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Tired of 'circling back' and 'touching base'? How to handle all the workplace jargon

A Preply survey found that American workers' least favorite corporate buzzwords include "new normal," "circle back," "win-win," "move the needle" and "think outside the box."
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A Preply survey found that American workers' least favorite corporate buzzwords include "new normal," "circle back," "win-win," "move the needle" and "think outside the box."

Updated September 6, 2023 at 10:48 AM ET

Now's a good time — if you have the bandwidth — to touch base about a pain point that's evidently bothering many white-collar workers: office jargon.

The business buzzwords (or corporate cliches, if you prefer) can both facilitate communication and cause confusion. And, as anyone who's ever made or heard a "synergy" joke offline knows, they can also sound trite, ring hollow and even feel alienating.

The word "jargon" was first defined as "confused, unintelligible language" when it entered the English language in the 1300s. It has since come to describe the specific language of a particular group or industry, Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam Webster, told Morning Edition.

It's normal and useful for people within a company or field to have their own names for specific kinds of tasks or projects. But when overused, Sokolowski notes, buzzwords can become a code for a kind of professional language that is "substituting for authenticity."

"When we see terms like 'fast-paced environment' or 'entrepreneurial spirit' or 'to wear many hats,' they become kind of cliches and they lose their intensity," he said. "They lose a little bit of their meaning, and they suddenly become a kind of signifier for something else, which is language that isn't very direct language, that isn't very emotionally honest."

Take, for example, the emotional detachment of a euphemism like "workforce reduction." That's where the resentment and stigmatization come in, according to Sokolowski.

"We make fun of them and slowly they lose their power," he said. "And maybe more intelligent communicators will find other and more direct ways to say the same thing."

Drilling down: These are the worst offenders

A pair of surveys out this summer highlight some of the most irritating and befuddling examples of jargon, at least according to U.S. workers.

The language learning platform Preply recently updated a survey it originally conducted last year.The study polled more than 1,500 Americans — in offices and remote workplaces across all 50 states — about the general use of corporate jargon and their thoughts on specific terms.

It found that more than 1 in 5 people say they dislike corporate buzzwords. Even so, 2 in 5 say they hear them at least once a day, and 7 in 10 admit to using them.

The most commonly used, per voters, is "win-win," followed by "culture" (as in, company culture). Rounding out the top 10 are "circle back," "it's on my radar," "on the same page," "bring to the table" and "new normal."

Many of those sayings also carry the distinction of being deemed the most annoying buzzwords. "New normal" took first place with 43%, followed closely by "culture" and "circle back." Others on the list include "give 110%," "move the needle" and "think outside the box."

On the other end of the spectrum, an overwhelming 90% of respondents weren't irritated at all by the phrase "at the end of the day." Others, like "debrief" and "table this," also appear relatively inoffensive.

But it's not just a question of irritation.

Jargon can actually make navigating the workplace harder, according to a June report commissioned by LinkedIn and Duolingo. That report identified the five most confusing terms in the U.S. as: boiling the ocean, herding cats, ducks in a row, move the needle and run it up the flagpole.

Forty percent of workers said they've had a misunderstanding or made a mistake at work because they didn't know the meaning of jargon or used it incorrectly. And 61% believe that workers with a better understanding of such jargon are able to get ahead, such as through promotions or raises.

Professionals from non-English speaking households or who speak English as a second language are the most likely to say that learning workplace jargon was stressful, slowed productivity and made them feel left out of conversations.

Fleshing out: Some words can eventually lose their 'buzz'

Sokolowski believes workplace jargon probably evolves at a faster pace than the language itself, in part because it has to do with new technologies.

Plenty of those terms — including "blog" and "access" (in the internet context) — have caught on over time, to the point they're no longer considered jargon

"It's really habit and convention that creates meaning for some of these words," Sokolowski said.

And he thinks others will follow suit. While people love to hate the word "onboarding," he notes it usefully puts a name to a process. And he predicts it could become "completely unremarkable and common" in another 10 years.

Sokolowski has even found himself using terms that he objected to as recently as five or 10 years ago.

"I didn't like 'surfacing' as a business jargon or 'bandwidth' initially," he explained. "And I find I now use both of them, because they're helpful."

Moving the needle: How to communicate more clearly

Overall, jargon isn't going anywhere.

"The fact is, we're all stuck with it," Sokolowski said. "No matter what your profession, you are going to have jargon, which is to say an inside language. And that is entirely appropriate."

His advice is to try to communicate more clearly whenever possible. He says English speakers in particular appreciate rhetoric that's short, direct and meaningful. He pointed to iconic speeches like Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and Ronald Reagan's speech calling for Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" as examples.

"For English speakers it's almost a moral issue, to speak clearly, to use words with the meanings that we conventionally ascribe to them, and think of the sort of short words that convey emotion and deep meaning," he said.

LinkedIn career expert Andrew McCaskill offers similar tips to navigate workplace jargon. He suggests asking questions if you don't understand something, being mindful that colleagues might not understand all workplace terminology and doing your best to keep language simple — like replacing "get our ducks in a row" with "get organized."

There's nothing wrong with having language pet peeves, Sokolowski says, as long as people recognize that preferences may vary.

"We should be generous with others and recognize that maybe the words we hate aren't the same words that other people hate, and that we should allow words to have their own power and to carry meaning," he added. "And maybe in our own language, if we pay attention to that, we police ourselves and our own use of language, then what will happen is more clarity, more directness and more communication will result."

The broadcast interview was produced by Kaity Kline and edited by Ally Schweitzer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.