Corporate buzzwords: a white paper

In first-year university, I took the intro Psychology survey. There were many good things about this course: each section was taught by a specialist in his or her field, so we got real good nibbles of Psychology’s various branches of study; one of the professors was the stunt double for The Man They Call(ed) Reveen; said Reveen lookalike once roared at my gossipy friend and me to SHUT UP, WILL YOU SHUT UP before placidly turning back to his discussion of the Skinner Box; I learned that you can almost always tell someone’s biological gender just by looking at the back of their head, no matter what kind of hair, body type, or clothing they walk around in.

I discovered terrible things too, of course, because we did a section on abnormal psychology; and I’m still scarred by a video we were shown of experiments done on sad baby-monkeys to see if they’d bond with sticks of wood if their mamas were taken away; they do. This pretty strongly suggests that, like baby-people, baby-monkeys really do want their moms; and it also, of course, absolutely proves that people can be shitheads of the highest order.

I also learned how very annoying a verbal tick can be. One of these 6-week Psych profs liked the word “etcetera” very much. No, sorry, let me rephrase: he loved it, fawned over it, couldn’t get enough of it, needed to share its exceeding good news with the world. He ended every statement with “Etcetera, etcetera,” used it as a caesura to break up his sentences when they became irresponsibly lengthy (4+ words), made it stand in for punctuation because voice modulation was unavailable to him. If he’d been a Shakespeare professor instead of a professor of the mind, he’d have said things like this:

Blow, winds, etcetera, and crack your cheeks, etcetera, etcetera!

All the perfumes of Arabia, etcetera, cannot sweeten this little hand, etcetera, Oh Oh Oh, etcetera, etcetera.

To sleep, etcetera, etcetera, mortal coil, etcetera, slings, etcetera, poison, stabs, etcetera, exuent! (Etcetera.)

The day I almost snapped my Bic pen (5-pack for $4!!) out of white-hot rage, I knew I had to act. So, I did what any budding scholar worth her etcetera would do: I began compiling statistical evidence. I began noting how many times he said the e-word per 50-minute lecture; the results appalled me but also, somehow, brought my mood back down to a mere rolling boil.

50-65 times per lecture was the average. (I could still do maths, then.) Anyone who says one word at least every minute—a hideously ugly, fairly useless word, at that—means it. I didn’t understand what was wrong with Dr. Etc., but I began to feel some compassion for his lexical limitations.

Further, I have no doubt that I have my own verbal ticks, words or phrases I use far too often (e.g., sammich, friends, sup?), and am therefore the object of barely restrained violence more often than I realize. But friends: there is nothing worse than corporate culture for beating an already content-free word or phrase to death, and then beating it some more just to be sure. Dr. Etc would positively quail at what I hear every day in my adventures as a desk monkey.

If you work in a corporation, know corporate monkeys, or have ever doubted the terrible accuracy of that Tripp and Tyler video (it’s 200% accurate), these common buzzwords will be entirely too familiar to you:

  • Leverage
  • Enable
  • Scalable
  • Seamless
  • Learnings

No buzzwordsI was hired in part because I stand outside this sort of thing; the very opposite of a results-driven marketing professional with a proven record of driving synergies across the organization, I not only do not use such language under any circumstances, I also actively try to kill such bullshit on sight. But as I am not king of this particular corporation, my efforts don’t always get me very far.

At first, I was amused by the way people spoke and wrote corporate buzzword; there’s a hysterical joy that sometimes results when you’re surrounded by absurdities. At one of my first large team meetings, for example, someone dropped this zinger (I wrote it in my notebook and drew marquee lights around it):

We need to calendarize the asks.

This was followed by many verbifications of dubious merit; for example, I recently called a friend out for writing about foundationalizing something on three pillars, not because of the erroneous –izing, which I’m used to, but because pillars go on top of foundations, not vice versa. But it’s the game; everyone at work but me seems to play it. Some other fun ones:

  • Templatize the invites
  • Unreliable dependencies
  • Planful
  • Choiceful
  • 50,000-foot view (apparently the 30,000-foot view is for those who aren’t in it to win it.)

I’m about to break my corporate pen in half; this essay is my attempt to reproduce that successful freshman year experiment and find out if there’s anything wonderful buried underneath all the mush. I’m trying to lower my own blood pressure so that I can respond rationally to what is becoming increasingly clear: I most likely just don’t belong in the corporate world.

Not news, probably, for almost anyone who knows me, but it seemed worth trying. And it’s been really good at points, it really has: indeed, I found my most favourite co-worker of all time in this job. I think it may be that our not working closely together anymore is a big part of why I’m becoming my second most hated sort of person—someone who complains about work after hours.

So, this is either the angry abdication of my almost non-existent corporate powers or the catharsis that will let me continue to exchange my scruples for the filthy lucre that’s helped me double my personal library this last year. Stay tuned to find out which!

9 Comments Add yours

  1. I left the corporate world almost a decade ago. I became a bicycle mechanic. I figured I could do some good. Help those who need a bicycle to get to work or school. Even those who just need a bike to exercise. Lately, I see that is not what it is about. Carbon fiber, electronic shifting, new upgrades every few years. Something as simple as a bicycle has become whiz-bang, high tech, yuppy, abomination. I fear no matter where you go the corporate world will chase you down and find you. I am about ready to grab a begging bowl and head to Nepal.

    1. Colleen says:

      Well, I use my bicycle for all the reasons you like bicycles, so don’t lose hope entirely on that front. 🙂 But you’re right, corporate language/modes of thinking do seem to be seeping into everything…

  2. heidenkind says:

    I’ve never worked at a corporation. I am, however, tempted to try out some of these corporate buzzwords on my boss on Monday to see how he reacts. Particularly when he asks me to do something I don’t wanna.

    1. Colleen says:

      I would like to hear the results of this particular experiment. Be sure to use “leverage” as a verb.

  3. Stefanie says:

    Wow, I can’t wait to find out which it is! I found out pretty early the corporate world is not for me. When a manager started talking about swimming together in pods and I wanted to know when we had all turned into whales and no one found it funny, well, it was time to go. But sadly, after working in nonprofits and now a university for years, corporate speak is making inroads here to. It is utterly horrifying and hilarious at the same time. However, my husband, who does work for a large corporation, comes home with some real zingers sometimes that make me relieved to know that my university still has a long way to go to catch up.

    1. Colleen says:

      I’ve heard from others that corporate language is infiltrating universities. I am sadly not surprised as the first time I heard “learnings” was in an educational publishing context. Gah!

  4. Time for me to trot out one of my favourites from my workplace – a government organisation (cultural institution) – and from which I’m retired. This statement comes form 2004: “An opportunity to provide a responsive service and to influence an influential service recipient with a strong impression of our service capability.”

    I’m still shaking my head.

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