The office: heads-up on jargon

You may need more face time to touch base if you use language like this.

By Noel O'Hare

In a recent PSA News we asked members to send us the worst examples of management speak/jargon/bureaucratese they’d come across.

A member at Statistics New Zealand took out the prize, a $40 book voucher, with three beauties. He cited a government press release on the NZ Post restructuring that referred to “customer points of presence”. What presumably they were referring to were counters where a real person would serve you.

He also wondered whether anyone would understand the objective of the Statistics Geospatial Strategy which is to achieve “spatial enablement”. Translated into plain English it means understanding how your physical surroundings can be utilised or exploited for one’s benefit.

Finally, he says, “Instead of ‘brainstorming’ (which is jargony in itself), I heard someone the other day talk about ‘thought showers’.” If you want to dismiss a colleague’s dumb view, just say “sounds like an idea that came down in the last thought shower!”

A member at NZQA was amused when a policy analyst, reporting back after meeting a government delegation from China kept referring to “the biggest takeaway we got from the Chinese”.



Another member would like to share his department’s aspiration if only he could be sure what it meant. Where he works, employees are exhorted to “Navigate through ambiguity and the opportunity it brings to create better ways of doing things”.

“This aspirational gem,” he says, “could easily be put on one of those terrible motivational posters with a picture of a ship in a storm sailing towards a rainbow. At the moment I’m just waiting for the “Navigate Through Ambiguity” t-shirts to arrive.

At the Ministry for Primary Industries, they are “assessing the optics of the situation” I think it means looking more deeply at something, says the member who sent it in.

Unions, of course, are not exempt from using jargon. They spend a lot of time “bargaining,” which to many people conjures up images of haggling in some Middle-Eastern bazaar. This is done at a special table called “the bargaining table” which apparently every workplace has. In the past it was located in a smokey backroom. Wherever its location now, unionists are constantly returning to it and urging employers to do the same. 

Unionists are never happier than when they come away from the table with a MECA with no clawbacks for members to ratify.


Drilling down

Whether you drill down or take a helicopter view, there’s a lot of stultifying language out there. British journalist Steven Poole has collected much of it in his new book Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon.

His critique of jargon, of course, includes a lot of low-hanging fruit like “on my radar” or “paradigm shift” but he has shrewd observations to make. Here he is on “going forward”:

“Top of many people's hate-list is this now-ubiquitous way of saying "from now on" or "in future". It has the added sly rhetorical aim of wiping clean the slate of the past; indeed, it is a kind of incantation or threat aimed at shutting down conversation about whatever bad thing has happened.”

Politicians, of course, love jargon because it’s mind sapping and meaningless. However, there’s one of Steven Poole’s pet hates that our prime minister’s speech writers must take great care to avoid using:

“With your key core competencies, you can no doubt achieve the key performance indicators, take on key challenges, and overcome key issues to meet key milestones and placate our key stakeholders, going forward. But why the hell is everything key?

“Is there some kind of subliminal phallic titillation to the image of key things penetrating the welcoming oiled openings of locks? You can even have key asks, which are not small free-standing shops that sell newspapers or develop film. I'm tempted to start up a locksmithing business that supplies key keys”.

Once you start calling so many things key, of course, semantic inflation dissolves its sense almost entirely.


This article is from the December 2013 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.