The rise of management speak and workplace jargon not only debases language — it also diminishes those who use it.
It creeps into communication and, without realising it, we adopt the latest buzzword or usage, fearing that not to do so will reveal us to be out of touch.
And so we utter expressions which seem to emerge from the ether labelled with a ‘Use Me’ instruction.
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice drinks a potion which is labelled ‘Drink Me’, and promptly shrinks in height to 10 inches.
By blindly using certain terms as if they are the only possible means of expressing ourselves, we reduce our individuality and limit our ability to use language with confidence and flair. We also reduce the scope and flexibility of language.
We don’t have to use words and phrases we dislike. There is no law saying we have to speak in certain ways just because a colleague uses jargon.
Here are just a few of the most often used and abused examples of jargonspeak and what you could use instead to sound like a human.
This is a phrase which suggests an emotional context. Reaching out to people implies a wish to connect with them on more than just a transactional level.
We reach out to the victims of disaster. We reach out to people we want to persuade or inspire or involve. We reach out to those in pain, to those we can help or who can help us.
We don’t reach out to Ken in accounts, or to the dry cleaner, or to our internet provider, and they really should not be reaching out to us.
If you don’t already know the song, or even if you do, listen to Reach Out I’ll Be There by The Four Tops. We learn so much from Motown. That’s what it’s all about.
Levi Stubbs’ urgent baritone declaiming his readiness to offer a hand to hold and the comfort of love. Reach out to me when you feel that you can’t go on, and when all your hope is gone. Reach out to me, and I’ll be there.
But if you want a quote for your new windows, or to arrange a meeting, or to speak to someone in another department, don’t reach out. Use words such as speak to, contact, email, phone. They do the job just fine.
This expression is used when someone wants people to pay particular attention to the information that follows. The trouble is that the phrase has a slightly childish ring. It lacks gravitas.
‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, listen up’ ? The words are intended to anticipate matter of some importance, but their register is more attuned to a little persons’ playroom than to a boardroom. Listen up, or you’ll go on the naughty step. It’s the ‘up’ that does it, with its patronising, encouraging tone.
‘Listen’ without the ‘up’ still works. You could say, ‘I need you to listen to this.’ Or, ‘Listen, everyone.’ Or, ‘Could I have your attention, please?’ Serious, firm, polite, without the annoying little misused preposition which makes you feel that you are wearing a romper suit in a primary colour.
Skills are great, but they don’t come in a set.
The word ‘set’ suggests something concrete, intact and complete, like a manicure set or a dinner set or a train set. The word creates specific, limiting boundaries around the ever-changing, limitless possibilities of human development.
This ugly expression reduces one’s potential and abilities to a series of tick boxes, and assumes that if a quality cannot be objectively measured, it is of no use. The phrase ‘skill set’ contributes to people being viewed as commodities and a set of functions.
You don’t have to use this expression. You can find out what people are able to do, and what kind of people they are, even if they have left their ‘skill set’ at home with their spare set of keys.
This meaningless phrase, which is used to signify ‘from now on’ or ‘in the future’, causes so much annoyance and irritation that it impedes effective communication.
You feel you can’t respect or trust someone who jumps on a dodgy linguistic bandwagon in an attempt to sound cutting-edge.
Our language is flexible and robust and constantly changing. It can absorb new concepts, play with ideas, illuminate, startle, delight. We can use it to enhance our humanity and to build bridges. We do not need to use or accept words and phrases which dehumanise people or distort reality.
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