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  • Writer's pictureMaitreyee Patki

What corporate speak tells us about ourselves

As a young first year psychology undergrad at St. Xavier’s college, I remember being wowed by a senior’s research paper presentation at the annual ‘psycho department’ seminar in Khandala.


It was a paper on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. How the grammatical and verbal structure of a person’s language, influences the way they think about reality. Essentially, how language determines or influences one’s thoughts. The idea stayed with me.


And now, having spent a dozen years or so in the corporate world, every time I hear (and speak) corporate speak – you know, that fine blend of business lingo, wartime metaphors, neologisms, puffery, with a dash of self-importance? – I wonder, how this might be influencing how we think about our jobs, our work, and our role in the corporate setup.

Let’s be real. Corporate speak has a bad rep. Anecdotally, it’s said to be ‘blood draining’, and ‘mind numbing’. And even in popular media, it’s been pejoratively referred to as ‘garbage speak’, just plain ‘bullshit’, ‘a sickness’, and even ‘speaking like a wanker’!

So then, why do we continue to perform these linguistic acrobatics even when we claim to detest them? Why do we keep at it when it (most often) is neither efficient, nor needed?


As someone who decodes why people behave the way they do for a living, this obviously had me intrigued. Looking into what we try to signal by using such language, I think I have some clues as to why we do this.


Simplicity as inadequacy, puffery as expertise

When someone uses such grandiose vocabulary, more often than not, it is seen as a sign of expertise and authority. In a world where optics are of considerable importance, such signaling becomes all too critical to project oneself as a leader, and as an expert. The absence of such puffery might render your communication too simple, and thereby ‘rudimentary’ and inadequate – irrespective of the actual credentials you may hold.

You might be saying the exact same thing, but the one saying it simply makes less of an impact than the one packaging it in a dazzling way. Like the difference between saying “do it”, versus saying “action it”.

A snippet from 'Wankernomics' - a satirical comedy by Jeff Schloeffel and Charles Firth


Making the mundane magnificent

As far back as the 1970s, a book by Arthur Herzog called The B.S. Factor, talked about the ‘crimes against logic and language’ committed by such corporate speak. It called out typical tricks, e.g. ‘Executalk’ such as ‘ballpark estimate’ for a ‘rough guess’; ‘Quote Facts’, as in opinions made to seem like facts by virtue of being quoted; and ‘Complex Complex’, the compulsion to make things more complicated than they need to be.


In a nutshell, we want to make our work sound fancier than it is. A way of creating meaning when it (seemingly) doesn’t exist. A way to make the mundane seem magnificent, make the banal remarkable.


Purposeful obfuscation

Back in my school days, my algebra tutor taught me – if you can’t convince, confuse. More recently I learnt, the CIA’s predecessors i.e. the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) had a similar message to sympathetic Axis citizens during WWII to undermine the Allies’ enemies. Through a Simple Sabotage Field Manual, they taught people how to do their jobs badly to weaken Axis countries by reducing their productivity. Some of these are evident, and unfortunately rampant in corporate setups today:

  1. Talk as frequently as possible and at great length.

  2. Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.

  3. Haggle over the precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.

  4. Refer back to matters decided upon.

  5. Be worried about the propriety of any decision.  

Dilbert comic - Scott Adams

 While potentially the intent might not necessarily be that of dampening an organisation’s productivity, such obfuscation often invariably does so in subtle ways. For instance, it might serve the person well by making their ideas or suggestions seem momentarily grand, even though in reality they may be too difficult to bring to life. And at times, such obfuscation might be deployed to minimize responsibility and accountability, and thereby risk to personal brand, by slowing things down and taking away the stress of actioning on items and potentially failing.


But why do we need to do all that? Why do we need to be seen as an expert, why do we need to make the mundane magnificent, why do we feel that need to obfuscate?  


At the root of it, maybe our jobs do not feel as meaningful, or as respected. For instance, as much as we may try to promote equality, some biases or even business realities do not always make it feasible.


From candid conversations with friends in advertising for example, there seems to be an implicit hierarchy between say the planners versus the account servicing folks. And we might agree that in a tech company, there is the implicit hierarchy of the C-suite and tech, followed then by non tech, with more hierarchies within the non tech groups as well.


Is it then maybe that we try to compensate – for ourselves, or for others, through our language? For instance, by engaging in more corporate speak that we know will help project ourselves as superior in this implicit hierarchy of things. Or even through amplified job titles that uplift a ‘customer service manager’ to a ‘customer experience Jedi’.


As for the obfuscation, it could be put down to a need for self-preservation. A way to wiggle out of tough situations, to buy time, while still seeming to be “on the ball” and not weakening one’s social position.


If we are to go by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, such corporate speak could be doing us more harm than good. Not only reflecting these insecurities, but also shaping our thinking and behaviour at work.


Inadvertently, the barrage of such convoluted vocabulary can mould how people conceptualise their roles, tasks, interactions, and value to their organization. Like the constant use of rather abstract concepts such as say, ‘synergistic optimisation’ can lead to people starting to view their work in terms of abstract strategies and optimization goals rather than tangible outcomes to be concretely worked towards.


It may also serve to nurture a potentially clique-ish power structure wherein those who are fluent with such management speak wield more authority over those who speak more simply, minus the jargon and oomph.


And of course, it likely reinforces a culture of appearances over authenticity, where people feel an implicit pressure to embellish their achievements and obscure shortcomings with grandiose language. Such superficiality and disingenuousness, in turn, can lead to a rather disillusioned organization as a whole.


So, what’s the fix? How do we ‘cut the bullshit’?


There are some simple fixes, we could all try out in the next meeting where we see such language in play. When you see a new idea being proposed ‘fluffily’, ask simple, pinpointed questions such as, ‘what does that mean’, ‘how will this work’. In a study by psychologists at Yale, it was found that people feel they understand complex things in detail – such as all to do with an everyday object like a toilet. But when asked to describe in detail how a toilet works, most subsequently realise that they are not as smart as they thought they were. The idea behind the question is to force people to put grand ideas into as simple and straightforward a language as possible.


But I suppose, this might not always work. And a pro corporate speaker, will likely throw back a, “Let’s take this offline”, and never “sync up” or “touch base” with you again.


A more holistic approach would be to ‘minimize the economy of bullshit’ to slow down its circulation, as an HBR article put it. It lays down a more foundational task of making jobs more meaningful through four factors:

  1. People must feel like they are contributing to the core purpose of their organization.

  2. People are able to craft their jobs so that it makes a significant contribution.

  3. Keeping tedious, administrative tasks, and meetings and emails (interruptions to getting things done) to a minimum.

  4. Helping people see the benefits of them doing their job.


It also boils down to organisational culture. If we stop rewarding and regarding such corporate speak, and value simplicity and clarity instead, with time it should minimise its economy. And down the road, change the meaning systems associated with it i.e. what such talk signals – not necessarily expertise, and potentially just hollowness.


But until then, as Wankernomics put it, don’t be afraid to stand up in a meeting and ask, “Simon, what the fuck are you talking about?!”



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