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Has Corporate Jargon Ruined Our Ability to Communicate?

The Doe Team

by The Doe Team

| June 30, 2022

Corporate jargon can often lack clarity and make it more difficult to understand the true meaning behind what someone is trying to say.

Imagine it’s your first day at a brand-new job.

You’re onboarding with your new team, meeting important stakeholders, learning about the delivery KPIs for your new role and learning how to think outside the box in order to move the needle.

If you read that last paragraph and understood it, you may already be a victim of corporate jargon. Maybe you’re even guilty of using it on a day-to-day basis at work.

But why? And what exactly is corporate jargon? Does it play an important role in the workplace?

In a recent survey, The Doe asked readers whether workplace jargon influences how they communicate with co-workers. An overwhelming 80% of you said it does, while 20% of respondents said it does not.

“It can be helpful and harmful depending on how you use it,” said one survey respondent. 

Let’s take a closer look at jargon in the workplace and the impact it has on our ability to communicate with one another in a professional setting.

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What Is Corporate Jargon?

Corporate jargon, aka corporate speak, corporate lingo, business jargon or simply jargon, is defined by Merriam-Webster as:

  1. the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group
  2. obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words

Either definition perfectly sums up what we mean when we speak of corporate jargon. It’s the language most often used in the workplace, at large corporations and in bureaucracies. 

It involves the use of vague, ambiguous, obscure phrases, acronyms and euphemisms to describe something that could be explained in much simpler terms. 

Here are a few examples:

  • Boil the ocean: It means to take on an impossible task or make a task unnecessarily hard. 
  • Table the conversation: It means to pause a discussion with the intent to perhaps not return to it again. 
  • Circle back: It means to pause a conversation and return to it later. 
  • Take it offline: It means to talk about something later or in private.
  • Bandwidth: It means the capacity or resources to deal with something. 

As you can see from the examples above, corporate lingo can often lack clarity and make it more difficult to understand the true meaning behind what someone is trying to say.

Why Do We Use Corporate Lingo?

The simplest explanation for why corporate lingo permeates the workplace is really because everyone else is doing it.

We often look to those around us in new environments and look for social cues, including communication style. So if everyone around you is using business buzzwords, then you will start to do the same, whether consciously or subconsciously. Oftentimes, the jargon becomes so commonplace that it is no longer considered business “speak” and it’s simply a part of the lexicon.

Jason Fried, the founder and CEO of Basecamp—a project management and team communication tool—argues that “jargon is insecurity.”

A 2020 study from researchers at Columbia University and the University of Southern California backs Fried’s assertion. They found that the use of jargon, acronyms and legalese comes from feeling insecure about how you will be perceived by others. 

“Jargon is like a suit, a car, or a watch—it’s a status symbol. Those who are insecure ‘dress up’ their words, believing it will make them appear smarter or cause others to take them more seriously,” says Adam Galinsky, the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School.

Is Corporate Speak Helpful or Harmful?

In certain industries, jargon is compulsory and necessary to fulfill duties. 

It can create a more efficient and productive workplace, especially for individuals who work in air traffic control or law enforcement. In both instances, jargon exists to facilitate communication between individuals.

In other instances, corporate jargon is used to create a sense of community and a shared identity in the workplace. For example, Google often refers to something they call “Googliness,” which is “a mashup of passion and drive that’s hard to define but easy to spot.”

In these instances, corporate lingo isn’t necessarily harmful, and it’s being used in a way to bring people together, to motivate and to inspire.

Corporate jargon can become harmful when it makes communication more difficult for group outsiders and leads them to disengage, according to the Harvard Business Review. 

Business jargon can make people feel excluded and not part of the inside group.

In The Doe’s recent survey, 52% of respondents said they found workplace jargon to be helpful while 48% said they found it to be harmful.

How Corporate Jargon Can Affect Workplace Communication

There are several ways in which corporate jargon can impact communication in the workplace.

While it may seem harmless at times, BetterUp notes there are four specific ways it can be harmful to an organization:

  • Productivity: Overall performance is affected when it leads to misunderstandings and wasted resources. When employees are confused about business and personal goals, productivity goes down. 
  • Inclusivity: It alienates employees who may feel as if they’re being looked down upon by a manager using corporate lingo. Especially in our increasingly global world, euphemisms may not translate across cultures. 
  • Communication: Clear communication leads to better overall results. When communication lacks clarity and relies on jargon, it can lead to poor business outcomes.
  • Innovation: When employees don’t feel included or part of the team or are dealing with confusion and vague language, the ability to innovate decreases.

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Conclusion

Mark Twain is famously quoted as saying: “Don't use a $5 word when a 50-cent word will do.”

That’s excellent advice when it comes to communication in the workplace (and honestly, communication in general). One way to ensure you aren’t relying too heavily on corporate speak is to ask the person to whom you’re speaking whether they understand what you just said. Conversely, if you are on the receiving end of corporate jargon, you can stop the madness and ask the other person, “What does that mean?”

Avoiding corporate jargon and using clear, concise and simple language in the workplace will ensure everyone understands what you’re saying and is working toward a common goal.

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