Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Why Business Jargon Isn't All Bad - HBR.org Daily

Anne Curzan, English professor at the University of Michigan, studies the evolution of language. While many of us roll our eyes at bizspeak — from synergy to value-add to operationalize — Curzan defends business jargon. She says the words we say around the office speak volumes about our organizations and our working relationships. She shares how to use jargon more deliberately, explains the origin of some annoying or amusing buzzwords, and discusses how English became the global business language and how that could change.

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TRANSCRIPT

CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

Do you architect end-to-end synergies by operationalizing outside-the-box iterations? Are you emails filled with drilling down, touching base, and moving needles? Is it your MO to sling ROI and B2B at the water cooler?

Or are you the sort of person who finds business jargon annoying? Either way, this episode is for you.

Like it or not, business language is a reality. And today we’re going to talk about where these buzzwords come from, what purpose they serve, and their unintended consequences.

Here to talk about this and also about how English is evolving as the global business language is Anne Curzan. She’s a professor of English at the University of Michigan and the author of several books on language. Her latest is Fixing English.

Anne, thanks so much for joining us.

ANNE CURZAN: My pleasure.

CURT NICKISCH: Let’s just start with the basics. To you, when you hear the term “business language” what does that mean? Like, how is business language different, and how should we be thinking about it differently than kind of everyday language?

ANNE CURZAN: When you say business language to me, the first word that comes to mind is jargon. And I don’t use that in as negative a sense as many people use it. As a linguist, I think about jargon as the words or the lexicon that is specific to a profession or a pastime. And we know that when groups of people get together and are involved in a shared enterprise, that they will often create and use a set of specialized terms. That kind of language can provide you with useful shortcuts. It also can create a sense of insiders and outsiders. And there are both benefits and drawbacks to that insider/outsider distinction.

CURT NICKISCH: Is that where a lot of the annoyance with jargon comes from – being on the outside?

ANNE CURZAN: I think the annoyance with business jargon, in particular, comes from a few different places. Certainly, one of them is going to be people who feel like they’re on the outside. One of them is a concern, and I think sometimes a fair concern, that jargon is euphemistic. So you’ll hear people worry about euphemisms like “restructure,” which they’ll say is kind of business jargon, but really it means that you’re letting people go. And they’ll say, “letting people go” is a euphemism for firing people.

Another place is that people complain about new words a lot, wherever those new words are coming from. People complain about the new words that are coming out of social media, pop culture, out of slang, and they say, young people are ruining the language. For hundreds and hundreds of years, people have complained about new words. That seems to be one of our responses to new words.

Honestly, I think another thing that people – when they complain about business language, they’re voicing a bigger worry about the role of business in the world. And I think that when people worry that business jargon has come into our everyday lives and is taking over, that part of what they’re expressing is a worry that the influence of business has become outsized.

CURT NICKISCH: Those are all really interesting reasons. I wonder if there’s also something about the culture of business that seems to inflate the use of jargon, because, you know, I think a lot of people recognize that there is a point to jargon, but at some point people just start using these words and using them all the time, and then they just sound like they don’t even have to be using them, but it becomes this kind of either bro-ish or insidery culture that seems conflated to some people.

ANNE CURZAN: Yes. Absolutely, and I’ve seen that when you look up business jargon on the web, you’ll see these things, “11 Bits of Jargon That Make You Sound Stupid.” And I think, “I don’t know that that’s actually what people mean.” I think they’re using the word stupid just as a way to express disapproval.

You’re right, I think, that business language, that business culture, is a place where you see a lot of novelty in language. And there are lots of reasons for that, including branding and innovation, and that can be reflected in the language. We don’t need as many synonyms in English as we have. And yet, all those synonyms clearly do some kind of work for us.

I, myself, do not like the word impactful, which people often see as business jargon. I don’t like it. I actually know, as a linguist, there is no good reason for me not to like it. It is a very well-constructed word. It’s just like hopeful and joyful, mindful, impactful. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. For some reason, I don’t like it. But I will get over it. And in fact, just the other day, I was in the middle of saying something, and I was saying, that change is going to be very, and I realized, I was headed straight for the word impactful. And I thought, “Oh no.”

CURT NICKISCH: So what did you say?

ANNE CURZAN: I paused, and I said, “significant.” But I thought, it’s coming into my vocabulary, too. So I think it is helpful to take that perspective and realize that some of these words will stop feeling jargony. Some of them will have their moment and sort of die out. That also happens to jargon.

