If there’s anything corporate America has a knack for, it’s inventing new, positive words that polish up old, negative ones. Silicon Valley has recast the chaotic-sounding “break things” and “disruption” as good things. An anxious cash grab is now a “monetization strategy,” and if you mess up and need to start over, just call it a “pivot” and press on. It’s the Uber for BS, you might say.
Cloying marketing-speak, of course, isn’t limited to the tech world. As a health reporter, much of my work involves wending my way through turgid academic studies, which are full of awkward turns of phrase such as salience and overweight (used as a noun, as in “the prevalence of overweight”). Even more tedious is reading some of the reports put out by nonprofit organizations, which always seem to want to arm “stakeholders” with tools for their “tool boxes.” I wish journalists were immune, given that we fancy ourselves to be plainspoken, but sadly common in our world is talk of “deep dives” and “impactful long form.” (Use of the word impactful is strongly discouraged by The Atlantic’s copy desk. As is the use of many other words.)
Not quite a cliché, not quite a term of art, a buzzword is a profound-seeming phrase devised by someone important to make something sound better than it is. Typically, the buzzword develops a shibboleth status in a given field—“we’re all about Big Data”—to the point where everyone is saying it and everyone feels as if they must say it. Meanwhile, with each repetition and slide deck, the term grows more hackneyed, and many of its speakers grow more nauseated at its mention. Does anyone actually say disrupt with a straight face anymore?
When I recently asked on Twitter about everyone’s least favorite buzzwords, people really mind-shared some good ones. Capacity grates, as does at-risk when describing people, along with the delightfully redundant root cause. The “optics” of “growth hacking” do little to “value-add,” as well. But the strange thing is, these folks are from the fields in which those words are used. Like everyone’s loud tipsy uncle, the buzzwords people know best tend to be the ones that irritate them most. That so many people continue to use these words anyway speaks to one of the most powerful quirks of office life—and the power dynamics that make it so difficult to change.
According to Gretchen McCulloch, the author of Because Internet, buzzwords were born from the artifice of the office itself. At work, people are paid to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do in their leisure time. They don’t dress at the office the way they do at home; they don’t act at the office the way they do outside of it; and they don’t talk about drilling down and rightsizing around their friends. Buzzwords mark the boundary of work life, broadcasting “I’m working!” in much the same way an Ann Taylor getup does. They allow workers to relate to one another—the much-decried “synergy” is an important part of a lot of people’s jobs, after all.
Frankly, buzzwords also help save time. You can command a co-worker to “get their ducks in a row” and have them basically know what you mean. In this way, speaking in business jargon is a way of showing that you fit in with the office, the Copenhagen Business School professor Mary Yoko Brannen told me. One of the most important elements of culture is language.
From a more cynical perspective, buzzwords are useful when office workers need to dress up their otherwise pointless tasks with fancier phrases—you know, for the optics. Coal miners and doctors and tennis instructors have specific jargon they use to get their points across, but “all-purpose business language is the language you use when you aren’t really doing anything,” says the anthropologist David Graeber, the author of Bullshit Jobs. Similarly, buzzwords can provide a PR-friendly gloss on whatever “pain points” you’re trying to cover up, as in the case of doctors who say they are “happy to provide you with the paperwork to submit to your insurance company.” (In English, this means they don’t take insurance.)
Given its ubiquity, we might expect workers to stop worrying and embrace the buzzword. What’s so wrong with a little thought-leading? The reason buzzwords are so annoying, McCulloch says, is that language is inherently a reflection of the people who speak it and the circumstances in which it’s used. Terms such as circling back and touching base are inseparable from that one annoying work task you’re just trying to get someone to respond to. “If you find corporate buzzwords annoying, it’s probably because you find work annoying,” McCulloch says.
The fact that buzzwords are a joke even to many of the people who rely on them suggests that work, and its language, is a kind of pretense. And speaking the language of work reminds people that they’re pretending. Graeber remembers the first time he and all his high-school friends shook hands, as kind of a gag. It became a recurring joke, as in “Oh, this is what adults do.” “I think people in these offices are permanently caught at that moment,” he says. We’re forever “closing the loop” on things because of a vague notion that this is what adults do.
Few people enjoy faking it in this way, though. I recently unearthed an email from college in which I told a friend exactly what I needed from her and why her recent actions had been bothering me, and it was as if it were written by a different person. These days, I’d be more likely to feign a weekend stomach bug and reschedule drinks until I was feeling less mad. “Sorry to resched!” I might say.
Buzzwords are a reminder, in a way, of a time in life when it was acceptable to speak more plainly and say what you really meant. The realization that you’re rarely doing much of either anymore can be depressing. As the sociologist Erving Goffman wrote in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, “To the degree that the individual maintains a show before others that he himself does not believe, he can come to experience a special kind of alienation from self.”
Blue-sky scenario, you would ditch the wheelhouses and start speaking more straightforwardly. But McCulloch warns that doing so may brand you as an iconoclast—something that’s more fraught for women and people of color, who already face greater barriers to acceptance in the workplace. For many workers, it can be risky to tell your boss that you’re going to “come up with really random, insane ideas to see if you like any of them,” rather than that you plan to “think outside the box.” So rather than disrupting the status quo, you may just want to leverage your ability to speak Corporate in order to bring more to the table. At least until you become the boss.