What would Ed(win) do?

Renee James Contributor
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I miss newsman and linguist extraordinaire Edwin Newman.  He would have offered comfort and a witty rejoinder about the following:

In the past two days, I’ve come across the word “consigliore” twice, which is two too many times since I wasn’t watching nor reading The Godfather: once on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, when reporter Chuck “But yanno, Joe ” Todd used it, and once on a website.  I think the company was trying to indicate that they act as consultants for their clients.  Why they didn’t just write that is beyond me.  What Chuck was trying to communicate by using this underworld word remains a mystery.  Counselor?  Advisor?  [For another White House-related use of the word, see The West Wing, Season 2.]

A few weeks ago, a colleague suggested that we “calendar that out.”  I think that means, “schedule a meeting.”

I once received an email about a challenge someone faced about a particular issue, but the wording was odd.  Once I substituted the word “problem” for “challenge,” it made sense.  I wondered: Must everything be softened and codified to sound ceaselessly positive to our delicate ears?

Sometimes things just ain’t so positive.  Some things are just plain bad.  They’re not challenges; they’re not tests of our character or resolve.  They’re not undergoing a “paradigm shift” or reacting to the zeitgeist.  Sometimes things suck.

I miss Newman’s delightful aggravation when it came to nonsense-speak of any kind.  He would have enjoyed a BBC News magazine article titled “50 office-speak phrases you love to hate” that noted what’s wrong with business communication around the globe.  It may be called “office-speak,” but I’m certain some of this super-positive yet meaningless language has seeped into the everyday language of educators, laborers, technicians and other professionals who feel compelled to somehow cloak every possible situation or dilemma we face in a positive, empowering light.

Readers contributed words and phrases that they cannot manage to hear anymore; colorful, nauseating sentiments that should be banned immediately from all communication.  Many were made-up words that need never be spoken nor written again: “incentivize,” “conversate,” “auspiced” (as in “it was auspiced by…”), “actioning” and “disaggregated.”  Mind you, I have almost no idea what most of these mean and that’s really the point, right?  People who feel compelled to write and speak this way have little or no idea what they’re talking about but that’s irrelevant.  They count on the fact that if they sprinkle their communication with enough words like these, we’ll believe they know something we don’t.

Most office-speak words and phrases are just this side of excruciating.  Expressions like “not enough bandwidth for that,” which people exclaim in an exasperated manner instead of saying “Wow, I’m really busy” or “We truly need more help!” Or “Let’s touch base offline about that.”  I may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure people used to make the same request by saying: “Let’s talk about that privately.”  “Loop back” replaces “contact,” as in “I’ll loop back with you about that.”  Or this clever concept:  “…in this space.”  The BBC example read: “How can I help in this space?”  What space?  You mean now?  Or in this exact place?  What’s wrong with “How can I help?”

Among the many amusing entries, I found one phrase clearly destined for the office-speak Hall of Fame: “strategic staircase.”  (This may relate to something called “brand architecture.”)  Do you love it?  I can’t wait to hear people fall all over themselves to use it in a meeting.  “We’re closing out the decade, and we need to climb a strategic staircase as we futurecast our company.”

I know everyone worries about the deteriorating communication skills among some young people today, with things like “BRB” and “gr8” invading our language.  But we should be much more concerned about the deteriorating communication skills among certain adults.  Office-speak, and the wounded language it leaves in its wake, looms large.  There is simply no other way to explain a group of educated people who gather for a meeting or a conference call and toss around the following words and phrases with absolutely no shame: “right-sized,” “discussion memo,” “the ask,” (a.k.a. “the request”), “learnings,” or what I like to call: “results,” “brand essence,” “brand DNA,” “strategic DNA,” “corporate DNA,” “drilling down,” “cascading down,” “the view from 30,000 feet” and “siloed metrics.”

Maybe it’s me.  Maybe I’ve missed the positioning of the multiple touch points that are baked into the sweet spot and serve as the predictors that will translate into buzz.  But hey; I’m a netizen of the world. My door is open on this.

Renee James writes social commentary and keeps track of the things that mystify her on her blog: It’s not me, it’s you, found atreneeaj.blogspot.com. Her email address is raaj3@msn.com.