CURT NICKISCH: You know, just from an economic perspective, there’s a lot of value locked up in language, and certainly in business that’s something to keep in mind. When you’re in a workplace you want to understand these words and not necessarily think of them as bad things that you want to avoid, or that people are making themselves look ridiculous, because there is value kind of locked up behind that.

On the other hand, managers probably don’t want to have those barriers in the workplace. Like there’s a lot of value if you’re a manager to try to lower those barriers and use clearer, more universal language for everybody so that people are able to work with each other better.

ANNE CURZAN: I think there are a couple of important points you’re making there. The first is that when you enter a new workplace, you’re certainly needing to learn the jargon, but you’re also needing to learn other ways in which the language of that workplace works. Politeness conventions, how colloquial or formal is the language, both spoken and written? How do people send emails? Do people text?

All of that is going to be different and is something we’re learning as speakers and writers in addition to the jargon when we’re in a workplace. So I want to make sure that that is on the radar.

Then the other thing that you’re bringing up, that I think is also critical is the question of audience and what kinds of language they’re going to be familiar with or not familiar with, or maybe even as importantly, what language they’re going to find off-putting.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah.

ANNE CURZAN: And so I think that that is something that all of us – there isn’t going to be one answer to how do you use this language in any given situation? But as savvy speakers and writers, one of the things we should always be thinking about is, who is the audience? What are their expectations? What kind of language is going to be persuasive, trustworthy, accessible to this audience?

And you can imagine making different decisions in a business workplace depending on, again, how much is this an inside conversation, versus a conversation with people outside the community, and then thinking about what might this language connote for people? What might their associations be with some of this jargon? And then do I want to use that?

CURT NICKISCH: And if you, as a manager or a communicator in a workplace, can make all that more accessible for people, it just seems like number one, a friendly thing to do, but also just such a positive thing to do.

ANNE CURZAN: And I think something to be aware of here – particularly for people who are working in more international contexts – is to realize that some of the metaphors and idioms that we can take for granted as American-English speakers, are not going to be transparent for speakers of other varieties of English, or who have not grown up in American culture. And I’m thinking here, for example, of sports metaphors.

CURT NICKISCH: Oh, yeah.

ANNE CURZAN: And these will show up in business jargon and may not be accessible to people who have not grown up, for example, with baseball.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, I know that “touch base” is something that drives British English people crazy when they’re working in U.S. environments, because it’s just such a commonly used phrase, and it just rubs some of them the wrong way, because it just, it isn’t clear what you’re touching, and it just feels funny.

ANNE CURZAN: Right. [LAUGHS] And I think many American English speakers don’t realize that touch base comes from baseball at this point.

CURT NICKISCH: Right, we just know that that’s what it is.

ANNE CURZAN: It means to check in with someone.

CURT NICKISCH: Now, “outside the box” sounds like a term that would be, could have a sports origin to it, but I don’t know where it comes from.

ANNE CURZAN: Well, so “think outside the box,” it often comes with “think.” That’s what we’re often doing, outside the box. It took off in the 1980s. It’s often associated with business speak. It seems to come from a “nine dot test.” Now, to explain this, you need to imagine nine dots arranged in three rows and three columns. And the challenge is, it’s a puzzle in which you must connect the nine dots using only four straight lines. And if you imagine sort of, you drew four lines around the outside, it leaves the middle dot unconnected. The only way to connect the nine dots with four lines is to have the lines extend outside the box.

CURT NICKISCH: Oh, interesting.

ANNE CURZAN: And that is the speculation of where that comes from – that not only do the lines extend outside the box, but you also have to think outside the structure of the box to be able to solve the puzzle.

CURT NICKISCH: I kind of like that.

ANNE CURZAN: I know. And the Oxford English Dictionary has ”think outside the box” back to 1971. Again, it was the ‘80s when that really took off, that we were all thinking outside boxes. And we think outside boxes much more than we think inside boxes. We don’t think inside them very often.

CURT NICKISCH: Right, unless you’re in a cubicle.

ANNE CURZAN: Right.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s interesting. I know that that’s one of those ones that can be overused or is just so common now it maybe has lost its meaning. Because if we’re all outside the box, then you need to be outside, outside the box to really be outside the box.

ANNE CURZAN: That’s absolutely right. And I think this is just true of language in general, which is that words can, their meanings can weaken over time. And we have all kinds of examples of that.

CURT NICKISCH: I mean, one word I’m thinking of is “synergy.” It’s kind of a powerful word, and it’s a powerful concept, but it’s just, you heard so many CEOs justify mergers talking about synergies, and then these companies fail, that it’s a little bit of an eye-roller of a word to use now, even though it’s a strong idea.

