How to Survive in a World of Corporate Speak

You’ve been onboarded to a S.W.A.T. team that drills down into the company’s pain points to discover scalable solutions that impact best practices and make hay.

Did any of that sound like English to you? If not, consider this your official welcome to the world of corporate speak.

Corporate Speak

What is corporate speak?

Corporate speak is what linguists call a “jargon.” That’s a collection of special words and phrases particular to members of a group or profession. Lawyers, for example, have a jargon light-heartedly called “legalese.” It’s very technical and chockablock with Latinate phrases such as de facto and in loco parentis.

Groups that congregate around shared pastimes also develop jargon, typically a less technical slang. Gamers, for example, speak of 8-bit, AAA, and shovelware games. Those are all (apparently) different types of video games.

Corporate speak exhibits both slang and technical jargon, and it’s been changing for decades. During the Great Depression, corporate men spouted cigar-munching phrases like “turn-over” and “wildcat strikes.” By the 1960s, social-conscious businesspeople were all about “paradigm shifts” and “organizational culture.”

Today, corporate speak pays homage to our digital era. It’s not uncommon to hear someone ask a coworker if they have the “bandwidth” to complete a task or if they’d like to take their conversation “offline.”

If you’re starting to think corporate speak sounds awful, you aren’t alone. You can’t escape it, though. Jargon is a natural part of the way language evolves and cultures create identities.

The dual nature of corporate speak

Corporate speak’s function is twofold. First, it gives coworkers and colleagues the words they need to describe the people, actions, and things they work with. Second, it allows them to identify each other as part of the in-group.

Recall the last time you started a new job. You had to learn the terms used to describe certain actions, the abbreviations for the various departments, and what words were for formal or casual conversation. You were internalizing that company’s brand of corporate speak until you joined the company culture.

But that’s also corporate speak’s major disadvantage. From outside the company culture, it’s difficult to translate all that jargon into something meaningful.

Corporate speak abounds with acronyms, euphemisms, abbreviations, obscure words, and simple words sliced up and stitched together to create grotesque Frankenstein phrases. (Looking at you, “synergy.”) Each one makes it difficult to communicate your meaning and intent to someone outside the in-group.

In turn, that can alienate those outside the culture. For example, American businesspeople say, “Let’s touch base” as a fun way to request a talk or meeting. Because American culture is steeped in baseball, the image connects naturally to the idea of connection from one place to another.

But other countries don’t consider baseball their national pastime. So, the phrase “let’s touch base” sounds unnatural and makes the recipient feel like everyone else in the room is in on some meaning that they are missing.

Using corporate speak

So, how can you survive, and maybe even thrive, in a corporate-speak world? Here are a few tips to help you out:

Avoid corporate speak. If you don’t feel comfortable using corporate speak, you can usually substitute for a straightforward alternative. Technical jargon may be the exception; you’ll need to master some to grow in your career.

Ask. You may feel uncomfortable asking what a word means but know that most coworkers will happily share their knowledge and expertise. Only a negative coworker would belittle someone for looking to improve.

Create a running list. Create a list of corporate speak you hear around the office. Look up definitions online to see if you’d feel comfortable using it in your office talk.

Double-check your jargon. Realize that jargon creeps into your speech and be thoughtful about this fact. When speaking with someone outside the company culture, sprinkle definitions or substitute corporate speak with alternatives to make your meaning clear and direct.

Pull back. If you find yourself sounding like the opening paragraph, pull the jargon back.

With these tips, you will be on your way to knowing how to use corporate speak better than the company S.W.A.T. team.

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