The animal instinct that drives workers to adopt corporate jargon

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(Image credit: Alamy)

Young businesswoman making a presentation in the meeting

By Lillian Stone5th February 2024

People are constantly “double-clicking” topics, “pinging” colleagues and “aligning on learnings”. This word salad is maddening – so why have workers thrown up their hands and embraced it?

Corporate Erin invites you to “re-drill down, re-reset and stick to client logistics”. Introducing herself as the “manager of managerial logistics for Management McManagement”, she’s a caricature – a TikTok persona created by actress Lisa Beasley – meant to poke fun at nonsense corporate jargon.

Satire aside, Corporate Erin represents the very real influx of cringe-inducing business language popularised in fields including tech, finance and consulting. Whether workers are “circling back”, “double-clicking” or “running it up the flagpole”, experts say this jargon is mostly meaningless. Still, it has become a key way of establishing oneself in corporate culture, and most knowledge workers are using it in the office to keep up.

How did everyone capitulate to this word salad – and when did it become necessary?From the front lines to the front office

Industry-specific shorthand has always existed on some level. Consider, for example, the insider parlance used by lorry drivers and police officers (for instance, “10-4”, meant to serve as an acknowledgement during radio communication); or doctors, who regularly use abbreviations like “Rx” for efficiency.

Although it may sound radically different, much of today’s corporate jargon originated in the military world, says Leon Prieto, an Academy of Management scholar and professor of management at Clayton State University, US.

“Corporate jargon emerged as a by-product of the cultural and professional integration of military veterans into the [American] business world post-World War Two,” says Prieto. “These veterans brought with them not only their specialised, skills but also their military lexicon. This language, steeped in discipline and strategic thinking, found a natural fit in the corporate environment, which was rapidly evolving during the post-war economic boom.”

Corporate jargon emerged as a by-product of the cultural and professional integration of military veterans into the [American] business world post-World War Two – Leon Prieto

LET’S TALK

Let’s Talk is a month-long series of language coverage across BBC.com, exploring the ancient roots of alphabets, jargon-busting the modern boardroom, and seeking to understand why we speak the way we do. Browse the whole series here.

At that point, the language served to “infuse corporate culture with the same level of precision, efficiency and seriousness associated with military operations”, says Prieto. “Terms like ‘strategy’, ‘tactics’ and ‘logistics’, originally rooted in military parlance, have become ubiquitous in business discussions.” He also cites ‘boots on the ground’, a phrase originally denoting ground forces in a military operation, which now refers to employees executing basic operational tasks.

It didn’t take long for corporate jargon to catch on in the UK and other parts of the world, says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at UK-based Alliance Manchester Business School. But at some point, corporate-speak veered away from military precision and towards more nonsensical words.

Workers have adapted to the intended meanings of many of these phrases – we know a ‘ping’ means a ‘message’, for instance. But as employees have come to understand office jargon, and even rely on it, Cooper cautions companies use these words to make processes opaque.

Cooper cites the term “ICE” as one of the stranger examples he’s heard recently. “Turns out it meant an ‘Involuntary Career Event’,” says Cooper (in plain speak, a layoff or firing). “You used to have ‘job loss’, then it went to ‘downsizing’. “Then it went to ‘right sizing’, because we didn’t like the negative. Now, apparently, we have ‘ICE’.”When companies workers look up to use jargon, they parrot the language and embrace it (Credit: Alamy)

When companies workers look up to use jargon, they parrot the language and embrace it (Credit: Alamy)

‘Human peacocking’

These terms may be both baffling and ridiculous, but they can also change the work environment for the worse. For instance, in 2023, research showed jargon can make people feel excluded. Young workers may feel especially insecure in jargon-heavy workplace settings.

Yet irritating though it may be – and as much push-back is floating around social media to declare war on jargon – corporate speak is nearly inescapable in 2024. “People love to hate it – but just look at McKinsey’s Twitter feed. It’s full of this nebulous jargon,” says Zachariah Brown, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, whose research focuses largely on human status signalling. But many people hold these jargon-rich companies in high esteem, and parrot their language.

Cooper and Brown agree the popularity of corporate jargon has a fairly simple explanation: the desire for status in the workplace, or “human peacocking”.

Brown says peacocking is perfectly natural in both the animal world and the corporate world. “Language is one of the mechanisms of [showing off] – it’s how you demonstrate that you’re competent, you’re capable,” he says.

Even though people largely roll their eyes at jargon, Brown argues it’s often necessary to use it in today’s work culture. He believes failure to signal that you belong could have professional consequences, particularly for early career workers.

The more public we are, the more we have to perform – Zachariah Brown

“When you’re high up in the corporate food chain, you can disavow status trappings like jargon,” says Brown. But if you’re, say, a junior employee at a company where jargon is the norm, refusing to participate in an accepted form of status-signalling could be disastrous. “It’d be the same as saying, ‘I’m not going to wear a suit. I’m going to show up in shorts and a T-shirt.”Performative professionalism

Corporate jargon presents an interesting case study in modern workplace dynamics. Brown believes it’s no coincidence that its usage has expanded in recent years – he argues it’s a natural consequence of “infinite” professional communication opportunities.

“One-hundred years ago, I would know everyone in my town. I would take the same profession as my parents,” he says. But today’s professionals can use email, LinkedIn and Zoom to network with strangers from around the world in minutes. A wider network means more opportunities to be judged – positively or negatively – by potential colleagues, he argues.

“We are short-cutting machines. We make inferences based on everything – what I’m wearing as a professional, what my Zoom background looks like.” For some, jargon may be a way to quickly establish credibility – or the performance of it. “The more public we are,” he says, “the more we have to perform.”

Cooper echoes that sentiment, adding that the rise in jargon accompanies an overall increase in professional insecurity. “If we were in a [more optimistic labour] market, I don’t think we would have this language as much,” he says. “We wouldn’t need to cover things up like job loss, mergers or restructuring. Now, people are worried – and in that context, you’re going to get funny language to try to cover it up, to make it seem as though it’s not as bad as you think. But it is.” 

Whether jargon is used to obscure a dismal labour situation or to establish credibility in a pinch, it’s all just performance. Love it or hate it, if status signalling is good enough for the animal kingdom, it’s good enough for https://milodingines.com/ the boardroom.

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