Corporate Speak Craziness

Most anyone working in a corporate setting for very long these days knows that the language spoken there is a bit different than the language used in the average social setting. Sometimes I am amused, and I just “shine it on” as long as I can discern the meaning, and sometimes it makes me a little annoyed. That’s the residual pickiness ingrained in my brain from my English major days in college.

One of my pet peeves these days is the increased use of the term “around” to mean “about,” “concerning,” or “having to do with.” I hear such phrases as “it is important at today’s meeting to focus on the important mission around improved customer satisfaction.” Or, “one of leadership’s important goals for this fiscal year is around improved savings.” Several times I have gone to internet web sites having to do with grammar, and they indicate that although this is becoming a popular practice, it doesn’t make it correct grammatically.

Every now and then someone will sprinkle “vis-à-vis” into a sentence. The literal meaning, from the French, is face-to-face, but it is used more recently to mean “in relation to” or even “when compared with.” Maybe it is supposed to sound “in” but I think it smacks of showing off one’s vocabulary and not the correct phrase for the occasion.

There was a time when managers and executives interviewed and hired and talked about “job skills.” Now it is all about “core competencies” and “behaviors.” I think that is probably acceptable terminology for management employees, but when you interview an entry level clerk and ask the applicant to talk about “your core competencies,” you are likely to get some blank looks or even some laughs. Is this some sort of evil secret contest – to make the workplace as difficult for employees as possible?

As a technical writer, I am encouraged to make my writing clear, precise and understandable, to use as many simple words as possible, rather than complex ones. And this “corporate speak” seems to go in the totally opposite direction. When management says “we are undertaking a new initiative,” rather than “we are starting a new project,” I am amazed, though I guess I shouldn’t be. Is there a course, or a school, where senior managers go to learn to talk like this? Where they learn about “enterprise-wide undertakings,” rather than company goals, or “updateable scorecards” rather than quarterly results? There was a craze recently over Johnny Depp and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and it was followed by “Talk Like a Pirate Day.” Now every day in white collar offices, it is “talk like an executive day,” code for “I’m important and I have arrived.”

It must be that as executives graduate with their MBAs, or are promoted to a senior level, they go through some colorless, odorless, invisible process, like a corporate car wash, where a genie waves a wand and they emerge saying things like “this quarter we need to accelerate our goals for expanded system functionality as well increase our geographical penetration, especially in the senior demographic.” It seems to put a wedge squarely between management and the employee at the same time those same companies are having off site “team building” workshops to assure all the workers are “on the same page.” It makes it sound as though all employees march in every day with corporate hymn books, yet all are singing different hymns in different keys. The result is discord and lack of communication and then management is surprised. I have a vision in my head of employees wearing “business casual” attire, each with a visible attached security i.d. badge, each carrying a corporate hymn book, marching in step, but singing several different hymns, and they are marching in the Doo Dah Parade in Pasadena. The Doo Dah Parade is a popular farcical and flamboyant parade, originally meant to be a send-up of the Rose Parade and other serious parades. It has taken on a life of its own, making fun of all manner of “revered” customs and practices, including corporate America in much the same way Scott Adams did in his Dilbert cartoons. It also mocks fads and pop culture. Over time the entries have included the BBQ & Hibachi Marching Grill Team, the Church of the Ornamental Lawn Decorations, Human-Powered Cupcakes and Martinis in the Morning. My favorite was the The Synchronized Briefcase Drill Team with a number of men & women in three-piece suits performing precision routines. It is only funny if you truly understand the frame of reference. In many parlances, laptop cases, rolling duffles and backpacks have replaced the once-ubiquitous briefcase, and I’m sure there are now synchronized routines being done with iPads and smartphones.

But back to corporate speak. Here are a few I found that I particularly like:

• …airport representatives voted unanimously to launch a new safety advancement initiative that will ensure that airports contribute proactively to the demands of a safe and secure air transport system. (Those are a lot of words to mean “safer airports.”)

• ….based on extensive consultation with a variety of stakeholders… (meaning “we talked amongst ourselves”)

• ….launch new initiative to ensure cybersecurity for domestic and commercial sectors (meaning “making computer log-ons safer”)

• ….empty commercial spaces will be temporarily transformed into low-budget arts incubators for performances, education, retail or other creative businesses. (meaning “use empty store windows in empty buildings to display art.”)

• About 32% of children and adolescents are obese or overweight, government statistics show. Almost 20% of children ages 6 to 11 and 18% of those ages 12 to 19 are obese. Such children are at a greater risk for weight-related health problems such as high cholesterol and diabetes, and they have an increased chance of becoming obese adults. (meaning “our kids are too fat and now they are unhealthy.”)

• ….announced today the inauguration of a new program to determine the evolving regional norms for military intervention in self-determination disputes. (without reading further, I have absolutely no idea what this means)

Now doesn’t that just push the envelope? That’s another phrase that is overused and not widely understood. This may be part of the reason that the average citizen doesn’t follow the news – it requires a translation program to make any sense of it. Just enter the words “launch new initiative” into Google or other search engine on your computer and see how many hits you get. I think that makes my point. Corporations and governments have gone overboard with verbosity.

I would like to see executives move in the following direction:

• “When do we start?” (rather than “what is the target date for the launch of the new protocol?”)

• “We’ll start in July.“ (rather than “implementation may be delayed for two quarters while we assess…”)

• “We haven’t figured it out yet.” (instead of “until our extensive testing is completed and analyzed, we will be unable to share the root cause of the configuration bug.”)

I wonder. Is all this a way of making employees feel small and impotent instead of empowered? Is it a way to justify high executive salaries? Their work performance may not justify the big bucks, but gosh, look how they have mastered corporate speak, a feat in itself.

Once again, I don’t have all the answers. I think I will apply for a federal grant to study the rapidly accelerating verbosity and misuse of language in the corporate sub culture, relative to its impact on corporate earnings and ROI. I’ll get back to you in a couple of years with my findings.