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Business Speaks an Incomprehensible No-Man's-Language
The most striking thing about the business world is its jargon. It does not have a monopoly on this, since we live in a world of claptrap. Universities, the media, and psychoanalysts are masters of the genre. Still, business jargon is particularly deadly, enough to utterly discourage the workplace hero, the Stakhanovite, lying dormant in you. (Never mind if you don't know the meaning of "Stakhanovite." Read blithely on, for hero workers didn't make the cut in the casting of this book. In fact, they are very rare in the business world. There used to be some in the Soviet Union, but it's anyone's guess what became of them.)
When I first started working, I didn't understand a word my colleagues were saying, and it took me a moment to realize that this was normal. A superb example of this ridiculous language is found in French novelist Michel Houellebecq's book Extension du domaine de la lutte (Whatever), a work that influenced a whole generation (my own):
Before I joined this firm, I was given a voluminous tome entitled Development Plan for the Ministry of Agriculture's Data-Processing System. . . . It was intended, according to the introduction, to be an "attempt to predefine various archetypal situations, developed in the context of a targeted objective." . . . I quickly flipped through the book, underlining the funniest sentences in pencil. For example, "The strategic level consists of the creation of a system of global information promulgated through the integration of diversified, heterogenous subsystems."
Such is the nature of gibberish. It is the ground zero of language, where the words no longer mean anything at all.
This is because the business world has a dream: that human language, far from being the window or mirror that certain bright intellectuals believe it to be, can be reduced to a mere "tool," a new code that is the essence of pure information, so long as one masters the key. This fantasy of a transparent, rational, simple-to-acquire language translates into a true no-man's-language. Pretending to be dispassionate and unprejudiced, and purged of all imagination, this language envelops all statement in a cloud of scientific detachment. Words no longer serve to convey meaning and actually obscure the links between events by covering up the causes that produce them. This deliberately abstruse and incomprehensible no-man's-language ends up resembling an impenetrable jargon derived from the pseudosciences. Its unintelligibility is perfect for seducing people who feel more informed the more muddled their ideas are. The more technical and abstract the language used in business, the more persuasive businesspeople believe it to be.
Its jargon is a fixed response to the complexity of real life. Certain mechanisms are set in motion, but they proceed in an inexorable, wooden manner, giving the impression that no people are actually involved. Examples: "A watchdog unit has been established," "An information-gathering program has been instituted," "A balance sheet has been drafted." One might think that nothing ever happens in business. This impersonal language, with its emphasis on processes, gives us the illusion of being protected. Nothing can happen here: no surprises, no excitementunless you count being fired! This is the peace not of the brave, but of the middle manager. History happens to other people, the riffraff who inhabit the margins of the civilized world and kill one another because they haven't got anything better to do.
Only communist regimes have churned out more jargon than modern business. George Orwell was the first to understand that Soviet jargon was not a jargon like any other, laughable and inoffensive, but a genuine metamorphosis of language triggered by ideology. In 1984 he intuited the role played by newspeak in the functioning of the totalitarian state. For business is a totalitarian power, in a "lite" kind of way. It doesn't pretend that work sets you free (Arbeit macht frei in German), although some dare to make this claim from time to time.
The real problem is that by abolishing style, jargon denies the individual: no memo or note should ever betray its author. Each document is polished in such a way that the ritual jargon peculiar to each firm is respected. A collective way of writing is established. Whatever the subject at hand, the content is squashed flat under a steamroller. No speaker is responsible for it: he or she merely parrots words already spoken and thus business-speak is not addressed to anyone in particular. It's no surprise that it puts you to sleep! It represents a unique example of a language divorced from thought but that hasn't died as a result of this separation (yet).
Business-speak follows five basic rules:
It makes the simple sound complicated. It says "initialize" instead of "begin," which is far too ordinary; "finalize" instead of the mundane "finish"; "position" for the down-to-earth "place."
