Monday, June 7, 2021

Corporate Jargon or Garbage Language?

In fairness to wokery, today’s cultural revolutionaries are not alone in their obsession with creating neologisms. Since I regaled you with Andrew Sullivan’s views about the distortion and perversion of language yesterday I think it only fair that today I offer a few words about a New York Magazine article by one Molly Young. 

In the past, a long and comprehensive article like Young’s would have appeared in The New Yorker. Perhaps New York Magazine is taking over for a New Yorker that has become more a propaganda sheet than a magazine.

It is about what Young and others call garbage language, but, truth be told, it seems also to be a modernization of what used to be called corporate jargon. Apparently, today’s millennials, once they set forth on the corporate glide path to fame and fortune, feel compelled to create their own special private language, one that only they understand, one that only they have a real right to use, one that makes them feel like they belong to the new high tech corporate world. Better yet, it seems to make them feel that they have not sold out to capitalism.

As Young will point out, it is not entirely novel. Corporate staff has been doing this for nearly a century, at the least. And yet, it now feels more warped, more distorted, more mindless and more meaningless.

Young opens with a reflection on a new verb form-- to parallel-path.

One thing I did not miss about office life was the language. The language warped and mutated at a dizzying rate, so it was no surprise that a new term of art had emerged during the year I spent between jobs. The term was parallel path, and I first heard it in this sentence: “We’re waiting on specs for the San Francisco installation. Can you parallel-path two versions?”

For those of us who have not walked the halls of Silicon Valley firms, Young kindly provides a translation:

Translated, this means: “We’re waiting on specs for the San Francisco installation. Can you make two versions?” In other words, to “parallel-path” is to do two things at once. That’s all. I thought there was something gorgeously and inadvertently candid about the phrase’s assumption that a person would ever not be doing more than one thing at a time in an office — its denial that the whole point of having an office job is to multitask ineffectively instead of single-tasking effectively. Why invent a term for what people were already forced to do? It was, in its fakery and puffery and lack of a reason to exist, the perfect corporate neologism.

They are all speaking in code, you might say. And the coded term bespeaks a failure to express oneself clearly and precisely. Obviously, the term only makes sense to those who belong to an inner circle. While it is not quite as cult-like as the current woke groupings, it shares one thing at least in common. It is only intelligible to insiders and it fails the test of linguistic economy.

One quality of good communication is economy. So said George Orwell and so repeated Andrew Sullivan in yesterday’s post. And yet, most of today's newspeak defies economy. For instance, you express more by using terms like actor and actress than you do by calling all thespians-- actors. If you use actor as gender neutral, you are inviting a continuation whereby one feels obliged to ask whether said actor has a penis or a vagina, whether said actor identifies as male or female or undecided, whether said actor prefers one or another pronoun.

The result of a seemingly harmless distortion of proper language usage is an endless conversation to provide information that normal people would have provided by using the terms actor and actress.

Take another example, designed to make certain people seriously upset. Take the issue of whether or not a woman should change her name upon marrying. Of course, the correct feminist position is that she retain what used to be called her maiden name, which is in nearly all cases, her father’s name. So, the feminist position is that a married woman should strike out against the patriarchy by keeping her father’s name. Not much serious thinking there.

Anyway, if she changes her name she has told the world that she is married and that she belongs to a marital unit. She has defined herself within a specific relationship. If her children bear her husband’s name, as is most often the case, and if she does too, she is showing that they belong to the same marital unit. Otherwise, anyone who meets her will need to ask a series of questions in order to establish the structure of family relationships.

Young understands clearly the inefficiency of current corporate jargon. It is decidedly a waste of time:

The expected response to the above question would be something like “Great, I’ll go ahead and parallel-path that and route it back to you.” An equally acceptable response would be “Yes” or a simple nod. But the point of these phrases is to fill space. No matter where I’ve worked, it has always been obvious that if everyone agreed to use language in the way that it is normally used, which is to communicate, the workday would be two hours shorter.

