Office Talk Visualized

The origins of workplace jargon

It’s easy to poke fun at nonsensical office speak. For one thing, it sounds exhausting: a colleague might “reach out,” “drill down,” and promise to “circle back” in a single e-mail. But by signaling membership in a white-collar tribe, meaningless jargon can be quite powerful.

The buzzwords heard in today’s cubicles and corner offices can be traced to a theory of organizational development popularized in the 1950s and ’60s by Kurt Lewin and Douglas McGregor, both professors at MIT. They argued that jobs are about more than just money, and can in fact be a means of personal fulfillment—an idea that sparked “culture” makeovers at major companies and planted the seeds of today’s many diverse, interconnected dialects of office speak, presented here according to which tribe lays claim to them.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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