It chooses a vocabulary that makes it sound more important than it really is. "Coordinate" and "optimize" are weightier than "carry out" and "improve." But "resolve" rules the pantheon of verbs, beating out "steer" and "supervise" by a nose. And there's certainly no lack of words ending in "-ance" or "-ence" and "-ency," such as "relevance," "competence," "experience," "efficiency," "coherency," "excellence"words that give the appearance of importance.
Business-speak considers grammar a relic of the past. It misuses circumlocution, distends syntax, mistreats words, and decks itself out in a gaudy array of technical and managerial terms. It corrupts language in masterly fashion: the business world loves malapropisms. For example, when you "decline" a logo, a message, or a value, you are not turning it down but merely adopting it for other uses, featured below. Nouns are turned into verbs as in "to access," or "to migrate" personnel from one department to another; intransitive verbs become transitive, as in "growing one's business."
The language of business expresses the politics of an impersonal power. It seeks neither to convince nor to prove, or even to seduce, but offers obvious statements in a uniform fashion without any value judgments. The goal? To make you obey. Beware: Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's right-hand man, once said, "We don't speak to communicate anything but to create a certain effect." And in fact, business newspeak is halfway between self-proclaimed scientific objectivity and the peremptory stridency of the slogan. Thus we get: "Interdepartmental cooperation must be optimized." "It is imperative that the new modus operandi be achieved by the deadline of the fifteenth." Or: "Implementing the orientations defined by the project are and will remain a priority."
Business-speak takes only the most well-traveled roads, where every twist and turn is familiar. Even if a text or memo says nothing, it can still be decoded: it reveals its meaning whenever it diverges from the secret code. Every deviation from the expected reveals something. So if you have nothing better to do, you can become an expert in jargon. . . .
This language has a hold over us and claims to speak for us, reducing the employee to a simple piece of machinery. Get up, machine, and get to work! Your perceptions, your feelings, your ambition, must be translatable into spreadsheets and graphs, and your labor is but a "process" that must be rationalized.
Corrupting language is a costly affair. Our words seem to have been doctored. When it becomes difficult to disentangle truth and lies and to quash rumors, mistrust reigns. Not surprisingly, employees become paranoid that a vast plot is being hatched against them by top management. It's true: the bosses speak a language worthy of Pravda, the Soviet organ of official truth. But does this really mean they're up to no good? Sometimes it does, but sometimes there is a more innocent explanation: executives speak newspeak because they've been trained to, and they are chosen for certain positions of power on the basis of their mastery of this lingua franca. Jargonism is in their blood.
A training course in "native language" would be helpful in a number of our executive suites, but this is rarely on the syllabus of the executive MBA. They prefer neurolinguistic programming (NLP) and similarly half-baked approaches, whose primary objective is to keep everyone thinking and speaking in circles.
Acronyms: A Thicket, a Wilderness, Nay, a Veritable Labyrinth
If the newspeak of the business world is particularly repulsive, it is also because everybody speaks in abbreviations. While jargon has eliminated a certain number of words, it has also created a large number of themespecially those based on abbreviations and contractionswithout a thought for how awful they sound. The names of units, groups, and departments are always acronyms. This is the sort of thing one hears at a meeting: "AGIR has become IPN, which supervises the STI, divesting the SSII of control of the DM, but the latter will waste no time in subsuming RTI." One hour of this sort of talk in the cafeteria is enough to drive you batty. The objective is to make those who know what the acronyms mean think that they belong to the privileged few, an inner circle who really knows what's what.
There's no point, however, in memorizing the meaning of these cryptic acronyms. They're changing all the time, in accordance with the successive restructurings aimed at reshuffling the cards without ever changing the deckanything but! What this proliferation of abbreviations shows is that over the course of the many reorganizations and mergers/acquisitions, businesses become so complex and labyrinthine that you don't know whether you are coming or going. As a result, competition intensifies, responsibilities overlap, Russian dolls multiply. A progressive financial daily* summed up the phenomenon as follows: "We belong to the era of multiple cross-world ownership." Translation in plain talk: "The organization is a shambles."
