Such terms can have a purpose but still be irritating. Take “onboarding”. A single word to describe the process of a company assimilating a new employee could be useful. But “to board” would do the trick (at least in American English, which is more comfortable than British English with “a plane boarding passengers” and not just “passengers boarding a plane”). The only purpose of adding “on” seems to be to allow the creation of an equally ugly word, “offboarding”, the process of leaving a firm.
Overblown language is also used when the actual business is prosaic. Private Eye, a British satirical magazine that often mocks corporate flimflam, used to have a regular column pointing out the absurd tendency of companies to tag the word “solutions” onto a product; carpets became “floor-covering solutions”. (Bartleby has long wanted to start a business devoted to dissolving items in water so it could be called “Solution Solutions”.) Nowadays, the target for mockery is the use of the term DNA, as in “perfect customer service is in our DNA”.
In her book about life in the tech industry, “Uncanny Valley”, Anna Wiener used the term “garbage language” to describe “a sort of nonlanguage which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient”. Tech executives spouted a very grand vision of how they would reshape society but their rhetoric often clashed with the hard reality of what they were doing, which was to sell advertising or monopolise users’ time. It is a variation on the old Ralph Waldo Emerson dictum: “The louder he mentioned his honour, the faster we counted our spoons.”
The third reason why managers use jargon is to establish their credentials. What makes one person fit to manage another? It is hard to identify any obvious attributes; managers are not like doctors, who prove their expertise through passing exams and practical training. If you can speak the language of management, you appear qualified to rule. If others don’t understand terms like “synergy” and “paradigm”, that only demonstrates their ignorance. In a sense, managers are acting rather like medieval priests, who conducted services in Latin rather than in the local language, adding to the mystical nature of the process.
Once corporate jargon is established, it is hard for managers to avoid using it. The terms are ever-present in PowerPoint slides, speeches and annual reports. Not to use them would suggest a manager is not sufficiently committed to the job. Junior staff, for their part, dare not question the language for fear of damaging their promotion prospects.
Of course, new words will inevitably be coined in the world of business, as in other areas of life. Technology has ushered in a range of terms, such as hardware and software, which were once unfamiliar but are now widely understood. But a lot of the more irritating jargon has been brought in from other areas of life, like the self-help movement.
All this matters because the continued use of obscure language is a sign that the speaker is not thinking clearly. And if those in charge aren’t thinking clearly, that’s bad for the business. People who are in real command of the detail are able to explain things in a way that is easily understood. And if a manager’s colleagues understand the message, they are more likely to get the right things done. Jargon gets in the way.
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Jargon abhors a vacuum”