What Your Office Jargon Says About You

Turns out how you "leverage your core competencies" reveals a lot about your office and your place in it.

You may not even notice it, but it’s likely your inbox is flooded with suggestions to “reach out,” "touch base," and “lean in.”

Perhaps you’re being asked to “think outside the box,” to come up with a “cutting edge” idea. Maybe you reply you need more time to “get your ducks in a row,” or you have to run an idea “up the flagpole,” or get “buy in.”

It’s not just your email that’s peppered with corporate jargon. Every day, we’re bombarded with buzzwords that become the hallmark of office dialogue. While you may wrinkle your nose at your computer screen and wish for a plain English response, office speak is nothing new, and it isn’t going away.

Related: Weird Al Spoofs Office Jargon In The Finale of His Album Release Week

In a recent Atlantic article, “The Origins of Office Speak," Emma Green writes that office speak emerged as early as the 1800s when Frederick Winslow Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management, releasing buzzwords related to maximizing production, precision and accuracy.

But it wasn’t until the 1950s and '60s when the corporate jargon we know of today began to trickle from the corner office down the hallways and now into our computer screens. Green argues the words and phrases we use daily affects our relationship with our work, impacting how we think about our jobs and our working life.

The original reason for what we know today as office speak was, indeed, because leaders felt a change in thinking was required. In the post-industrial age, employees were no longer perceived as mere cogs in the machine, but as individual human beings who excelled at work when they felt valued. The way to create an emotional connection between employees and the company was through words and phrases that empowered the employee.

“Over time, different industries have developed their own tribal vocabularies,” Green writes. “Some of today’s most popular buzzwords were created by academics who believed that work should satisfy one’s soul; others were coined by consultants who sold the idea that happy workers are effective workers.”

While this linguistic short-hand can be useful in helping employees coordinate work, it’s also a signal that the individuals who use it and understand it are in the “club.” If you’re not speaking the jargon, you’re simply not part of the team. “A well-placed buzzword is a great way to claim membership in a certain tribe,” writes Green.

Case in point: When I was asked once in an interview whether SEO optimization was “in my wheelhouse” and replied “what do you mean?” I knew I’d been passed over for the job. I knew what SEO optimization was, but the word “wheelhouse” wasn’t part of my vocabulary. I was “out of the loop” and therefore out of the job.

Imagine how disorienting it would be to receive an email filled with dozens of buzzwords and not knowing what half of them mean. This may be why every year, lists of the top 10 most annoying corporate jargon are published. Office speak may have been designed to help employees find meaning in their work lives, but to some, it’s simply irritating.

In an article published in the Guardian earlier this year, writer Raina Brands points out another problem with office speak.

She argues more often than not, office jargon caters to a male audience and can have the effect of alienating females in the office. According to Brands, military lingo such as sales “forces,” “target” clients, “fighting uphill battles,” spending time “in the trenches” or running something “up the flagpole” that are now so ingrained in business language helps to perpetuate a culture of masculinity. “The use of military parlance in organizations may reinforce historically rooted and implicitly held beliefs that business is no place for a woman,” writes Brands.

Despite what you think about office speak, it has become ingrained in our business lives. “Everyone makes fun of it, but managers love it, companies depend on it, and regular people willingly absorb it,” Green writes. “In a workplace that’s fundamentally indifferent to your life and its meaning, office speak can help you figure out how you relate to your work—and how your work defines who you are."

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4 Comments

  • jessicah514

    In my office, much like other corporate environments, the use of acronyms for everything is a version of office jargon. We have an ABC for DEF on the GHI at JKL. I made a list of what these acronyms meant when I started and was able to help train new coworkers after that.

    Additionally in my office, the most overused buzzword of the last few years is "story" as in "how do we tell our story." I realized that if I make a point to use that word it helps me get approval on my projects.

  • I'd have to disagree with Brands' argument that "office jargon caters to a male audience and can have the effect of alienating females in the office."

    Military lingo is commonplace in history textbooks, and ingrained in us at all ages. It's a rather "no-brainer" kind of language, and to say “The use of military parlance in organizations may reinforce historically rooted and implicitly held beliefs that business is no place for a woman,” is a stretch.

    I would agree, however, that the sports jargon alienates others, but that it is not exclusive to males versus females. I know many women that use baseball jargon religiously, and many men that have to do a quick Google search to figure out what the hell their colleagues are talking about.

    I would suggest the alienation is more alongside cultural divides. A group of Americans using baseball lingo in a business meeting across the pond may leave the audience a tad bit befuddled -- regardless of gender.

  • Liz York

    I have to disagree with your assessment that office speak, with its military connotations, isn't male dominated. A military environment is, by its nature, aggressive and domineering, qualities that are associated psychologically and sociologically with masculinity. Regardless of the fact that women are now accepted as part of the military, it is still, nonetheless a male dominated culture. Humans are hardwired to this, have been since the dawn of the human race. Males are required to be larger, stronger and more aggressive as they have always been the protectors while women have been the nurturers. We can pretend that we have evolved beyond such roles but this will never be true. Business represents the modern equivalent of the ancient tribal community, as does the military. Cultures develop as a matter of human motivation and behaviors. Cultures are the expression of the human psyche, not the other way around.

  • michael.cinalli

    Lisa, Good perspective on the subject. I am retired but when I was working ( for a large corporation) office speak was in every communication.....written as well as oral. For me it became a bit frustrating, in that, many people would quickly pick-up the latest office speak once it was used by CEO and his/her direct reports. Soon it was difficult to understand the "real/honest" opinion of the individuals using office speak.......and I personally, equated it to the type of individual whose opinion was based on the opinion(s) of those above them (re report to), and not their own opinion/view on the issue (s). So right or wrong, I began to not fully trust/ rely-on the opinion(s) of those who used too much office speak. This was probably wrong on my part.