When Jean-Paul Sartre said "hell is other people," he probably didn't have white board meetings and 80 message long email threads in mind. Still, he touched on something that would stay relevant essentially forever. Sometimes, just sometimes, other people can be a pain.
Take, for example, working in an office.
Really, short of the Stanford Prison Experiment, there aren't many better environments precisely calibrated to drive people crazy. It's why the TV show The Office become such a global hit. Especially in an era when open office floor plans guarantee maximum coziness, there's something uniquely grating about spending most waking hours with a group of people you didn't select, rarely have anything in common with and probably don't really like. The fact that you can technically quit, at the cost of penury and homelessness, only twists the knife.
And then someone comes along with "a case of the Mondays."
Office phrases like that can be a useful shortcut for communicating ideas, but at their worst, they are an irritating tic used in place of actual ideas. They can fill up the day without actually contributing anything… and here, with help from American Express OPEN, are ten of the absolute worst.
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There are a number of ways that office phrases offend. Sometimes they simply irritate fellow coworkers, like swinging by a cubicle to chuckle "TGIF, amiright?" Those are harmless bits of small talk no worse than chatting about the weather at a cocktail party. They fill space on behalf of someone who wants to talk but doesn't know what to say.
Spare the person's feelings with a polite chuckle, and move on.
Office phrases become grating when they get in the way of communication, like "parking lot it." This is a fancy way of simply saying "let's not deal with this right now" without actually acknowledging that you don't know what to do.
Delays can certainly have their place in a meeting, but own that. Discuss what you need, or why you're putting off a certain problem. Otherwise, this just becomes a way to try and duck the issue couched in MBA-speak.
Unlike our parking lot problem, blue sky thinking actually means something useful. This phrase is a call to action for people to think big -- "blue sky's the limit" big. Fairly quickly that got chopped down into a manager's call for some blue sky thinking.
So what went wrong? Overuse.
Office jargon doesn't come out of nowhere. Like any other form of slang, it represents a culture and people use it (even if unconsciously) to take ownership of their own place in that culture. Management consultants encourage blue sky thinking in the same way that young Manhattanites will greet each other with "hey, fam."
Sooner or later, all slang wears out its welcome though, whether through obsolescence or overuse. The more managers exhort a reluctant team for big ideas, often which will never see fruition, the more people get tired of it. The only difference is, you can't laugh at your boss for using outdated catch phrases.
Jargon didn't and doesn't come out of nowhere. In fact, according to research by The Atlantic, it has been around for well over 100 years as management experts, writers and consultants worked to create a new culture of professionalism in business.
And each new catch phrase starts somewhere. Take, for example, synergy, which has its origins in Protestant theology and the intersection between free will and divine grace. Or consider shifting the paradigm, which started as a way of discussing scientific advancement.
Or siloed thinking and its agrarian roots that conjure up images of tall, dark, narrow grain stores and the people trying not to keep their careers bottled up in there.
One of our favorite clips from The Office involves temp turned executive turned felon turned temp Ryan Howard discussing his accomplishments:
"Look, at the end of the day, apples to apples, flying at 30,000 feet, this is a paper company. And I don't want to get lost in the weeds or caught up in a beauty contest. Convergence. Viral marketing. We're going guerrilla. We're taking it to the street while keeping an eye on The Street: Wall Street. I don't want to reinvent the wheel here. In other words, it is what it is. Buying paper just became fun."
We could have done a whole article off that rant alone, but lost in the weeds? That favorite, ambiguous saying that could mean anything from stuck in details to just super busy? It had to show up.
This is another example of jargon that pretends to communicate while actually saying nothing.
Datafication (and the accompanying verb "to dataficate") means to scrub up your analysis with numbers. For example, you could "dataficate" today's lunch order with information on prices and distance to local restaurants. You can dataficate the trip home with train schedules and traffic times.
You can, but should you?
Datafication isn't just about making a conversation less informative than it could be. It also can create real work that nobody should do.
Sometimes a problem doesn't need more data; it just needs people to make a decision. More information might, in fact, only serve to cloud and confuse an issue when the real problem is that someone needs to make a tough decision with few (if any) good options. When that happens, datafication serves one purpose: it lets you sound smart while ducking responsibility.
Speaking of sounding smart, this one is an old favorite both in the office and out.
Devil's advocate raises an important point about office jargon. The truly annoying phrases are the ones that actually have a kernel of usefulness to them. They don't die, because deep down they say something a little bit useful, just enough so to survive. Then they get worn down and bled of any value over countless meetings and agile strategy sessions.
This is one of those circumstances.
It is sometimes incredibly valuable to play devil's advocate. Doing so lets you test an idea for weaknesses and contribute to making solutions stronger and better. Still, the more common use of "let me play devil's advocate" is when someone doesn't have any particular ideas, he just wants to sound smart by chucking problems up against the wall for somebody else to solve.
It helps no one.
There is nothing less like a SWAT Team than a group of bored people, wearing short sleeved, button down shirts, sitting around a conference room waiting to go home.
The origin of this term wasn't crazy. What it communicates is, actually, fairly useful. If your business has a crisis, it's helpful to assemble a group of specialists who act quickly and bring to bear their collective expertise. The problem here is with hyperbole. There had to be a better way of saying this than with an over the top, action hero phrase that makes everyone think "our boss really wishes he was in 'Die Hard' right now."
Did we need a new term for brainstorming? No.
Does saying "idea shower" or "thought shower" add anything to the term "brainstorm"? No.
Did anyone ask for a new term for "brainstorm"? Astonishingly, yes.
It turns out that "thought shower" has caught on out of concerns that "brainstorming" might be offensive to people who suffer from mental illness and epilepsy. They might, the thinking goes, consider the image of a brain storm mocking.
So the kinder and gentler "idea shower" caught on.
"Offlining" isn't annoying on its own so much as for the culture it represents.
When someone suggests that we all offline this, they mean take it from email or Trello and into the real world. They're making the radical suggestion that people sit down face to face and try to get something done. That's not a bad idea, per se, but here are two problems with it:
First, can anyone come up with a more smug, self-impressed way of saying that? "Let's meet." "How about a call?" "Do you have 15 minutes right now?" All of these and more are better options than "let's offline this" or "let's take this offline."
Second, we live in a world where people have a specific phrase for the extraordinary act of not staring at Outlook all day. Truly this may be the darkest timeline.
Flying at 30,000 feet is truly grating.
Like many other items on this list, the biggest problem with this phrase is that it's just a fancy way of saying something simple. It means to look at the big picture.
That's it. There's nothing technical or sophisticated expressed here, no shorthand for something that might take a little while to explain all over again every time, and that's a shame.
Because that's what office jargon should do.
There is a place for office jargon. The right phrases can ease communication by building a language out of shared experiences and expertise. For example, you could go into details about someone's hiring process, or you could simply "onboard" them. That kind of speaking saves time and creates a culture by letting people speak to each other as members of the same club.
The worst office phrases do the opposite of that. They fill space without communication and alienate coworkers as people try to show off how smart and professional they are. Those are the mistakes. Try and avoid them.