There is a golden rule in the process of naming teams: each unit is named in such a way as to imply that its importance is vital to the firm, without being too explicit about what it actually does for fear of creating too much work. Most acronyms are formed with the same words, which include the following: "information," "technology," "support," "management," "development," "application," "data," "service," "direction," "center," "computer," "network," "research," "raccoon," "market," "product," "marketing," "consumer," and "client." You have one minute to find the one that doesn't belong in this list. . . .
Foreign Languages: No Pasaran
Nevertheless, even though it's hard for them, the French have to admit that the Americans are the masters of capitalism. Harvard is the Bethlehem of money. So you have to listen to what Uncle Sam has to say on the matter. The business schools of Western Europe suffer from an inferiority complex vis-a-vis their American models. No sooner does a word become all the rage in the United States than it crosses the Atlantic like a wave and engulfs our management schools, our commercial institutions, and our businessmen's speech. Linguistic inaccuracies are irrelevant; it's enough to sprinkle these buzzwords over the transparencies and "charts." That's the basic idea.
Here is a sample of contemporary business French; the italicized words are in English in the original: "I'm doing the follow-up on a merging project with a coach; I'm checking the downsizing." This means you're firing people. Similarly, "reengineering" has taken the place of "reorganizing." And when the French terms have so negative a connotation that they become unusable, English is used as a practical cosmetic measure: in the hush-hush environment of the firm, one must remain positive even when everything is going wrong. You've been fired? Smile and say "cheese"!
This relationship of fascination/repulsion with regard to the United States explains why no one in France really speaks the language of these barbarians. It's a known fact that the French are not very good at immersing themselves in the fine points of English. And we're not talking here about the language of Shakespeare, a difficult author writing in an archaic style, but rather of Michael Jackson, a singer who has more shades of white and gray in his makeup drawer than he has words in his vocabulary.
French executives, who are supposed to be able to communicate with the whole world within the framework of flexible, cosmopolitan networks, are irremediably bad in languages. Is it because of their chauvinistic resistance to globalization? Could they possibly believe that the business world of the future will speak French, which for them (and them alone) is the most precise and beautiful language in the world? To speak a no-man's-language in the workplace is already enough of a chore; no point in making it more complicated by learning English. . . .
The rash of platitudes and commonplaces bandied about in the business world, which can't get enough of them, is flabbergasting. Conventional turns of phrase and old chestnuts abound. In fact, only the most conventional and hackneyed expressions find their way into the comforting, cliche-ridden world of the office; the jokey "Damn the torpedoes," so yesterday, and the enigmatic and disturbing "What goes around comes around" are scarcely worth mentioning. But the point, of course, is to "dumb things down," as they say at the office.
The newcomer to the business world is perplexed until he understands that the impersonal appearance of this half-baked wisdom hides nothing more than the interests and ambitions of the person voicing them. In the treasury of commonly used proverbs and expressions, the following are particular favorites (with the translation in parentheses):
"There are no problems, there are only solutions" (an absurd sentence, greatly appreciated by engineers justifying their existence).
"Knowledge is power" (which means: "I know more than you").
"Work less but work smarter" (slogan used by the most hypocritical bosses to make you get to work).
"It's all a matter of organization" (same meaning as above).
"You have to prioritize" ("It's out of the question for me to work harder").
"The sky's the limit" ("I can't stand it anymore").
"Where there's smoke there's fire" ("I smell a rat").
"Let's not beat around the bush" ("I'm going to be frank: no more hypocrisy").
Taking notes in meetings is never futile for the lover of empty phrases and nonsense. And then, every so often (anything can happen), the great, generous womb of language yields up a pearl, an unexpected or pleasant turn of phrase, which makes up for all those afternoons spent listening to garbage.