I’ll admit it: I’m kind of a stickler about language.
In my defense, you can’t spend 13 years thinking about, studying, playing with, manipulating, conjoling, pondering and absorbing words and not be a little obsessive about them. I love language, and I admire the creative ways clever writers use it. I love dialects, idioms and those little regional language quirks that make language rich and ever changing.
But what I hate is language that obfuscates, language that’s used completely incorrectly and jargon that becomes more confusing than just saying it straight.
I hated it long before I got to b-school. Interviewing business people often left me rolling my eyes on the phone. I was trying to write stories an 8th grader could understand and they were practically talking in code. We’d have exchanges like this:
Business-type person: “We grew our top line last year by using frame-breaking innovation and incentivizing our strategic partners to leverage their synergies.”
Me: “So you took in more money last year by trying something new and convincing your partners to work together?”
I know every profession has its jargon. My old one certainly did (“Can you look at my lede?” “What’s running in the double truck tomorrow?” “I sent 13 inches to the desk.”) The point of jargon is to create a simple way to say complex things that everyone in a certain group can understand. It’s shorter to say, “What’s running in the double truck tomorrow?” than “What stories are going on the two pages in the center of the features section that allow us to design across the fold?”
In contrast, I feel like a lot of business speak is simply a more complicated way to say a simple thing. Why say “leverage” (which could be confused with taking out debt or the action riding on a seesaw creates) when you could say, “take advantage of”? And why say “I’m aligned with that,” when you could say, “I agree with that.”
There was a lot of business speak at b-school too, but I managed to avoid engaging in most of it. I found that especially when we were trying to understand tough concepts, plain language was preferred. Even valued. The people in b-school who seemed smartest to me were the ones who could break things down and make them easily understood.
And then I got to my summer internship.
Almost immediately, starting with the HR orientation, there was a lot of business speak. A whole lot. So much that I felt for the first few weeks like I was constantly translating what people said in my head. It reminded me of my first month studying abroad in Glasgow. Everyone had such thick Scottish brogues mixed with the distinct Weegie accent, that it was like they weren’t speaking English. All of my language comprehension was on a 10-second delay.
In Scotland the accent eventually “clicked” and to this day I can watch “Trainspotting” without subtitles. And I even started using a lot of Scottish words and phrases and picked up a slight accent because it made it easier for the Scots to understand me. I adapted.
Ditto for my internship.
One day, just as it had for me in Scotland, it clicked. I didn’t have to translate any more. And, to my horror, I started using business speak.
Just like in Scotland, I realized that if I used certain “native” words and phrases, I was more easily understood. By using business speak, I was adapting to the culture around me. Just like in Scotland, it had to happen.
But business speak ends at the office. I will never, EVER talk about how my boyfriend’s cooking skills are a “huge value-add to our relationship” or say that I’m going to “leverage my tip-funded relationship with the bartender to get free shots.”