The TikTok clip sounds almost like a foreign language class. “Work in synergy,” a young woman says, looking at her computer, before deadpanning to the camera to translate. “Cooperate with each other like adults.”
Back to her computer: “It’s on my radar,” she says. Beat. “I know about it, and I purposely haven’t done it,” she says to the camera.
This video is one of many on the platform in which users take aim at “corporate-speak” — office parlance that can range from the tech-inspired (”bandwidth,” “take this offline”), to the sporty (”get the ball rolling,” “touch base”), to the ol’ reliable (”just circling back”). On Slack and in conference rooms, it’s hard to keep this lingo off your radar.
However trivial this white-collar lingua franca may seem, the trend of young workers pushing back against it raises an important question: As other long-held workplace norms (like physical offices and dress codes) have been dismantled, is it still really necessary to speak the corporate code? Why can’t we just say what we mean?
“My colleagues will talk to me sometimes, and I’m like, ‘Can you just talk to me like a human person, please?’ ” said Bailey, a 26-year-old Somerville copywriter who asked that her last name not be used while discussing her workplace. “It just feels a little like keeping the guise of, ‘Oh, this is important and what we are doing is important’ by using this very official language.”
To explain why this “very official language” has suddenly become so ripe for ridicule from young workers, it helps to first understand the purpose of corporate-speak. Most people lean on this terminology to keep up professional appearances — even when they don’t feel their most professional. (Doesn’t “I don’t have the bandwidth for that” sound more diplomatic than “if you give me another assignment I’m going to crawl under my desk”?)
Or, it can be a crutch: A study of 1,500 UK-based office workers last year by the communications company Enreach found a whopping 90 percent felt that others used office lingo mainly to cover up that they had no clue what they were talking about.
“After you hear them and think about them, that’s when you begin to wonder, ‘Wait, what did that actually mean?’ ” said Neal Hartman, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “They don’t really have a whole lot of meaning — you know, ‘We’ll circle back to that.’ And then probably 90 percent of the time, we actually never do.”
To be sure, poking fun at the lingo has always been low-hanging fruit (another common offender) for mockery, from the 1999 film “Office Space” to any number of strongly worded books promising to decipher the phrases. The difference with the young workers of today — particularly those in Gen Z — is that it seems to be part of a larger push to slough off what they see as the unnecessary formalities of professional life.
Just as many young workers don’t turn on their Zoom cameras during meetings or stay late to impress their bosses, they are also challenging why it’s necessary to adorn their workplace communications with euphemisms when they could be plainspoken instead — and get the same job done. In other words: Why does it matter if you sound professional if you’re still being professional?
“Younger folks are questioning, ‘Why should I talk one way in the workplace that sounds completely different from how I would interact in all other parts of my life?’ ” said Rachel Lipson, director of the Project on Workforce at Harvard University’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy.
The lingo can also be something of an occupational hazard. The Enreach survey found that about 1 in 3 workers said they couldn’t understand what their boss was talking about because of the jargon. For younger workers who put a premium on work-life boundaries and mental health, ditching corporate-speak can take some of the stress out of workplace communication.
“I don’t want to be working at 6:30 p.m. because someone told me that they need a ‘deliverable’ [and] I have no clue what it is. Or even, like, ‘We’ll circle back to it.’ Great. When?” said Reagan Anthony, a 23-year-old in Chicago working in social media who made a satirical TikTok last year about what corporate jargon sounds like in nonwork contexts. “For us, it seems outlandish to make someone else’s job harder by not being specific enough.”
Others say that corporate-speak butts heads with equity and diversity, which are some of the top priorities for young people in the workplace. “Where you have buzzwords, you have insiders and outsiders,” said Gorick Ng, a career adviser at Harvard University who recently wrote a book on unspoken rules in the workplace.
Ng developed an extensive workplace jargon dictionary, since he knows that some workers — especially those who are neurodivergent or nonnative English speakers — may have difficulty parsing idiomatic terms like buy-in or synergy that “can unravel into a thousand-and-one interpretations,” he said.
Kimberlee-Mykel Thompson, a 22-year-old who lives in the Boston area and works in marketing, said the use of corporate jargon relates to the pressure to “code switch” at work, or toggle between a white-collar dialect and the African American Vernacular English she grew up speaking.
“There is something to say about it being sort of exclusive, especially for young people of color in corporate spaces,” said Thompson. “A lot of times, it’s language that I’m not always familiar with or didn’t grow up hearing.”
And while younger workers are far from the first to raise eyebrows at corporate-speak, they are the ones, Thompson said, who are prepared to “get by without it.”
“Everybody experiences it going into corporate,” she added. “Gen Z is just like, why do we have to do that? Let’s just call it what it is.”
IRL (In Real Life) is a new series on Internet phenomena and what they say about the real world. If you have ideas for future stories, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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