ANNE CURZAN: So synergy, when I looked into the history of this word, it has a very interesting history. Synergy originally comes from theology. When you first see it in the English language in the 1600s, it refers to cooperation between human will and divine grace.

CURT NICKISCH: Wow, that’s really interesting.

ANNE CURZAN: Yeah, so that’s where it starts. And then by the 1800s, it refers to physiology, to coordinated action by muscles and organs, that you’d have a synergy of muscles in a movement. You see it in pharmacology. In other words, synergy has been jargon in a few different fields over the course of its history. And then by the 1950s, you get this broader meaning of any kind of interaction or cooperation that is dynamic, in which people’s, that’s mutual reinforcing for people. You then start to see examples in business.

There’s a very interesting article in The Atlantic by Emma Green, where she is talking about business speak, and she is tracing how some of these words — and synergy is one of the ones she looks at — show different philosophies in the evolution of business and the workplace, and that synergy can be seen as part of a shift within the organizational culture model where you were, rather than looking at efficiency, you were thinking about human potential and the, so to speak, “synergies” that might be available to create that human potential in your organization.

CURT NICKISCH: There are a couple more I want to ask you about quickly, and these are “low-hanging fruit,” where people talk about “quick wins.” And I also want to ask about “move the needle.” But let’s start with “low-hanging fruit” and “quick wins.” Like, what comes to mind when you hear those?

ANNE CURZAN: Well, I think low-hanging fruit is a wonderful metaphor, and in that way, we could connect it to move the needle. So for all the ways in which people complain about jargon, I do want to notice and admire some of the metaphor that can happen. But I think low-hanging fruit is a pretty terrific way to express something that is within reach that we might be able to get quickly – a quick win, so to speak.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, it’s an image. Right? It’s a picture, which is powerful in language.

ANNE CURZAN: Which is powerful. And so I don’t want to lose that when people complain about business jargon, and low-hanging fruit is often on the list of the terms that people should avoid. And I think there’s nothing, from my perspective, there’s nothing wrong with an evocative metaphor, that as you say, it can be memorable. It can be fun. And we’re allowed to create and be playful with language, and in fact, it’s one of the things that makes us human, is that we love to play with language.

The phrase low-hanging fruit, when you look in the Oxford English Dictionary, they’ve got that back to 1972. Their first use is from manufacturing. By 1981, they’ve got an example from Fortune, the magazine, and in that quote they have, “Intel started with what Nevin calls the ‘low-hanging fruit.'”

And there they put it in quotation marks, which is a good sign that it’s relatively new. And they say, the low-hanging fruit for him is departments with routine activities, such accounts payable and personnel records that are relatively easy to streamline. So this one seems to really take off in the 1990s. And the 1990s is about when quick wins also takes off, quick wins being another sports metaphor.

CURT NICKISCH: Well, Intel was pretty influential in business for a long time for a lot of reasons, but I didn’t realize that they were, maybe it came from manufacturing first, but yeah, wow.

ANNE CURZAN: Yeah, and we have to remember that the Oxford English Dictionary just pulls our sample quotes from the material that they’ve found. So it may be coincidental.

CURT NICKISCH: But without that Fortune article, you never know what would have happened.

ANNE CURZAN: We don’t. And move the needle is another metaphor, and here we can think of a speedometer or a noise meter where if something is, as a way to capture something that’s having a big effect. If it’s making a big noise, you’ll get, the needle will move dramatically. If you put your foot on the gas, and the car accelerates, then the needle will move. So it’s again a metaphor for saying that you have made a difference, had a visible impact.

With idioms, people will sometimes make the argument that idiom doesn’t make sense, to which my reaction is, idioms don’t have to make sense. That’s now how idioms work. Idioms mean what idioms mean, and we don’t parse them for their parts. So if move the needle means have a significant impact, that’s what it means, even long after people don’t know what that needle was, what we’re talking about.

And I’ll give you one of my favorite examples because this is an idiom that actually changed its meaning radically over time, which is to “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps.”

CURT NICKISCH: Oh, yeah, and that’s very startup-y nowadays, too.

ANNE CURZAN: Yeah, well, so let me tell you where this one comes from. It first shows up in American English in the middle of the 19th century, and when it comes into use, it means to try to do the impossible. Because, in fact, if you have little bootstraps on the back of your boot, and you try to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, it is not possible.

CURT NICKISCH: Right.

ANNE CURZAN: You cannot do it. And when you see these early quotes from the middle of the 19th century, they say to try to pull yourself up by your bootstraps is like putting yourself in a wheelbarrow and trying to wheel yourself around. It’s absurd.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s funny. But we think of it as like a very positive thing now.

