Business jargon is counterproductive

Business jargon is counterproductive
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First Published: Sun, Feb 21 2010. 08 29 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Feb 21 2010. 08 29 PM IST
When I watch news channels in English, and the programme comprises a conversation, I listen for a particular word: This three-letter word by its frequency is in the top 1% of the words in English. But people seem to have stopped using “yes”. This is what I hear: “Do you think the captain bungled in choosing to bat?”
Why do people say “absolutely” in place of “yes”? “Yes” is a short, one-syllable word and cannot carry much force. So people prefer “absolutely” with its four syllables which carry different degrees of stress. US President Barack Obama gave a boost to the word with his catchphrase, “Yes, we can.” But in most other contexts in the media, “absolutely” has usurped its place.
Another three-letter word in peril is “now”. It must be weeks now since I last heard the word on television. People prefer “at this point in time” or “at this moment in time”.
Why do people use jargon? Some use it to give a semblance of seriousness to the discussion. Some use it to appear important. Some use it to bamboozle listeners. Hiding behind the jargon, some bosses dodge accountability. The use of such fixed expressions can undermine communication. The message may not go across; or the message may be misunderstood. Even with simple words or phrases such as “bottom line” and “proactive”, the intended meaning may differ from the perceived meaning. Every change need not be called a paradigm shift. We should once again begin to meet people, not touch base with them.
Several surveys have been conducted on what the BBC calls office-speak. When a manager attends a seminar or workshop, he is exposed to new jargon and comes back and uses them to impress colleagues. This kind of jargon hardly contributes to the meaning. At these training programmes, they learn to use suffixes such as “–focused”, “-oriented” or “-centric” to create incomprehensible and needless gobbledegook that widens the divide between management and staff.
When a new expression comes into currency, it may sound picturesque and impressive. In course of time, it loses its sheen as people begin to use it to confuse the listener and cloud the issue. Here are some phrases from the lists released by various surveys.
“Thinking outside the box” had its heyday and then came to be voted Britain’s most despised business jargon by a team of researchers. To explain this idiom, people refer to the 9-dot puzzle. The nine dots are arranged in three rows of three dots each; we then have three columns of three dots too. The task is to connect the nine dots using not more than four lines, without lifting the pen from start to finish. Most people will try to find a solution within the area covered by the nine dots. To get the right answer, you have to stretch two lines far into the space outside the dots. In other words, you have to think outside the box. The general sense is that you should think differently, creatively. The idea is well expressed in the phrase lateral thinking.
There are a few other modes of thinking that get mentioned. One is “blue-sky thinking” (voted the most unpopular phrase by the Internet Advertising Bureau of the UK), and another is “360-degree thinking”. A group called Investors in Thinking said that the use of phrases such as blue-sky thinking and brain dump was damaging to British industry.
“Pushing the envelope” has nothing to do with office stationery. I was without a clue about the meaning of this phrase. What struck me first was that it might be a euphemistic way of saying, bribe somebody. As it turned out, this was far from the real meaning of the phrase. The envelope here is a concept from aircraft performance. It refers to the upper limit of a plane’s capabilities in regard to altitude, speed, load and so forth. Pushing the envelope means trying to improve performance by going beyond these boundaries.
There are several single words that merely fill the communication with hot air; managers should avoid words such as incentivize, leveraging and synergistic, and use plain language everybody can understand.
Some of the other phrases now considered jargon are “low-hanging fruit” (easy targets), “get your ducks in a row” (have one’s affairs efficiently sorted), “not rocket science” (the task assigned to you is not complicated), “showing up on my radar screen” (I am keeping track of what you are doing), and “helicopter view” (an overview).
Jargon in the sense of vocabulary that rightly belongs to a profession or a discipline has its legitimate place in communication. But, as Orwell warned, if it is used indiscriminately, it can undermine communication and prove detrimental to your organization.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his column. Comments can be sent to
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First Published: Sun, Feb 21 2010. 08 29 PM IST