Language, Timothy. Language!

At the end of a conference call in November, one participant asked “So who is SPOCing on this one?” Ever the Star Trek fan, I thrilled to the opportunity of becoming a Vulcan; and almost volunteered. One of the others on the call clarified that this Spock was Single Point Of Contact. I kid you not!

So when exactly did we start feeling this overwhelming need for acronyms and needlessly fanciful terms for the routine, I wondered. I decided to be more vigilant during business conversations. The bulk of what I’d heard till then was normal, and considered commonplace once you’ve worked in Central Europe for a while.

English being a second language to most, certain terms have assumed some very specific meanings. Repeated use, without resorting to synonyms, has ensured messages have got across unambiguously. Intentions and expectations are clear and everyone is happy. Therefore “comment” means “feedback” or “opinion” or “point-of-view”. When you hear “revertal”, translate that into “reply” or “response” or “returned your call” or “came back to office”. When you’re after some “team building” what you’re really after is a “trip down to the bar with the team”, or “a GPS based navigation exercise somewhere in the woods”. However, some words and phrases have no other meanings, e.g. “screwed” means precisely that. You get the general idea.

This evolved, and like elsewhere in the world, I came across phrases borrowed from sports, with “step up to the plate”, “dropped the ball”, “kick-off”, and “hand-off” being quite common. The more fashionable referred to “acing it”, or “teeing off”, or “landing in the rough”, or “favourable winds”. I quite enjoyed working back from these phrases to guess a thing or two about the individual. I admit to adding my own phrases to the mix, all borrowed from cricket: “hit for six”, “play with a straight bat”, “twelfth man”, and “that was a googly”. Quizzical looks in response mostly, with a few deciding to ask what I was on about. All very harmless and enjoyable.

Soon enough there was a whole new vocabulary, and this wasn’t just for fun. You no longer met in a conference room, it was the “war room”. The pressure was not just on getting it right but “failure was not an option”. The time schedule stopped being merely important and became “mission critical”. When people lost jobs due to poor business results, it was “collateral damage”. You stopped asking for more people on the team and asked for “reinforcements” instead. All very impersonal, clinical, ruthless. All very impressive.

Should I be amused or alarmed, I wasn’t sure. I certainly didn’t understand why this shift was needed.

I make no judgment on the tonality or the underlying theme of this vocabulary. Far from it, my issue is a great deal more basic. I’m not sure why it’s needed in the first place. Is it to add a sense of importance to the routine? To elevate the seriousness of a business activity? To motivate the team? To be seen as an aggressive, result focused leader? Or is it just boredom with existing hyperbole?

I thought business today was challenging and tough enough without these embellishments. Indeed for each of the possible reasons I’ve considered above, there are potent alternatives within normal English. That’s a certainty. Again, then why? That’s not clear.

What is clear however, is that the people using all this new vocabulary at regular work genuinely feel and believe they are part of something incredibly important. I suppose that thought itself would be motivating and would coax a bit more energy and commitment from the team. Fair enough then.

However, I can’t help wondering what these people find more motivating: their regular responsibilities and tasks, or the words and phrases that add several layers of imaginary challenge to their regular responsibilities and tasks. I sincerely hope it’s the former and that this vocabulary is just a phase.

Meanwhile, I’ll wait till the vocabulary turns Beatles-esque. For then, I’ll hope for a revolution, in my life, eight days a week.

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