ANNE CURZAN: Right. Well, now it means to succeed without help, to succeed through your own efforts. And the fact that you can’t actually, it’s impossible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, it doesn’t matter. The idiom means to succeed through your own means and efforts. And that’s what it means.

CURT NICKISCH: Anne, you have just discovered why so many startups fail. [LAUGHTER] I want to ask you about English as the international business language and where it’s going. And I realize, looking into the future of language is a lot harder than decoding its history. Is the reason that English is kind of the predominant international business language for many peoples the same reason it is, it became sort of an international language?

ANNE CURZAN: Yes. I think we need to realize that languages become powerful international languages not for linguistic reasons. It has nothing to do with the structure of English. It’s about social, political and economic power. And people will learn that language they need to learn to have access to that power. And at the moment, that is English, and at the moment, that is primarily British and American English, and there’s been some competition between those two over time.

CURT NICKISCH: I taught English in Austria at a business high school. And I felt that competition very, very strongly.

ANNE CURZAN: And I had a similar experience. I taught English for a couple of years in Central China, and my students had learned British English, and they were very eager to learn American English because that had a particular kind of cultural capital for them.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah.

ANNE CURZAN: Yeah, now I want to back up. I just have to do this. I’m a historian of the English language. Five hundred years ago, in the 1500s or so, if you had said that English was going to be a world language, people would have laughed in your face. English was a language that was seen as crude and barbaric, compared with French and Latin. And it was spoken on this island off the coast of Europe. That’s what English was.

And then, of course, through imperialism and colonization and all kinds of things, you see English spread, and then you have these powerful countries, including the United States, that are predominantly English speaking. So you’ve had English spread, and if there is a world language right now, it is English. And I can’t say what the future holds. I can’t know that. But I do feel I say it’s going to depend a lot on shifts in power, economic, social, political power. You could imagine a couple of different things happening. One would be that different varieties of English would rise in prestige.

There are all kinds of world varieties of English that have arisen as English is spoken in countries where other languages are also being spoken and the English changes. So you could imagine the fortunes and futures of different varieties of English shifting over time. And I also just would never want to say that another language, I will sometimes hear people say, Chinese could never be a world language. Arabic could never be a world language.

And I think life is long. People would have said English could never be a world language. So I always want to be very careful because it’s a question of what language is going to give people access to particular kinds of power and capital. And people will learn that language.

CURT NICKISCH: One fascinating thing about English is that the majority of English speakers are not, around the world, are not native speakers, which I think is the first time that’s ever happened in world history. Right? That more speakers of the language are actually non-native speakers?

ANNE CURZAN: That is absolutely true, and I think a very important part of the future of English is that, as you say, the vast majority of English speakers are speaking English alongside one, two, three, four other languages, and English is not the first of those languages.

CURT NICKISCH: What do you make of some of these efforts to come up with a standardized, simpler form of English that could be used? And you know, there are real cases where people point to the use of English to make deals in Singapore or India, where kind of reduced versions of English are used as kind of the lingua franca, and there is a former IBM executive who’s come up with what he calls Globish, and he argues that you know, you can get most business done using just a small vocabulary of core English words. So I’m just curious what you think of, especially with technology to be able to translate things like that now. What you make of some of these efforts to have kind of a more accessible, common, global business language.

ANNE CURZAN: It is certainly possible that you can create transactional versions of language that will achieve particular aims. And that will be very specific to business transactions. I think efforts to create one version of a language, at the moment we can think about English, that the whole world is going to speak, tend not to be successful because speakers are very hard to control.

And as I mentioned before, a big part of being a speaker, and being human, is that we’re creative with language. And if you give, even if you give all of these people at one moment in time the same language, and you disperse them all over the world, well, they’re all going to use that language in creative ways in their corner of the world, and it’s going to change in different ways, which doesn’t mean that there can’t be shared versions or ways in which you figure out how to have transactional language that you can draw on. But the language itself, the language that people are communicating in, in their daily lives, is going to change in every community. It’s part of, living languages change. It’s what they do. It’s part of being a human language. So I certainly can imagine, we have created systems of communication that can cross cultures. And that is very possible. But they won’t be a full language. They’ll be a transactional communication system.

CURT NICKISCH: Anne, this has been a treat. Thanks so much for coming on the HBR IdeaCast.

ANNE CURZAN: Oh, I’m so glad I could be here. Thanks for the invitation.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Anne Curzan. She’s an English professor at the University of Michigan. Her latest book is: Fixing English.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager.

Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.



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