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.
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."