June 13, 2004, Sunday
A LINGUAL PARADIGM SHIFT
By Amy Joyce
Susannah Rast got a letter from her employer at the beginning of the year that said the company was “implementing a reduction in force to your position.”Not only did her boss not say she was being let go, but it was additionally laughable because this “reduction in force” was in an office of just 12 people. And she was the only one let go.
Management-speak. Buzzwords. Lingo. They can be the bane of office existence.Check out the wording in Primus Knowledge Solutions Inc.’s first-quarter report (pointed out to me by one of the company’s annoyed employees): “. . . related to the company’s March 2004 restructuring of its workforce and operations in an effort to realize efficiencies and synergies from its recent acquisition.” Translation: layoffs in the company we just bought.
Why do managers and executives decide this is a good way to use the English language? In the two cases above, it just seems that employers are trying to proceed beyond (skip, ignore, hide) the transitional information (bad news).There have always been catchwords and phrases. Today, however, a lot of them are corporate, workplace words.
It’s a topic often broached in the Dilbert comic strip. There are several Web sites dedicated to management-speak, including www.buzzwhack.com. “There’s so much Dilbertese out there, and it has permeated our language so much that we don’t even flinch anymore!” wrote Jessica Gentile Riley, a recent Georgetown business school graduate who is currently looking for a job. “I think these words sometimes come up because there’s no other better word for what is happening. Concepts like ‘prairie-dog-ing’ [peeking out over cubicles] didn’t exist 100 years ago because there were no cubicles then,” she said. One woman who e-mailed me said she and her mother, who work at different organizations, hear two different buzzwords to describe budget cuts. My correspondent works for an Ohio university, which calls the cuts “strategic budgeting” (when is figuring a budget out not strategic?) and her mother’s company’s term is — wait for it — “The Lean Initiative.” (I’m sure if it hasn’t already happened, the managers will soon be tossing “TLI” around. “No coffee at the meeting today, folks. You know — TLI!”)
The most obvious use of management-speak happened last week when George Tenet resigned from the CIA to “spend more time with his family.” Between that and “leaving to pursue other options,” no one gets fired anymore. “Have you ever heard of someone taking a job to spend less time with their family?” asked Paul J.J. Payack, founder of the Global Language Monitor, a Web site that tracks mostly Hollywood and political buzzwords. “Officially, people pursue other options. Everybody knows what that means. That means you have been fired.”The reason these words infiltrate our world is to keep up public relations, Payack said.
A company’s executive team or public relations department uses catchphrases because they don’t want to create a crisis. “They want it to sound palatable.” And, perhaps more so, they simply want to sound smart, said Alan Perlman, a linguist and speechwriter based in Highland Park, Ill. Executives and other workplace leaders are “obsessed with innovation,” he said.”It’s the only way to sustain a competitive advantage,” Perlman said. “New words are very important to them.”But innovation implies progress or improvement, said Geoffrey Nunberg, author of “Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Controversial Times” and a Stanford University linguist. And he’s not so sure words like these are a measure of progress.
However, the words do change with new management. “It’s clear that every generation, there is a lot of pressure to come up with new words and coinings. Every generation of management wants to sweep clean. It also comes from the consultants because they can’t say, ‘We want to sell you what we sold you last year.’ ” We all know and complain about management-speak, and yet we all use it, he said. Including Nunberg himself.
When he first worked for Xerox Corp. years ago, he received a memo that asked him to “cascade this to your people and see what the pushback is.” “I would use the words myself in that life, then come home and do this job,” he said. “A parallel language has developed. These are words we don’t use for ordinary life. You don’t say to your partner, ‘Can we align our vision?’ ”
Granted, some of the management-speak has seeped into our everyday language. Our friends no longer have problems, nor are they nutty. They “have issues.” And no more are our kids hyper and hard to handle. They are “a challenge.” In fact, “challenge” has become a catchall for all things bad. “Something horrible that happens is ‘a challenge.’ A bad — no, horrible — year is a ‘challenging’ year. . . . It’s the one-stop word that avoids all the icky stuff,” said Patrick Cleary, senior vice president of human resource policy at the National Association of Manufacturers. “The interesting thing is that as a communications specialist, I understand the absurdity of that,” Payack said. “People think others don’t see through it. If we explain it the right way, Wall Street is going to buy it. If we explain it the right way, employees are going to buy it.” And buy it, we all have. How many times have you, as a manager, talked about a “paradigm shift,” or asked your “team members” or “associates” to “think outside the box.” Or discussed a “personnel challenge,” where, again, you may be impelled to “implement a reduction in force?” “Everybody is aware of it. Everybody knows it’s going on. Management makes fun of itself,” Nunberg said. “Yet they use the language. And yet it does its job.”
ï½© 2004 The Washington Post Company