Confessions of a Recovering Corpspeaker
Welcome back friends. I’ve committed to publish 5 thought pieces in the 5 weeks leading up to the new year. That’s more writing than I’ve ever done.
But I’m 2 for 2 this week so I’m feeling, let’s say… optimistic.
Have a great week!
I have a confession to make. I am a corpspeaker.
I never set out to be. I grew up in a healthy household, bred on a diet of chicken soup and direct language. We spoke Russian, a tongue both efficient and clear. At University, I prided myself on not padding word counts with fluff. My answers to yes or no questions were yes or yep. Sometimes no. If I carried the corpspeak virus then, I was asymptomatic.
Then I moved to the US and started my first corporate job. The symptoms were minor, at first. A close the loop here, a let’s unpack that there. I was mostly working with other young people — an analyst class — all of us learning this foreign language at a frantic pace. As we learned, fluent speakers would drop into our lives, never not designing milestones or aligning stakeholders, teaching us their ways.
Oh, how we admired them. The Vice Presidents. The Managing Directors. Even the Senior Associates. Could it really be a coincidence that all of these walking bundles of success spoke in ways that are at once so abstruse and impressive?
Although textbooks claimed that correlation isn’t causation, we weren’t taking any chances. Our sentences got longer, our answers more convoluted. We added caveats to our answers and encouraged everyone to just zoom out for a minute. Some went overboard, sounding like malfunctioning R2D2s and had to dial it back when a rare no-nonsense executive would dare comment on the emperor’s new clothes — I have no idea what the hell you just said. But most of the time we got away with it.
Three years later, certificate in Undergraduate Corpspeak in hand, I was ready for a Masters program elsewhere. I moved from an investment fund to Uber, the taxi company (as my aunt called it).
There I realized that though corpspeak is a universal tongue, it has many dialects that are shaped by the industries within which they operate. The corpspeak of the Finance world is heavily influenced by two of its key driving forces: wealth and mathematics. Even putting aside the technical jargon, there was constant talk of value creation, leverage, accretion — terms which make you feel rich, and deltas, compounding, equilibriums — which make you feel like freaking Ramanujan incarnate.
The tech world has some of that too, to be sure, driven by the Great Tech Migration — millennials working in Finance realizing that Tech is the cool new playground and flocking to it. Although we still talked about the delta between metrics (god forbid we just call it the difference), my corpspeak education took on a whole new life.
Tech loves emulating the language of its parents: computing and gaming. I learned that we constantly needed root cause analysis, spoke of bandwidth, kept double-clicking on concepts, always looked for power users. If Finance’s corpspeak is designed to make you feel rich, Tech’s talk makes you feel hyper-efficient.
The focus on efficiency that’s at the heart of Tech started long before Silicon Valley came to dominate the capitalist zeitgeist. Indeed, manufacturing spoke of productivity, of capacity, of output and siloes, terms that feel so elementary, such General Corpspeak 101, that we forget they were originally used in a very specific context.
And just like the language of manufacturing seeped into every corporate domain in the last century, the language of Tech is playing that role today. As companies in every industry realize that the value of their enterprise is closely correlated to the number of times the term AI and Machine Learning show up in their pitch decks, they worship the form of tech, even if they absorb little of its content.
After some time in consumer Tech, I moved to Healthcare, where I work today. Like every other industry, Healthcare is learning to boost valuations and its sense of efficiency by borrowing an increasing portion of its vocabulary from Tech. But it also uses the language of the practice of medicine to talk about the business of healthcare.
In healthcare, we triage the acuity of our patients just as we triage the priority of customer service tickets. We offer a holistic approach to both care and product roadmaps. We contain the impact of software outages like it was a disease and talk about treating the causes, not just the symptoms of cultural discontent.
Even if you don’t work in Healthcare, this language probably sounds familiar because it spread beyond the boundaries of the industry. Like Tech corpspeak, it provides fertile ground for subconscious associations. Terms stolen from the practice of medicine like triage or holistic approach carry a subtext of fixing the world, and of the importance implied therein. And isn’t fixing the world what every startup is claiming to do now?
Throughout my corpspeak studies, I discovered there are many appealing sub-dialects that cross industry bounds. One example is war metaphors. These use the dangers of battle to give matters an existential aura, like what we’re talking about is our family’s very survival, not the font size of the “Buy Now” button. We speak of marketing campaigns and of destroying incumbents; we send new employees to onboard at bootcamps, provide air cover for the infrastructure team, and put boots on the ground. Uber famously had a War Room at its San Francisco HQ designated for only the highest level discussions, like whether tipping drivers should be allowed in the app.
I minored in other subspecialties too, like sports metaphors, which mostly involve balls being dropped or being moved forward or knocked out of parks, and kitchen-related ones (half-baked ideas, cooking with gas, etc).
After a decade in the corporate world, I can confidently say I’ve become a fluent corpspeaker. Sure, you could argue that the work culture encourages it but the culture also encourages Patagonia vests and I’ve so far resisted the temptation.
The truth is that from my first day in the business world, I deeply wanted to sound like my more senior counterparts. It’s a human feature, not a bug, I think, to want to emulate people we admire. But I was undiscerning in choosing what to pick up and what to leave behind, believing that if I just sounded like my managers, I’d deserve their title.
Most people who like making fun of corpspeak charge it’s speakers with pretending there’s meaning when there is none. I disagree. Speakers on corporate Zooms the world over generally do have meaning they want to convey. They just learned the unfortunate habit of passing it through the sieve of corpspeak, which slows down the transfer of meaning by adding empty words and reducing clarity.
I believe corpspeak is the logical conclusion of what began as a legitimate pursuit to use jargon to simplify things. Corporate jargon, when used right, becomes like medical or aeronautical jargon — a group of terms that accelerate the speed and efficiency of meaning transfer. After all, no one can deny it’s more efficient to say product roadmap instead of a prioritized list of things that we are planning for the product to be able to do alongside timelines for developing them. And metaphors, which are some of the best ways to communicating meaning, must continue to play an essential role in the workplace.
But when I listen to myself talk sometimes I think… do I have to sound this freaking corporate? Can I sound, somehow, more human?
So this is my attempt to come clean. I want to apologize to the many people throughout my career who had to listen to me sound like what a NASA control board would sound like if it could talk. And also to those who I’ve unwittingly influenced to take up the corpspeak lifestyle. It wasn’t right.
To atone, I publicly commit to simplifying my language at work. I commit to saying use instead of leverage, to avoid using action as a verb or ask as a noun, and to offer to send a follow-up email rather than to align async. There is a whole list I could make here, but corpspeak is like what that judge said about porn: I know when I see it.
It may sound strange but cutting back on corpspeak is scary. I have no doubt it will lead to more precise and efficient communication. But it also means I’ll need to develop the confidence to let my ideas and abilities stand on their own. Absent fancy-dress jargon, I need to be willing to sound stupid sometimes.
It took me a decade to admit to myself that sounding smart mattered to me. To find the courage to believe I bring enough to the table without it. To realize that a pinch of curiosity and a tablespoon of simplicity make for a delicious broth.
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In a deliciously Orwellian twist, the room was renamed the Peace Room during Uber’s reputation crisis
Excellent piece (and confession)! I'm guilty too. I defended "plain and direct language" for so long while working in a Ukrainian environment. But once I converted to English-speaking companies, I felt like I would not get the same amount of attention if I didn't use "leverage" or war metaphors like everybody else.
I'll fix myself and bring more "me" to the communication as I should've been doing for all these years. Thank you for this!