In the first weeks of transition from being a full-time freelancer to a full-time employee, the shocks to my system were many. But one of the first and most amusing was when, after presenting an idea for an editorial campaign, one of my co-workers asked me, “But how will it live?”
A question for philosophers—or so I thought. But over the subsequent days and weeks, I would come to understand that this question, along with “circling back,” “laddering up,” finding “low-hanging fruit,” securing “easy wins,” figuring out the “low-lifts,” and “pinging” someone, are all part of a specific vocabulary that has infiltrated the workplace like a Roomba, only efficient, apparently.
The 1999 classic Office Spacestill probably holds the title as the go-to reference for ridiculous office jargon, but I’ve had enough office conversations to know that this kind of lingo-mockery thrives, rampant and surprisingly forceful, come happy hour.
And yet we participate. We are “aligned,” and we keep aligning. A string of deliberately obtuse nonsense can leak from our mouths while we simultaneously feel baffled—to the point of nihilism—that we’re doing it. The question is: Why?
As it turns out, it’s more complicated than our three-beers-deep frustrations might lead us to believe. For starters, newbies in particular have a natural instinct to fit into their new surroundings, explains Professor Herbert Colston, chair of the linguistics department at the University of Alberta.
“They may be showing how quickly they can get on board with things,” he says. “You’re one of the team, so you have to act like the team. So it’s conformity to a certain degree.” And he points out, too, that jargon that is fairly recent in its use actually comes from a place of creativity, and that adopters are responding to a desire to “not say things the old, staid ways that people have always said things.”
While we might find this language deeply uncool at the present moment, it doesn’t function in any different a way than the latest slang does: “We tend to be creative with our language, as a species,” says Colston. “But the way our language works puts some brakes on that, because we all have to use a more or less standardized way of speaking so that we can continue talking with one another.”
He adds that young people tend to be the drivers of this change and are “always coming with new, interesting—sometimes annoying—ways of doing this.” (See: Every internet acronym ever.)
“At first it sounds odd, then it starts to sound catchy, then you hear yourself using it,” adds Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work.
The reason we think office jargon is obnoxious at the present moment is is in part, our own fault: We participate in it, and so it’s inevitable that we’ll kill it, if it’s not already dead. “If something gets adopted quickly by everybody, it often won’t last long. Everyone starts using it, but then everyone notices that everyone’s using it, and then it falls apart,” Colston says, citing the once-earnest use of “YOLO” as an example.
Tannen points out as well that a collective notion that certain language is “uncool” is a highly subjective matter. “There is nothing inherently more obnoxious about ‘circle back’ than ‘I’ll get back to you,’” she notes. “I’d compare it to the way cultures agree on idioms for greetings: Americans say ‘How are you?’ as a greeting and expect the ritual answer of ‘fine’ or ‘good.’ Those who grew up elsewhere think we’re hypocrites, because we ask how they are but don’t really want to know.”
How office jargon can actually bail your ass out of trouble
It may be tempting to assign the ubiquity of this obtuse language to The Man or the powers that be, but Colston points out that actually, buying into corporate speak can, somewhat counterintuitively, lend you a serious helping hand when you don’t know WTF is going on.
“Language that says nothing has value for certain speakers in certain contexts,” he says. “A person doesn’t know what to say or they’re young or they’re inexperienced, but they have to say something, so they can [use the jargon] to empty-speak for a while.”
And Tannen adds that expecting language to be a tool of constant efficiency is missing the very point of why language exists. “A major function of talk is to negotiate relationships, show that we’re connected, and indicate our stance toward the person we’re talking to. If we only talked when we had important information to convey, most conversation would be ruled out of bounds,” she says.
Still, if corporate speak is reallygetting you and your co-workers’ goat, there’s an exit strategy, courtesy of the natural evolution of human language: People emulate the speech patterns of the people they’re surrounded by.
“Sometimes it can just take one person to break the norm of that little culture and say, ‘We’re not doing it this way.’ [If that person] speaks clearly and meaningfully, that can knock people out of that mode. There tends to be little, local trends of doing things,” says Colston.
Though Tannen reminds that whatever you replace “circle back” with today will likely be similarly antiquated or annoying soon enough, and you’ll end up irking the people who don’t mind it while you’re at it: “New expressions coming into use—and thus annoying the people who had gotten used to the old ones—is the natural evolution of speech.”
Something to think about, anyway, as you’re figuring out the lowest-lift way to act like you’re at your desk working right now instead of reading an article.