Buzzwords: The ‘new normal’ of business jargon

Too much work lingo can tarnish employee relationships, demoralise people, lead to higher staff turnover and drain productivity. However used in the right way, it can promote bonding and group solidarity.

Research suggests jargon has many positives. However, overdoing it could have a negative effect on your business or employees. It all depends on how you use it.

By Linda Moon

Nice to e-meet you. Corporate lingo and office-speak. We all use it. And loathe it – especially when we’re the recipient.

Synergy (a buzzword for teamwork) won the most loathed business jargon of 2019 in a US survey by TrustRadius, followed by “think outside the box” and “take it offline” (a polite way of silencing you).

Other terms workers love to hate include “low-hanging fruit”, “the cloud” and the pretentious “leverage”. Acronyms, like the dreaded “KPI”, were another source of bile.

According to Kate Burridge, a professor of linguistics at Monash University, jargon has always held negative connotations. The word itself first surfaced in England in the 1300s and meant “the befuddling gibberish of birds”.

Out of that grew the modern meaning of it being identified with the specialist, technical language of certain groups, she says.

While jargon tends to be associated with the workplace, bureaucratic officialese or legalese, you don’t have to be a lawyer or government official to have a mouth crock with jargon.

“It could be the language of drug users or of interior decorating,” Professor Burridge reminds. “It’s cricket jargon, or a knitting pattern full of jargon.”

Jargon sometimes gets confused with slang. While both are examples of alternative vocabulary that often get absorbed into ordinary language, slang is shorter-lived.

“For something to be slangy and grab your attention it’s got to be new, it’s got to be exciting,” Professor Burridge says.

“Jargon is more stable. Usually you can replace a slang term. You could describe someone as pickled or plastered or you could simply say, they’re drunk. A lot of jargon doesn’t have viable alternatives in ordinary language.”

Given all that, should we avoid office jargon?

The surprising benefits of jargon

Professor Burridge reckons jargon has had bad press: “Jargon can be efficient; it can be economic; it can be crucial. It captures distinctions that ordinary language can’t capture. It’s useful,” she says.

It’s also normal and fun for humans to play with words. “Research shows that when we learn a new word and its meaning it stimulates the same pleasure centres of the brain as gambling, sex and food,” she says.

Jargon words can also promote bonding and group solidarity, and mark identity, she adds. “They’re kind of like emblems on a T-shirt. Or like a social password. It’s how you find the gang.”

Minimising the negatives of business jargon

Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. It’s not so warm and fuzzy when everyone else understands the lingo but you. Used in the wrong context or with the wrong audience, jargon can be alienating, confusing and a conversation killer, Professor Burridge says. We’ve all experienced that.

Less known is that too much work lingo can tarnish employee relationships, demoralise people, lead to higher staff turnover and drain productivity. According to a 2014 Malaysian paper published in the American Journal of Industrial and Business Management, all this can occur when jargon impedes communication in the workplace.

Thus, it is best used within specialised groups, relevant to that group. “It does depend on whether you’re an insider or outsider as to whether you’re offended by it or not,” Professor Burridge says.

Either way, jargon can erect communication barriers or even raise suspicion or resentment if it’s considered pretentious, deceptive, befuddling, dressing up the goods, clouding an issue or bloated with unnecessarily hard to read grammar.

People confronted with jargon in articles about self-driving cars, surgical robots and 3D bio-printing, for example, felt less interested in science and less qualified to talk about the subject than those given the plain English version of the articles.

Importantly, the study, by Ohio State University (published 2020) found defining the jargon words in the article made very little difference. The researchers found the mere presence of technical language a turn-off; a message to readers the story wasn’t written for them.

It’s something to think about in your business communications if you’re self-employed or wanting to lead, inspire or explain things to others. The same applies to outside work.

How to use jargon

If you’re communicating to the public, keep it easy to read and comprehensible, Professor Burridge says. She gives the example of those unread insurance policies we all have at the bottom of the drawer.

The idea is to turn all in-house and technical language into something simpler and more straightforward to others. “But it depends on who your audience is,” she adds.

If you’re talking to fellow accountants for example, there’s no liability in dropping into the work-speak. If you feel your language is a bit dry and colourless, try popping in more colloquial (informal) terms instead. People relate to them.

While the above is probably a no-brainer, we all slip into the habit of using jargon. “We’ll never get rid of it and nor do we really want to because it’s part of the richness of the language,” she concludes.

Buzzword pandemic

COVID-19 has spawned a new generation of buzzwords. To help you tap into the zeitgeist of the times, here’s some of the lingo translated.

Isolation creation: Stuff produced while in iso, like baked foods, art, garden or renovation projects.

Quarantine 15: A less desired product of iso – 15-pounds (or so) in weight gain, which is just under seven kilograms.

Flatten the curve: A projected model of the numbers of people infected with COVID-19 over a given period. Also refers to losing weight after too many culinary iso-related indulgences and Netflix.

The elbow bump: A lower-contact version of the handshake or fist bump.

Coronials: Babies born under quarantine.

Locktail: The lockdown equivalent of “wine o’clock”.

The new normal: The changes to our lives caused by COVID-19.

Essential workers: Jobs considered more essential than others under the “new normal”.

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