On the Scourge of ‘Office Speak’

by Megan Reynolds

Work is tiresome enough, and then there’s office speak. When transposed to the office, simple annoyances like your roommate eating a piece of cheese that belonged to you, or not filling up the Brita balloon into week-long campaigns of carefully executed passive aggression. It’s hard enough to tolerate your coworkers 40 hours out of the week, so why complicate it by perpetuating a vocabulary of empty phrases? It’s easy to create a false sense of comfort by lacing your daily speak at work with words that don’t make any sense at all.

The way we speak in offices now is a result of a movement to humanize the worker. Emma Green, writes about the history of office speak at The Atlantic and notes that the original reason for office speak was a shift in the thinking. Employees were no longer cogs in the machine, but individual human beings who excelled at work when they felt valued. By cloaking simple concepts in theoretical self-actualization, these phrases were meant to empower the employee and prime them for success.

I once worked with a chipper blonde girl who used to send emails that were thick with jargon-y buzzwords. “We really need this concept to be much more endemic to the program. I’m looking for a turnkey solution for this activation. Let’s circle back EOW and I’ll reach out and advise,” she’d write, and I would wrinkle nose at my computer screen, making it a point to respond using clean, plain, English.

“I’ll come up with a new idea for the event. I’ll let you know by Friday.”

The English language, for all of its quirks, functions well enough for a host of other scenarios. We break up with people we love in English, we talk about the Kimye wedding in English, we order bagels and buy toilet paper in English. There could very easily be separate vocabularies that exist for these different events, but we use the tools we have because they work. The scourge of office speak has been a thorn in my side ever since I started working, and there is no end in site. Here is a primer on some of the worst offenders.

All Hands/Town Hall Meeting: I understand the appeal of cultivating a soft and cuddly “we’re all in this together feeling during work hours, but I think that clarity is the missing piece of most office speak. Startup culture has bred an expectation of what company-wide meetings should be — wacky and inspiring, with a touch of the unexpected, like a group of train seals barking the Game of Thrones theme song while a Powerpoint slideshow rolls out key performance indexes. One company I worked for came close to that vision. The CEO hired a man on stilts off Craigslist, and had him unfurl a butcher-paper banner, detailing the company’s growth and direction. Aside from that, all other “all hands” meetings are usually dire affairs and serve primarily as the harbinger for massive layoffs or an attempt to bolster sagging company morale in the face of terrible press and general employee malaise.

Let’s take this offline: This is the verbal equivalent of yanking the keyboard out from under your hands as you type. It’s a clever way to tell someone you really just want to have a conversation with them in private, usually deployed in one of the many pointless meetings the workday is filled with. An offline conversation is a nice way to berate someone in the privacy of an office with a door about whatever shitty thing that happened in that meeting, or to talk shit about the person who said the stupid thing in the meeting you were just in.

Activation: You activate a machine, or the menthol feature in a Camel Crush cigarette. Fancy my surprise when I learned that activation was a fancy and entirely unnecessary term for an event, heavily sponsored by a benevolent benefactor paying lots of money for the opportunity to get a bunch of account executives and weird sales guys in seersucker blazers drunk in a tent at a music festival.

Please advise: I have an enduring fondness for this phrase because it is a study in the art of passive aggression. It’s the professionally acceptable way of calling someone out for not doing something you asked them to do, and for that purpose alone, it is brilliant. It’s rude, and feels grammatically incorrect, like a phrase my mother whose first language is not English, would use. What, precisely, am I meant to advise on? Tacking this phrase to the end of a strongly worded email regarding the lateness of an assignment is unnecessary, a sharp fingernail in the soft flesh above your elbow. “Why didn’t you do the thing I asked?” it hisses in your ear. “Tell me now, or we’ll have to take this offline.”

Megan Reynolds lives in New York.

Photo: David Wall