The Write Stuff
What’s Up with ‘Workspeak’?
By Alan Crawford,
Readers of this column are well aware of how its author detests jargon, but that is not to suggest that he is unaware of why other people like it. Its use flatters the user because it marks him or her as a member of a group — as an insider. There’s no one more pleased with themselves than Capitol Hill interns who go home in the fall speaking with casual familiarity of the “LAs” and “AAs” they got to know over the summer. They want others to think they know their way around Washington, and that’s OK. Once they actually do know their way around, they’ll get over it and talk like normal human beings again.
The novelist Katie Heaney, writing in The Cut, calls our attention to a fairly recent development in the use of expressions we learn in the workplace but — in this case — never use anywhere else. Heaney interviews the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, who traces this “workspeak” to the 1970s when business organizations decided they could boost earnings by showing more concern for “corporate culture.” Consultants taught business leaders to use buzzwords like “mission” and “vision,” which are words we would feel slightly foolish using in day-to-day conversation.
Parents don’t say, “Our mission is to get our kids into a good primary school.” We have “goals and plans and things we want to do,” Heaney readily concedes, but very few of us would describe any of these as a “mission.”
The danger here, Nunberg says, is that the use of these words — especially by managers we don’t like — breeds cynicism. Even worse, it breeds “institutionalized cynicism,” where we use these words believing them to be nonsense, but keep saying them anyway. This “allows us to play the game while at the same time telling ourselves that we’re not really submitting to the tyranny of workspeak, or its broader corporate messaging: We’re not like the other employees, we’re ironic employees.”
Maybe that’s a healthy response to the pressures we face in our work, but — here’s the point — it is deadly when we write that way. We undercut whatever point we want to make, boring readers with language they’ve heard so many times they could scream, and signaling that we don’t even believe a word of it — a buzzword of it — ourselves.
Annoying Word of the Month: Makers. You might not have heard this one unless you’re deeply involved in your local “arts community,” but you will soon. For now, “makers” is the way people who run farmers markets and other neighborhood events refer to artisans, whether they make soap, jam, macramé or black velvet portraits of sad clowns. Unfortunately this collective noun is catching on elsewhere.
A “global Maker Movement,” I read, “has become a powerful influence on education at all levels, workforce training and economic development — and it is a driving force in the development of consumer-oriented technologies and tools.” There are “Maker Faires” (note the cutesy Renaissance Festival spelling) that “are held in cities across the world.” At these events, community designers, innovators, engineers and entrepreneurs come together (they don’t quite say this yet) to change the world.
I bear no ill will to people who make their own furniture, grow heirloom tomatoes or start companies. I salute them. But I do despair over our culture’s preference for generic words over specific ones and for the abstract over the concrete.