Office Speak

officeHaving spent over thirty years in the world of big business, I experienced the fullest and ugliest extent of office speak. I came from an academic background solidly based on the study of literature and the need to write accurately and effectively (which is not to say that academia doesn’t have its own version of office speak). When I was fairly new to the business world I actively took up arms against the multitudinous seas of gobbledygook that passed as business communication only to be branded as a smart-ass. Still, my company even ran a course in the Learning Center on Effective Communications which championed concepts similar to my own; unfortunately, as soon as the course was over, most associates went right back to the same old overblown and hackneyed business jargon that once served to fill up the idle time before television and email were invented.

Periodically I read an article or even a whole book on effective communications. Ostensibly this is to improve my writing but I have to confess that I actually have fun reading this stuff. Hey, I have been known to carry around my Fowler. You may have seen the book, Officespeak: The Win-Win Guide to Touching Base, Getting the Ball Rolling, and Thinking Inside the Box by David Martin. Now this is entertainment. If you can’t get a copy right now, I have lifted an excerpt from Delancey Place to get you started:

“[We now want to address] the technical aspects of officespeak, such as passive voice, circular reasoning, and rhetorical questions. These are the nuts and bolts of the Rube Goldberg contraption that is the language of the office. Obscurity, vagueness, and a noncommittal stance on everything define the essence of officespeak. No one wants to come out and say what they really think. It is much safer for the company and those up top to constantly cloak their language in order to hide how much they do know or, just as often, how much they don’t know. …

office“Passive voice: The bread and butter of press releases and official statements. For those who have forgotten their basic grammar, a sentence in the passive voice does not have an active verb. Thus, no one can take the blame for ‘doing’ something, since nothing, grammatically speaking has been done by anybody. Using the passive voice takes the emphasis off yourself (or the company). Here [is an] example of how the passive voice can render any situation guiltless:

‘Five hundred employees were laid off.’ (Not ‘The company laid off five hundred employees,’ or even worse, ‘I laid off five hundred employees.’ These layoffs occurred in a netherworld of displaced blame, in which the company and the individual are miraculously absent from the picture.) …

“Circular reasoning: Another favorite when it comes time to deliver bad news. In circular reasoning, a problem is posited and a reason is given. Except that, the reason is basically just a rewording of the problem. Pretty nifty. Here [is an] examples to better explain:

‘Our profits are down because of [a decrease in revenues].’
‘People were laid off because there was a surplus of workers.’ …

“Rhetorical questions: The questions that ask for no answers. So why even ask the question? Because it makes it seem as though the listener is participating in a true dialogue. When your boss asks ‘Who’s staying late tonight?’ you know he really means ‘Anyone who wants to keep their job will work late.’ Still there’s that split second when you think you have a say in the matter when you believe your opinion counts. Only to be reminded yet again that no one cares what you think. …

“Hollow statements: The second cousin of circular reasoning. Hollow statements make it seem as though something positive is happening (such as better profits or increased market share), but they lack any proof to support the claim.

‘Our company is performing better than it looks.’
‘Once productivity increases so will profits.’ …

“They and them: Pronouns used to refer to the high-level management that no one has ever met, only heard whispers about. ‘They’ are faceless and often nameless. And their decisions render those beneath them impotent to change anything. ‘They’ fire people, ‘they’ freeze wages, ‘they’ make your life a living hell. It’s not your boss who is responsible — he would love to reverse all these directives if he could. But you see his hands are tied.

‘I’d love to give you that raise, you know I would. But they’re the ones in charge.’
‘Okay, gang, bad news, no more cargo shorts allowed. Hey, I love the casual look, but they hate it.’ …

“Obfuscation: A tendency to obscure, darken, or stupefy. The primary goal of the above techniques is, in the end, obfuscation. Whether it’s by means of the methods outlined above or by injecting jargon-heavy phrases into sentences, corporations want to make their motives and actions as difficult to comprehend as possible.”

This is really scary stuff. While you’re at it, check out The Vocabula Review (it’s worth the subscription but take a peek anyway).

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