In her book about life in the tech industry, “Uncanny Valley”, Anna Wiener used the term “garbage language” to describe “a sort of nonlanguage which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient”. Tech executives spouted a very grand vision of how they would reshape society but their rhetoric often clashed with the hard reality of what they were doing, which was to sell advertising or monopolise users’ time. It is a variation on the old Ralph Waldo Emerson dictum: “The louder he mentioned his honour, the faster we counted our spoons.”
The third reason why managers use jargon is to establish their credentials. What makes one person fit to manage another? It is hard to identify any obvious attributes; managers are not like doctors, who prove their expertise through passing exams and practical training. If you can speak the language of management, you appear qualified to rule. If others don’t understand terms like “synergy” and “paradigm”, that only demonstrates their ignorance. In a sense, managers are acting rather like medieval priests, who conducted services in Latin rather than in the local language, adding to the mystical nature of the process.
Once corporate jargon is established, it is hard for managers to avoid using it. The terms are ever-present in PowerPoint slides, speeches and annual reports. Not to use them would suggest a manager is not sufficiently committed to the job. Junior staff, for their part, dare not question the language for fear of damaging their promotion prospects.
Of course, new words will inevitably be coined in the world of business, as in other areas of life. Technology has ushered in a range of terms, such as hardware and software, which were once unfamiliar but are now widely understood. But a lot of the more irritating jargon has been brought in from other areas of life, like the self-help movement.
All this matters because the continued use of obscure language is a sign that the speaker is not thinking clearly. And if those in charge aren’t thinking clearly, that’s bad for the business. People who are in real command of the detail are able to explain things in a way that is easily understood. And if a manager’s colleagues understand the message, they are more likely to get the right things done. Jargon gets in the way.