Deep Diving Into Corporate Jargon
Unpacking the lingo of corporate speak, which, if we didn’t have to use, would definitely yield us more bandwidth
Ever since I discovered the cult classic movie Office Space, a simple but hilarious film that satirizes the experience of being just another inconsequential cog in the corporate wheel of America — overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated — I knew I had a kindred spirit. I’d always appreciated writer Mike Judge’s sense of humor, but this movie proved I wasn’t alone in my hatred of heartless corporate euphemisms.
Perhaps I inherited my distaste for corporate lingo from my father, a man who went from being a prominent local news anchor in the ’70s and ’80s, to more of a creative producer type when the young 20-somethings fresh from college took over the station, eagerly replacing long-standing job titles with quirky, ambiguous ones. He’d bemoan “political correctness,” but this was during a time when the phrase was used more in the realm of self-critical satire. Especially in regards to journalism and its adoption of certain language use policies, most of which seemed to go out of their own way to avoid any semblance of bias.
Nowadays, the term “political correctness” has been hijacked and weaponized by some of the more extreme folks within larger privileged or majority groups — the same folks who don’t tend to experience daily microaggressions. They seem to think the mere act of trying not to be an offensive jerk towards those in minority groups is nothing but excessive overkill. “Who in their right mind would get offended over that?” they ask, every time they perceive PC language as somehow taking a right away from them. Or, “Everybody’s gotta be a victim now!” they’ll cry — without a hint of irony — failing to realize they’ve done a bang-up job creating a victim mentality of their very own.
Sometimes you just have to laugh. Especially now, in the toxic political climate we have that’s trickling down from the top. And especially when you’re just another inconsequential cog in the corporate wheel of America.
Finding humor in the mundane always keeps me entertained. When I had a nine-to-five data entry job with a publishing company during the ’90s, I had to get really creative (devious, even) to find my own fun. Which was necessary for keeping an easily distracted brain engaged long after the free bulk coffee had run out.
For five days a week I was confined within the cloudy grey tackable panels of an 8x10 ft. cubicle with no natural light. And it was situated directly across from a single unisex bathroom that had a loud, automatic fan which wasn’t optional. Unless you wanted to pee in pitch black, the fan was coming on with the light.
And the fan proved useless, as it provided neither adequate ventilation nor sufficient sound buffer. In fact, it had the unfortunate, opposite intended effect of amplifying sound. Because it was so obnoxiously loud to the bathroom occupant only, it seemed to temporarily render them hearing impaired — such that they weren’t aware of their own organic resonance, and apparently, assumed no one else in the larger office beyond could hear them either.
Approximately five steps to the left of this singular bathroom was the office “kitchenette.” There, hoisted up on a makeshift counter stood the communal microwave, from which always arose the scent of recently scorched popcorn. Which, usually, could be remedied with the can of vanilla-scented aerosol air freshener that lived in the singular bathroom cupboard.
Under expected circumstances, I like the smell of vanilla. It hearkens back to the sweet nostalgia of childhood Christmases when I’d help my Mom bake sugar cookies. But when commingling with the 2pm aromatic aftermath of CEO Gary’s daily bowel movement, and then, layered atop the smoldering artifact of burnt popcorn, any hint of nostalgia became nullified.
Though I’m fine with vanilla extract, I no longer enjoy the scent of vanilla in any synthetic form — candles, potpourri, lotion, and Dear God, please, no vanilla scented air fresheners. Here were are, some thirty-plus years later, and the whole “Pavlov’s dog” phenomenon rings true; classical conditioning has led me to eternally associate synthetic vanilla with the epic stench of gastrointestinal upset, and inane corporate ‘90s jargon like risk factors, viral marketing, and Y2K. I don’t like any of it.
What I would like, and believe would benefit society as a whole, is the removal of all corporate jargon. For some unknown reason (which would certainly be “above my paygrade” to figure out), contemporary corporate attempts at “streamlining” everything — including communication — have only been convoluted more by the addition of corporate jargon… which, by design, is meant to disguise the real meaning of what it’s saying.
It doesn’t matter what employment sector you work in, whether you’re a public school teacher, or pirate of Silicon Valley. You can expect to hear the same nouns being actioned into verbs, the same spin rolling out euphemistic acronyms, and the same banal management-speak conceived by consultant think tanks. All of it evolves into synergy and travels across various industries.
Here are some examples of corporate jargon we could eliminate immediately (and end up better off by simply saying what we mean):
“Please limit sidebars”
This is said by the leader of yet another meeting that could’ve been handled via email, and is meant to convey “no talking while I’m talking.” But for some reason it only makes me want to reply, “If we’ve told you once, we’ve told you a hundred times, Gary — we’re humans— more than just a navigation column to the left of your main content.”
“Loop you in”
When your supervisor says in hushed tones, “I’ll loop you in,” what they’re really saying is, “I’ll just go ahead and cc you on 98 separate emails and a group text (that’s already been circulating for a week). Oh, and I’ll add you to the Messenger chat we have going, just for good measure.”
