Joining a new office means having to learn how to communicate with your team. But in order to do that well, it sometimes means having to learn your company’s go-to business jargon. “Let’s circle back to touch base and close the loop on what’s scalable,” you may find yourself saying.
“There are many reasons people use jargon: to communicate effectively, to show off, for fun, for belonging, to befuddle/intimidate/exclude, to legitimize themselves,” said Zachary Brown, an assistant professor who researches jargon at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Like it or not, office buzzwords are contagious, and even though we’re all guilty of using them in a meeting to get our points across, hearing them can secretly irk everyone involved. When pollsters hired by CV Maker asked more than 4,500 people what they considered to be the most annoying corporate buzzword or phrase, these were the top answers:
- Outside the box
- Take ownership
- Circle back
- Reach out
- Going forward
- Make it happen
“Jargon can be annoying when it’s overused to the point where the words no longer hold meaning,” said career coach Anne Genduso, who personally finds “circle back” to be the most annoying one she hears.
“Take these phrases, for example: ‘Mission-critical,’ ’socialize, ‘disruptive,’ ‘circle back,’ ’synergy, ‘touch base,’” Genduso noted. “They’re very subjective as well. What’s ‘disruptive’ for one leader or one industry may be ‘old-school’ for another.“
That’s why it helps to learn which jargony phrases are particularly off-putting — and why.
“If an employee is in a workplace that uses lots of jargon, they probably have to learn it,” Brown said. “It’s not bad to use some jargon at all; the trick is not using it excessively. It’s a bit of a Goldilocks problem: There is too much and too little, and you want the amount that is ‘just right.’ It’s different for each group, similar to clothing norms, hairstyle norms, etc.”
Career experts weighed in on the types of jargon they personally find most annoying, with advice on how to pick your terms and phrases thoughtfully.
1. Excessive acronyms can be difficult to parse.
Brown noted, “Acronyms are fine if everyone knows them and you know everyone knows them. But when acronyms extend to everything and you start using them with broader groups, it can quickly become infuriating.“
Brown said that acronyms can be profession-specific, and the problem happens when you assume your colleague knows what you’re saying. Maybe if you’re a business grad, you’ll know that DCF means “discounted cash flow,” but it will be completely baffling to a colleague outside of that field. And maybe if you’re on the marketing team, you’ll know that WOM means “word of mouth,” but you may have to clarify for your engineering team.
Unlike lots of other jargon, he said, acronyms are a type of business buzzword that is hard for employees to deduce. “I can usually intuit what jargon means for metaphors and other words/phrases, but if someone uses an acronym I don’t understand, it’s much more difficult,” he said.
2. Idioms that are hard to translate can exclude non-native speakers.
For Lawrese Brown, the founder of C-Track Training, a workplace education company, sayings such as “soup to nuts” and “nuts and bolts” are off-putting phrases that she said she hears from older generations.
“These are annoying and confusing because ‘soup to nuts’ is a meal metaphor that means beginning to end, and not only is that reference outdated, but it’s also irrelevant to how most people think of a ‘complete meal’ today,” Lawrese Brown said. “Similarly with ‘nuts and bolts.’ This is a metaphor for building and focusing on the small pieces that bring a process together, but it’s more clear to say that [instead].”
Genduso noted that idioms like “move the needle,” “out of pocket,” “piggyback,” “low-hanging fruit” and “table this conversation” can be “extremely confusing to non-native language speakers because the literal definitions don’t always make sense.“
3. Sports-related jargon can not only be annoying but exclusionary, too.
Angela Karachristos, a career coach who has worked in human resources, said she finds herself most annoyed by sports-related jargon, like “punt it over,” “it’s a home run,” “who’s on the bench” and “over the finish line.”
“I think they can exclude people and create a boys’ club culture,” she said, noting that she finds gun-related jargon, like “pull the trigger,” “in the crosshairs,” “bite the bullet” and “shoot from the hip,” equally frustrating.
She’s not alone in finding sports-related clichés to be excluding. In a blog post for Textio, an augmented writing platform that analyzes workplace communication, a company data analyst singled out sports-related jargon as a type of communication that hiring teams should be mindful of.
“You write a job post so that the reader can imagine themselves on your team. If you want to appeal broadly, choosing language that requires a specific background puts your culture in a box,” wrote Mikayla Jordan for Textio. “Imagine a job description including ‘You’ll quarterback projects from start to finish.’ If the candidate isn’t familiar with American football, they may not understand what’s expected and fear they won’t fit in.”
If you’re part of a team that uses lots of unfamiliar sports jargon, ask for clarification.
“When a workplace language contains a certain theme, like sports, I would advise an employee to call it out and identify it while also indicating the impact,” Karachristos said. “Something like, ‘I notice we use a lot of sports jargon here. I’m not a big sports fan. What do you mean by the plan being a ‘Hail Mary’?”
You likely won’t be able to go jargon-free, so here’s how to use it thoughtfully.
No matter where you sit on your company’s organizational chart, you will encounter jargon, but the power you hold will influence why you use it.
Zachary Brown, the researcher, said he expects that higher-status professionals will use more jargon than lower-status professionals on average. “This is precisely the reason why jargon is a status signal in the first place and why it gets manipulatively misused,” he said.
So if people at the top of the company make jargon the norm, junior employees may start using jargon, too, because they want to be respected and appear competent. In a series of studies Brown led, he found that low-status professionals were more likely to use jargon when they thought they were being judged.
“When the spotlight [is] on them, their motivation to be respected increases compared to their motivation to be understood, and they’re more likely to use this performative language,” Brown said.
If you’re stuck in a company that is overrun with jargon, try to have it both ways: You can use it fit in to the company culture while over-explaining what you mean.
Brown suggested that people in cliché-filled office cultures communicate with both the jargon term and by rephrasing it in a less jargony way.
“It’s redundant and takes longer, but it gets them competence by demonstrating that they know the jargon term, and also the warmth and comprehension by their audience understanding them and not being so alienated by the specific terms they’re using,” he said.