August 3, 2003
Initiating Mission-Critical Jargon Reduction
Over the past 20 years, business has replaced the bureaucracy in the public mind as the chief perpetrator of doublespeak. On the Web, references to corporate or business jargon outnumber references to bureaucratic or government jargon by 3 to 1. It's a remarkable shift in attitudes, particularly since government hasn't exactly been sleeping on the job.
True, complaints about the language of business aren't new. Critics have long griped about the use of "contact" as a verb. Back in 1931, a Western Union vice president called the verb "a hideous vulgarism" and banned it from company documents, and H. L. Mencken described it in 1936 as one of the "counter words" of "the heyday of Babbittry." (The condemnation is repeated in the most recent edition of "The Elements of Style," by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, which is apparently still holding out for "write, phone, fax, wire, e-mail or click on us.") And mid-20th-century businessmen were ridiculed for inventions like "performancewise," and "depreciationwise" ˇ a vogue promoted by Fortune magazine, which Archibald McLeish once described as "understaffed good-writer-wise."
Still, it's hard to get over the impression that where there's smoke, there's downsizing. Business jargon may not be new, but it is more visible and more pervasive in corporate life than it used to be. Strategists and consultants bandy clich╚s like "coopetition," "low-hanging fruit" and "mission-critical," which repackage old concepts in shiny new shrinkwrap.
Human resources departments (Mencken would have loved that name) have appropriated the language of the human potential movement to smooth the edges of hierarchy and conflict ˇ "Let's revisit that issue to align our end-state visions."
Naming consultants churn out high-tech portmanteau names, with an eye to how they will play on Wall Street rather than on the factory floor. When a chemical company spins off its decorative building products division as Omnova Solutions, they're thinking of how the name will look on a stock offering, not a softball jersey.
And then there's the stiff-gaited swagger of managerial slang. I recall a line from a memo I received on the day I started work at a corporate research lab: "Cascade this to your people and see what the push-back is." If that sentence were a person, it would walk like George W. Bush.
It's tempting to see all this as the sign of an increase in managerial pretension and fatuity. That's the view according to Dilbert, which depicts the modern office as something like the England of Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, where hard-working English-speaking serfs are oppressed by supercilious overlords who speak a foreign tongue.
That picture appeals not just to the grunts in the cube-farms, but to their corporate superiors, who find Dilbert's dimwitted boss as risible as everybody else does.
In fact Dilbert's creator, Scott Adams, has made a lucrative sideline out of helping management to get its message across. In his consulting capacity, Dilbert has enabled Honda of America to "develop the key message [that] quality is a core value" and helped
That's the curious thing about corporate jargon ˇ everyone deplores it, but nobody can resist it.
The Deloitte division that developed BullFighter promises "thought-leading research" that "empowers global enterprises." A promotional brochure from a large British law firm that offers its clients "tax compliance advice which is effective, clear and jargon-free" continues: "Our approach is proactive. We also believe that tax rules can play a positive role in incentivizing investors."
Reading that, you're struck less by its pretension than by its ingenuousness ˇ it reminds you of Moli╦re's M. Jordain, who was astonished to learn he had been speaking prose all his life.
But blaming the proliferation of business cant on an increase in phoniness is like blaming the recent corporate scandals on a sudden increase in greed. Both are the outgrowths of the changing nature of the corporation itself. If there's an invisible hand that moves the market, there sometimes seems to be an invisible mouth that speaks for it.
Consultants like to talk about "building high-performance corporate cultures," but as with a lot of the things we distinguish as cultures nowadays, the differences between corporations are actually pretty superficial ˇ if they weren't, people wouldn't all be using the same jargon and papering their cubicle walls with the same comic strips, nor would top managers find it so easy to move from soft-drink companies to computer firms.
But America does have a culture of the corporation, and it is increasingly detached from the values that are touchstones in our personal dealings. Few people nowadays perceive the historical connection between "private sector" and "private life."
The corporation was created as a legal fiction to reduce personal responsibility. The new language merely acknowledges that function. Reducing your work force to cut costs doesn't carry the same moral stigma as dismissing an old family retainer. It's understandable that managers would want to find other words for the process ˇ it's nothing personal, after all.
And in its way, the language also serves to insulate employees from the implications that everyday words would have. In ordinary life it's enough to recognize problems, goals and watersheds, but when we get to the office we're obliged to talk about issues, missions and inflection points. It isn't just that those words are grander; they are also reassuringly removed from the things we really care about.
When people talk about wanting to make happy lives for their children, they don't call it a "mission" ˇ it's too important for that. Yet some companies do manage to talk more plainly than others ˇ Deloitte points to the
Not that curbing jargon is likely to do much for a company's bottom line all by itself. But it can't do any harm to call people on the buzzwords they use. It's like requiring gang members to leave their colors at home and wear blazers and ties to school ˇ it may not subdue their obstreperous natures, but it makes those cocky poses a little harder to strike.