One might ask the question of whether men or women are more likely to overspeak, to speak too much, to fill the air with too many empty words. One would ask the question, but the answer would make far too many people far too unhappy.

Young then quotes one Anna Wiener, who wrote a memoir about her experience working in the tech world:

Wiener writes especially well — with both fluency and astonishment — about the verbal habits of her peers: “People used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient: a mash-up of business-speak with athletic and wartime metaphors, inflated with self-importance. Calls to action; front lines and trenches; blitzscaling. Companies didn’t fail, they died.” She describes a man who wheels around her office on a scooter barking into a wireless headset about growth hacking, proactive technology, parallelization, and the first-mover advantage. “It was garbage language,” Wiener writes, “but customers loved him.”

Wiener calls it garbage language. Young likes the term. Yours truly, less so. Nevertheless, her point is worth noting, if only because she and Wiener suggest that what is currently happening is worse than corporate jargon. It has no purpose but to fill space and to keep mouths chattering:

I like Anna Wiener’s term for this kind of talk: garbage language. It’s more descriptive than corporatespeak or buzzwords or jargon. Corporatespeak is dated; buzzword is autological, since it is arguably an example of what it describes; and jargon conflates stupid usages with specialist languages that are actually purposeful, like those of law or science or medicine. Wiener’s garbage language works because garbage is what we produce mindlessly in the course of our days and because it smells horrible and looks ugly and we don’t think about it except when we’re saying that it’s bad, as I am right now.

Young believes that garbage language is designed to conceal-- what, I am not entirely sure.

Garbage language permeates the ways we think of our jobs and shapes our identities as workers. It is obvious that the point is concealment; it is less obvious what so many of us are trying to hide.

Anyway, the use of corporate jargon and neologisms seems to have happened a century ago. Even though, one must say, the old jargon seems far more clear than the current version. In other words, you can invent new words in order to introduce economies of expression or you can invent new words to fill the air with blather. The former seems more clearly to be designed to introduce efficiencies. The latter seems more clearly to be designed to make people feel like they belong, while also introducing inefficiencies. 

A 1911 book by Frederick Winslow Taylor called The Principles of Scientific Management borrows its language from manufacturing; men, like machines, are useful for their output and productive capacity. The conglomeration of companies in the 1950s and ’60s required organizations to address alienated employees who felt faceless amid a sea of identical gray-suited toilers, and managers were encouraged to create a climate conducive to human growth and to focus on the self-actualization needs of their employees. In the 1980s, garbage language smelled strongly of Wall Street: leverage, stakeholder, value-add. The rise of big tech brought us computing and gaming metaphors: bandwidth, hack, the concept of double-clicking on something, the concept of talking off-line, the concept of leveling up.

Nowadays, given the proclivities and propensities of the millennial generation, the current newspeak seems to be leaning toward the therapeutic. It speaks the language of therapy and promises that work is therapeutic. In other words, therapy culture has taken over corporate America, largely because millennial employees were brought up according to the pseudoreligious dogmas of therapy.

Over the next decade and a half, the language fully migrated from combative to New Agey: “I am now a true believer in bringing our whole selves to work,” wrote Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In, urging readers to seek their truth and find personal fulfillment. In Delivering Happiness, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh described making conscious choices and evolving organically. In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries pitched his method as a movement to unlock a vast storehouse of human potential. You can always track the assimilation of garbage language by its shedding of scare quotes; in 1911, “initiative” and “incentive” were still cloaked in speculative punctuation.

But, Young asks, why are we doing this? It is the right question. Here is her answer.

Our attraction to certain words surely reflects an inner yearning. Computer metaphors appeal to us because they imply futurism and hyperefficiency, while the language of self-empowerment hides a deeper anxiety about our relationship to work — a sense that what we’re doing may actually be trivial, that the reward of “free” snacks for cultural fealty is not an exchange that benefits us, that none of this was worth going into student debt for, and that we could be fired instantly for complaining on Slack about it. When we adopt words that connect us to a larger project — that simultaneously fold us into an institutional organism and insist on that institution’s worthiness — it is easier to pretend that our jobs are more interesting than they seem. Empowerment language is a self-marketing asset as much as anything else: a way of selling our jobs back to ourselves.

