Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Workplace jargon

So there I was in a meeting.

Seriously, I don't know why I do this to myself. Someone, and sadly I can't recall who, once said that the Roman Empire never had meetings, seminars and workplace discussion groups - they were successful because they just went out and got things done. Now, I assume they must have been referring to Rome's ability to build, create and inspire, rather than their expertise at industrialised slaughter (unmatched until the 20th century) - at least I hope they were. I kinda see their point though as, every once in a while, I feel that I really should attend a meeting, even though it means losing 3 hours of my life when I really could be doing something far more useful, and find out what's going on and how things can be improved...etc...trouble is I always leave meetings with an immense sense of dejection and annoyance. Why? Well, I can explain in two simple words:

Workplace jargon

Two words, easy to explain but far far less easy to deal with. I've previously discussed my love / hate relationship with 'double-speak' - the euphemism, misinformation and verbal camouflage deployed by officials, bureaucrats, civil servants, the military, managers and others (who evidently feel inferior to their fellow man / woman) in order to hide 'the truth' (or make it more palatable to the uninitiated). Trouble is, on the one hand, I can't help but admire double-speak (for its unabashed, naked affront), whilst I simultaneously despise it (for adding a layer of unnecessary complication to things that should be far simpler to comprehend).  

Anyway, there I was in a meeting. I knew it was going to be awkward from the start, for the chair (a person rather than an inanimate wooden object) was asked a difficult question and instantly reverted to the default setting of extreme jargon. The following examples are recorded 'as they were spoke': 

We need to maximise blue-sky thinking

I hear this one a lot, but am ultimately none the wiser - I think 'blue sky thinking' is supposed to relate to some form of creative process, but to me the words 'blue' and 'sky' when added to the word 'thinking' convey a deep sense of relaxation; perhaps lying on my back in thick grass staring up at a clear, blue summer sky and drifting slowly (and contentedly) off to sleep (preferably after a large and deeply satisfying lunch involving a vast quantity of cheese). This is, I'm guessing, not the meaning that practitioners of double-speak intend. Sleep can be remarkably creative, it is true, but I'm not sure that any of my dreams would be particularly useful in the workplace (as they usually end with me chasing a Disney cartoon character (generally Donald Duck) around a shopping centre with a baseball bat covered in trifle shouting "eat it you pathetic excuse for an animal" or some such). If they really want to harness the creative potential of sleep, however, then I'm more than happy to clear my desk, set out a blanket and doze for the larger part of the working day....suits me.

Thinking outside the box

I don't know about you, but I never think that I'm in a box to start with. The only time I ever feel particularly claustrophobic is, surprisingly enough, when I'm in the middle of a meeting (especially if it's held in a room with no natural light or air circulation). Under such circumstances I am more than happy to 'think outside the box' if that is taken to mean 'leave the meeting immediately, climb the nearest hill, lie down for a bit and engage in all that thinking about a blue sky).

Create the storyboard

Sorry, are we in the middle of a scripted scene? Is what we perceive to be reality in reality false? Are we, in fact, employed to write fiction in order to sustain this false reality? If so, for whom? About what? Will it have a beginning, middle and end? Will it be filled with mindless violence involving a trifle? Will there be cheese?

Joined-up thinking

You mean thinking...just thinking, plain and simple. Show me an employee who doesn't think and I'll show you a cat in trousers - in fact show me a hill to lie upon and I'll climb up there, lie down and think with the best of them.

Cover all points of the compass

Presumably as I attempt to find a suitable hill to lie down on?

Off the shelf

To be honest I don't get to take stuff off the shelves much - in fact what I need are more shelves to put things on. Anyone who has been to my office can testify that I although I am apparently in possession of a desk, three chairs a side table and 2 square metres of carpet (red, I think), all these items of furniture are liberally scattered (or deeply buried) in research work (current), research work (on hold), research work (abandoned because I can't find it under the other research work), student assignments (marked), student assignments (being marked), student assignments (double marked), student assignments (awaiting moderation), books (read), books (unread), books (awaiting to be returned to the library) and other general bits of paperwork requiring my urgent attention (going back to July of last year). Never mind all this talk of 'paperless offices', I need far more shelf space, or, failing that, more space (so that I can get halfway close to my existing shelves in order to see what is there before I even consider taking anything off them). 

Keep me in the loop

Why, don't you want to get out of the box (where, I presume, the loop is kept) so that you can climb a hill and think about blue skies? I know I do.

Singing from the same hymn sheet

Do people not sing from the same hymn sheet and, if they don't, surely that's tantamount to religious suicide (guaranteeing hasty removal from the church)? Given that I can't actually sing, I really have no intention of joining in anyway - I can mime quite well though, does that help?

Pushing the envelope

I've never 'pushed' an envelope before - is this a drug reference?

Academic under-pinning

Like a building? Why didn't anyone check to see what the geology was like before anything academic went up? Sounds like shoddy research to me.

Get our ducks in a row

Seriously? We have to arrange ducks now? Isn't this the responsibility of the head of water-based life form coordination? 

The helicopter view

Of the blue sky? Surely if you're in a helicopter, all you can see is the green grass / grey concrete below, the blue sky being something that you inhabit (thus ruining both the view and the thought processes of those lying on their backs on the hill below you).

The list goes on for another two pages, but my patience, sadly, does not and, in any case, I'm afraid that I'm already seven hours late for a meeting.... 


  1. At recent meetings myself and a few colleagues have attempted a few of our own "buzzwords" to see if they were appreciated by the management.

    They particularly liked our "take a few spins on the idea carousel" (thank you The Thick of It) and comments about freeing the data from the clouds of confusion to the blue sky thinking zone. We're clearly business naturals.

  2. Fantastic - good work! A friend of mine was recently perplexed by reference (at a meeting, where else?) to what was described as "third-eye visualisation". No explanation was apparently given for this, but to me it conjures up an image of somebody contemplating a cat's rectum...perhaps not the image intended...

  3. One time student, long time colleague (by vague association).

    My personal jargon hate is "we are where we are". REALLY? There was me thinking I was somewhere else. In fairness though, in these sorts of meetings, I often WISH I was somewhere else.

    "Thinking outside the box" is quite a dangerous one. Just think of the untold damage that could have occured to science IF Schlesinger's cat had thought outside of the box!


  4. Hi Andrew
    Hadn't heard "we are where we are" before, but it's so wonderfully defeatist I may well try and slip it in to the next interminable meeting (which, like you, are the only times that I wish I were not where I was). Thinking outside the box is ALWAYS dangerous, mind you, in a meeting only last week I was told I needed to 'Box clever' which confused me as it was never made clear whether the clever box was the one with me inside (thinking about being outside) or a reference to me having to fight a box (in a clever way)....

  5. ive worked in six university departments and trust me its getting far worse. I blame deans and programme managers who use jargon in order to hide the fact that they really don't know what they're doing. What you need at Bournemouth is a revolution. Storm the winter palace!