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With more remote workers returning to the office, they will be greeted with a barrage of office jargon, short-hand phrases that can annoy and confuse.

Replace Corporate-Speak with Clear, Direct Messages

The return to office work means a return to office jargon, an insider’s special language and an annoying reminder you aren’t working at the kitchen table any more.

While the word ‘jargon’ dates as far back as the 1300s, its use has become commonplace in the 21st century workplace, often as a short-cut to an explanation. Some are so prevalent they have elevated to buzzword status and even show up in song lyrics.

Corporate jargon is at once clever and non-specific. Pithy phrases offer a connotation, not always a clear direction, which can lead to confusion and, over time, disillusion.

You’ve heard them – and probably used them:

  • Win-win situation
  • Bring to the table
  • On the same page
  • New normal
  • Circle back
  • Think outside the box
  • Drilling down
  • Customer journey
  • Low-hanging fruit
  • Deep dive
  • Content is king
  • Bandwidth
  • Move the needle

There are bushels more of them that seemingly breed like mosquitos when people hear them at conferences or business meetings, then bring them back to incubate in their office environment.

A recent NPR story by Rachel Treisman suggests jargon can easily morph into clichés that lose whatever original meaning was intended. She quotes Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam Webster, as saying “when overused, buzzwords can become a code for a kind of professional language that is ‘substituting for authenticity’”.

Over time, jargon and buzzwords can degrade from clever phrases to laugh lines. “We make fun of them and slowly they lose their power,” Sokolowski says.

Workers Dislike But Use Office Jargon
Treisman’s story included results from a poll of 1,500 Americans working in offices and remotely who were asked about corporate buzzwords. One in five respondents said they dislike them and two in five said they hear them at least once a day. Seven in 10 admitted to using them.

According to the poll, the most annoying buzzwords are “new normal”, followed by “culture”, “circle back”, “give 110%”, “move the needle” and “think outside the box”. Oddly, the respondents didn’t object to “at the end of the day”, “debrief” or “table this”.

More than annoying, jargon can be somewhere between misleading and meaningless to some workers. A useful cue comes from non-English speakers who regard corporate jargon as stressful because it comes across as insider exchanges that leaves them out.

Sokolowski thinks some workplace jargon like ‘bandwidth’ flows from new technology and an eagerness by business leaders to seem hip. Sometimes jargon catches on and becomes widely accepted, such as ‘blog’ that derived from ‘weblog’ or ‘drill down’ for going deeper on a website for more detailed information.

Realistically, Sokolowski thinks jargon is here to stay, like bad coffee in the office kitchen. “The fact is, we’re all stuck with it,” he says. “No matter what your profession, you are going to have jargon, which is to say an inside language. And that is entirely appropriate.”

Office Jargon Not Always Productive
While appropriate, that insider language may not always be productive in business settings. Jargon such as “get your ducks in a row” may not be a clear direction to someone who doesn’t understand what ducks you are talking about. Saying “get organized” is more direct, more clear and probably more helpful.

As it turns out, Sokolowski is more than a dictionary editor. He is co-host of the podcast Words Matter and offers advice on how to make the most of the English language. He says listeners appreciate rhetoric that’s short, direct and meaningful, pointing to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Ronald Reagan’s call for Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”.

With more clarity and more directness, more communication will result.

“For English speakers, it’s almost a moral issue to speak clearly and use words with common meanings, Sokolowski advises. “Think of short words that convey emotion and deep meaning,”  Put more bluntly, don’t depend on jargon to substitute for speaking clearly and saying exactly what you mean or want accomplished.

Pet phrases can be endearing, but not necessarily informative. Recognize the difference. And, as Sokolowski encourages, be patient with employees when they fail to understand some clever phrase you picked up somewhere. “If we pay attention and police our own use of language,” Sokolowski says, “more clarity, more directness and more communication will result.”