Again, the new language seems suited to a co-ed workplace. And I like the notion that the language is selling jobs back to employees. This means, if I may, that these people need to believe that they are doing their jobs in order to gain a therapeutic advantage, not to make the company more money, not to enhance shareholder value, and not to rise up the corporate status hierarchy.

She takes as an example, the mission statement of a company called WeWork:

We are a community company committed to maximum global impact. Our mission is to elevate the world’s consciousness. We have built a worldwide platform that supports growth, shared experiences and true success.

And she comments:

WeWork’s real-estate arbitrage can be summarized in plain English, yet the prospectus is so baroquely worded that it requires a kind of medieval exegesis — a willingness to pore over the text, assess its truth claims, elaborate on its explanations, and unmask its hidden values. In its fidelity to incoherence, WeWork’s majestic PDF revealed a now-obvious truth about the organization, which is that its ratio of ingenuity to bullshit — a ratio present in every organization and, indeed, every human — was tipped too far in the wrong direction.

And we know what happened to WeWork.


Rick O'Vista said...

I learned this style of language as “ bafflegab”

art.the.nerd said...

A column worthy of the late William Safire.

David Foster said...

Some of these words are actually meaningful: 'leverage', for example, means the ratio of debt to equity (the Brits call it 'gearing'). But much of this stuff is indeed nonsense with negative value, and if you are on LinkedIn, you can see a lot of it being perpetrated daily.

See my post The Age of Blather:

Also The Costs of Formalism and Credentialism:

David Foster said...

Also this:

JPL17 said...

Great column, Stuart. My observation over a 43-year career is that office jargon has gotten progressively more meaningless over time. At least the military-flavored jargon that prevailed when I entered the workforce in the 1970s had the virtue of signaling to you, the employee, that you were engaged in a war, that you were part of a team focused on a mission, the ultimate goal of which was to defeat a well-defined enemy, and that you were expected to make personal sacrifices in that effort. Although that message didn’t work on employees who saw their jobs as “just a job”, it did help motivate those who shared the employer’s mission.

In comparison, what does the WeWork mission statement say? To the extent it's not pure gibberish, I think it’s a call to participate in a vague communal spiritual experience. As such, it will appeal only to those lost millennial souls who are seeking meaning in their lives and too gullible to realize they won’t find it at WeWork.

So I just don’t think this new office jargon will be very effective in the long run. Unless, of course, the best and brightest that this society will ever produce from now on will always be lost souls too gullible to realize they won’t find spiritual meaning in their woke jobs … (but then that's a topic for another day).

Sam L. said...

Let us go back to YesterYears and bathe in the Advertising Agency NewSpeak "language".

JPL17, in the 70s I was in the cold war as a missileer in 33 holes in the ground. I spoke missilese. Now I'm in my walk-out basement with a window and a door to the outside where I can see the sunrise. Life is good. I don't do jargon anymore.

markedup2 said...

One cause, imho, is simply not knowing standard English. "Impact" is a great example: The speaker/writer does not know the difference between "affect" and "effect".

I'm ambiguous about "learning" as a noun; it's atrocious, but I think it beats "take away".

The whole subject is a good example of the mobius strip that is language having effects on thought and thought being affected by language. "Parallel pathing" is a great example this. Prior to parallel computing becoming well known, it wouldn't have been used because no one would understand it. Now, it seems obvious. "level up" is much the same: RPGs have become mainstream.

JPL17 said...

Sam L.: Would love to hear examples of "missilese" jargon if you remember + care to share. My only encounter with it was 1 grad school course, in which we learned about MIRVs, MARVs, MAD, ASW, missile accuracy, range, payload, how to use a Rand Bomb Damage Calculator, etc. ...

IamDevo said...

Looks like the rubes are finally catching on to what we lawyers have known all along. Create a language known only to those on the inside and you can control the processes in which you are "in the know." Res ipsa loquitor, stare decisis and ipse dixit, don't you know.