At which point you’re left dumbfounded, thinking, “Wait, what? All I said was ‘what was that about?’ after Gary threw a tantrum and stormed out of the room…”
“Let’s circle back”
Unless the person using it is equipped with wings or wheels, “let’s circle back” is supposed to mean “why don’t we come back to this conversation at a later time, perhaps after we’ve all cleared our heads? Like, maybe after lunch and some fresh air.”
What it really means is, “By continuing to harp on this topic, you’re annoying me. Stop talking about it — I don’t even want to think about it right now. Besides, can’t you see I’m dancing around because I’ve had to pee for an hour? Good God, Gary. You never shut up, do you?”
Similar to “let’s circle back.” Intended meaning: “let’s come back to this topic later.” Actual meaning: “Your idea sucks. Let’s drop it for now, and how about never come back to it. Ever.”
“Pick your brain”
When a coworker or boss wants to “pick your brain,” it’s not usually because they’re genuinely interested in hearing your ideas. What they’re really saying is, “Hey… mind if I come in, close the door and have you dish out all your genius ideas so I can take them to my presentation in 10 minutes? Oh — but instead of giving you any credit, I’ll just present them as if they’re my own. And, hey, thanks. Thanks for taking one for the team. Again.”
“Today’s action item”
If they want it done stat, they should simply say so. Like, the boss should state, “this report had better be on my desk by deadline. Which is 4pm today.” Because when they try to make it sound like some kind of action-packed summer camp adventure, we know not to really take it seriously.
When we hear “action item,” that translates to something more like “honey-do list,” and our automatic compliance in jotting the action item down on a post-it note is only for show; it’ll be buried or thrown in the trash, never to be remembered again, as soon as this meeting is over.
“Boots on the ground”
Ok, no. Never. Not a phrase to be used in the era of trumpism. Because there are literally boots on the ground, militia-like troops of civilians, waiting, locked and loaded, ready to come out from under their rocks wearing ghillie suits and big guns. They’re waiting in reserve until it’s time to take down all “the libruls” and their damned SJW, transgender, gay, feminist, special snowflake agendas.
I once gave my Dad a plaque that read: Diplomacy: the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip. This is similar to “buy-in,” except buy-in only requires the illusion of enthusiastic compliance, not the real thing.
“Think outside the box”
Self-explanatory. I think.
“But, what if I’m already crushing it this quarter from inside the box? And if I’m outside the box, why do I even need a box at all? Geez, Gary, stop boxing me in.”
That elusive thing your best work friend Lisa was always using, the thing she said gave her so much instant gratification? You know, back before she got fired for telling her boss “no” when he asked her to pick up all of Amanda’s slack.
Again, inappropriate for the times, especially in the era of #MeToo where countless people (myself included) have a story to tell. Like boots on the ground, saying “reach out” (when you really mean “could you please contact so-and-so”) just sounds creepy. Moreover, the phrase feels like it’s extending an invitation to the HR department for a formal complaint investigation.
“Wear a lot of hats”
Said with an air of significance, as if being overworked and underpaid is some great career opportunity which only imbecilic fools would turn down. “She wears a lot of hats around here” is also a euphemistic way of making what we do sound way more important (and more appreciated) than it actually is.
“Lots of moving parts”
Meant to invoke a sense of “let’s all give it 110% because if one person slacks off, the whole team goes down. This is a complex task that demands everyone pulling their own weight.” Instead, invokes images of a well-oiled, complex machine — something complete with pulleys, levers, wheels, and axles. Like a pinball machine. Only, a pinball machine is a really chaotic image to portray, especially if you want your company to appear as if it’s running smoothly.
“Come to Jesus meeting”
This one is usually kept in reserve for only the most catastrophic of situations. Because a regular meeting won’t cut it, this kind of meeting is required, i.e., “your team is such a hot mess express, looks like we’ve gotta fast track it and onboard the Lord!”
“Take this offline”
Ah, one of my faves. Another fine example of doublespeak. It sounds hip and trendy because “offline” subconsciously invokes a cool, techno-savvy image. It’s like “online,” but also, not. Because you’re talking face-to-face, not on some bleeding edge tech device.
After all, “let’s take this offline” is really just a euphemism for “Gary, you’re embarrassing me by attempting to have this personal conversation right here, right now, in public. Kindly shut the f*ck up, or you’ll pay for it later, in private.”
Martie sir-ROY (she/her) writes a variety of social commentary. She’s a top writer in Culture and LGBTQ for Medium, editor of Gender From the Trenches, and has been a featured contributor for HuffPost, Scary Mommy, NPR affiliates, and SiriusXM Insight, among others. Martie is the founder of S.E.A.R.CH., a program of her local LGBT Center, for trans youth and their parents. Connect with Martie on Twitter, Facebook, or follow her website & blog.