Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why Corporate Jargon Never Seems To Go Away


Now let's dig into some new research about something many of us are guilty of - using buzzwords and corporate gobbledygook. NPR's Uri Berliner has a look at why it just won't go away.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: You've heard these phrases before, maybe more than you ever wanted to.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There's definitely some synergy here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That is a win.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That's a win-win.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Let's get our ducks in a row here, guys.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: All right. Here's the 30,000-foot view.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Let's drill that down.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'll beef it up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Can you put a deck together?

BERLINER: And then there's the more grandiose language so common in Silicon Valley.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We're making the world a better place through Paxos algorithms for consensus protocols.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: And we're making the world a better place through software-defined data centers for cloud computing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: A better place.

BERLINER: Make the world a better place - what does all that even mean? All this word salad everywhere - it got Eric Anicich thinking.

ERIC ANICICH: Why do people use jargon?

BERLINER: Anicich teaches at USC's Marshall School of Business. Working with two colleagues from Columbia University, he set out to answer that question, along with another one.

ANICICH: We also were interested in kind of - are there certain types of people who may use jargon more than others?

BERLINER: They looked at published studies and ran some experiments that tested when and why people use jargon. And what they concluded is that where you stand in a social hierarchy matters a lot.

ANICICH: Using jargon is one thing that people think will impress others.

BERLINER: Their research found that people with less prestige in an organization are more likely to use those buzzwords, like interns, new hires, first-year students.

ANICICH: What we show is that the lower-status people are much more concerned about how they'll be evaluated by their audience.

BERLINER: Molly Young has a lot of sympathy for people in that situation. She's the literary critic at New York Magazine and wrote an essay about corporate speak earlier this year. She says when interns use words like deep dive, they're just trying to fit in.

MOLLY YOUNG: They're using it innocently.

BERLINER: Young worked at startups for nearly 10 years and says she knows the dialect only too well.

YOUNG: What I can only describe as fake words, scammy (ph) words, like, BS words - so words like orientate or guesstimate or omnichannel or core competency.

BERLINER: She says when that kind of language comes from the mouths of people with authority, like corporate executives, it's not exactly innocent. She recalls one boss who gave long PowerPoint presentations in a windowless meeting room with no air vents.

YOUNG: She would be sort of going on and on about deliverables, that we needed to operationalize certain processes in order to optimize shareability.

BERLINER: As those words blended together into what Young calls a soup of meaninglessness, her fellow employees gamely pretended to listen.

YOUNG: But none of our brains were actually in the room.

BERLINER: And she says the result was numbing and disorienting.

YOUNG: For me, the experience of having an executive speak to a group of lower employees with those words really got at what is disturbing about it, which is that it can also be used to sort of intentionally confuse people.

BERLINER: Young hasn't worked at startups for a while now, but that doesn't mean she's escaped business jargon altogether. It spreads like kudzu.

YOUNG: A phrase will kind of float into my head like a little rain cloud, like level setting. And I'll just have a little shudder.

BERLINER: We're almost done here, and I can't let this one thing go. There's one piece of corporate speak that really gets on my nerves - learnings with an S. I mentioned it at the end of my conversation with Molly Young. Her response...

YOUNG: Literally a phrase from Borat.

BERLINER: It's right there in the title of the first movie - "Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan."

Uri Berliner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As Senior Business Editor at NPR, Uri Berliner edits and reports on economics, technology and finance. He provides analysis, context and clarity to breaking news and complex issues.