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The Real World: Verbicide, Do You Remember When Paradigm Used to be a Very Cool Word?

Janine Waclawski
W. Warner Burke Associates, Inc.

Verbicide noun 1: deliberate distortion of the sense of a word (as in punning), 2: one who distorts the sense of a word.

Adams on Business Jargon

During a recent interview with the Harvard Communications Update, Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) was asked if "business jargon is now the greatest threat to the English Language." He responded as follows:

People don't bring that language home too much. You know, you come home and you're not really facilitating the diapers. For some reason people can turn it on and off...I think it's a surrogate for actually being confident. It probably took me 10 years of working in the corporate world before I realized that it wasn't just because I was inexperienced that I was confused, but it was because everybody's full of [it]. Soon I realized that I was bluffing, too. Everybody's bluffing. If you can say, `Well, we are going to do a paradigm here. We're looking at different models. We'll run a few simulations and put this together to see if we can get a consensus.' That sounds much better than, `I don't know'.

Of course, I beg to differ.

My Old School

This is a true story. When I was an undergraduate psychology major at SUNY Stony Brook I had my first exposure to the word paradigm. It was in my Psychology 101 textbook. In this case the term paradigm was being used to differentiate different families of theories in psychology (e.g., psychodynamic, developmental, cognitive, experimental, social and behavioral). At the time I thought it was a very cool and sufficiently psychological-sounding word. It made me feel good about the first semester's tuition that my parents had just shelled out. It also made me feel good about psychology as a field. Hey, I was only 16 years old and obviously easily impressed. Yes, for a kid from the middle class suburbs of good old Long Island the word paradigm just oozed erudition and had instant credibility. Little did I know that one day the very word I so adored as an excited and impressionable young freshman would make me entertain thoughts of committing acts of physical violence against its purveyor as an adult. Yes, too much of a good thing really can be harmful.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, what happened here? How can one go from loving a word to hating it? The answer my friends is verbicide, pure and simple. The overuse and flagrant misuse of the word paradigm by every would-be consultant, armchair psychologist, self-help guru, and a host of others has bastardized it and killed it dead.

You can call me a purist or an anachronistic stick-in-the-mud, but I have finally had my fill of trendy buzzwords and jargon. Specifically, I really detest the "Newspeak" that has crept into our language and in particular our profession with such elan. For example, can anyone tell me why we had to invent the term "value-added" when good old "contribution" has been around since the 14th century? Personally, I just find terms like "thought leadership" and "buy-in" repulsive. There—I said it. I refuse to beat around the bush on this topic. I really don't care who gets annoyed. If someone out there wants to defend the excessive use of non-words in our field, be my guest. I will do battle to the death!

I'm Just a Bill

Whew, I feel much better now that I have gotten that off my chest! But seriously, recent political events (i.e., Bill Clinton's impeachment by the Congress) have brought the issue of verbicide to the fore. In this case, the president was accused of parsing words and concepts to such an extent that it was unclear if one could agree on what is "is." In my opinion, parsing is just one way to commit verbicide. The excessive use of a word when applied out of context or in an inappropriate context as jargon or as a buzzword is another.

Perhaps it is because my mother was a high school English teacher who incessantly corrected my grammar and syntax (not that it did any good). Or perhaps it's because I just get easily irked. In any event, I really have a problem with buzzwords and jargon. I feel that our language is sufficiently complex to express what most mortals intend. Anyway, if it was good enough for Shakespeare it's good enough for me. However, I know that I am as guilty as (if not more so than) most people when it comes to using jargon. I have probably used more trendy catch phrases and coined more insipid acronyms in my short professional career as a consultant than most normal people ever even hear in a lifetime. But it doesn't mean I have to like it.

Given my admittedly dubious past in this area, you might be wondering why of all things I have decided to focus on jargon in this column. Well, recently I was working with a client at an off-site meeting who told me that she liked the training program we were conducting but there was "too much jargon" in it, which made the speakers and presentations difficult to follow at times. This gave me pause because I thought I was jargon-free. I guess I was under the impression that using jargon and psychobabble were bad habits that other people had, not me. Wrong. Despite all my moralizing and soapbox preaching to others about the evils of jargoning, I was doing the same thing. I was a hypocritical, sanctimonious, and holier-than-thou jargonnaut. Woe is me. Well, no more my friends—from this point forward I do solemnly swear to strike jargon and anything remotely resembling it from my vocabulary, so help me! However, before I do, I feel I must purge myself of these sinful and hateful words once and for all. Therefore this column represents my farewell to faux phrases and goodbye to business babble.

Brother, Can You Paradigm?

So, aside from my client's complaint about my overuse of jargon, why should professionals in this field care about this topic? What is the problem? As I see it, if the overuse of jargon and buzzwords eventually serves to erode and undermine the credibility of those who use it (and I believe it will), then we are in trouble. While occasionally peppering your sentences with a new phrase or two can demonstrate that your are in touch with the current theories, tools and techniques being used in your field, excessive jargon slinging produces the opposite effect. You sound ridiculous. Words like psychobabble, corpspeak, and managementese come to mind.

Further, I know I am not alone in thinking this. Books such as The Witch Doctors, Fad Surfing in the Board Room, Business Babble, and anything written by Scott Adams, all demonstrate that using jargon to excess has a deleterious effect on the credibility of consultants and psychologists alike. This brings me full circle to my paradigm parable: A little bit of jargon goes a long way. So, while paradigm used in its proper context (e.g., my Psychology 101 textbook) can enhance one's understanding of a concept and add subtleties of comprehension to a particular idea, its improper application in every conceivable context can produce the opposite effect.

For example, these days it's almost impossible to talk about innovation or creativity without someone using the term "paradigm shift" or even worse "thinking outside of the box." In fact, the word paradigm is so over applied that there have been several Dilbert cartoons dedicated solely to slamming it.

Similarly, have you ever heard something like the following uttered by one of your colleagues and wondered if they were serious?

In today's hyper competitive business environment, the ability to mine and leverage knowledge effectively will become a major source of competitive advantage in many businesses.

This roughly translates to thinking is good for business. So, for all of these reasons, I am concerned. However, before I get to the usual e-mail Q&A, I want to present you with the following thoughts about the perils of jargon.

1984 Revisited: From Thought Police to Thought Leaders

By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they'll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be. The climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now (Orwell, 1984, p. 47).

Was Orwell talking about Cliff's Notes? I think not.

Like most people, I first came across 1984 when I was in high school and to this day it still remains one of my favorites. Among other things the concept of Newspeak really fascinated me. The idea that one day soon we would be monitored by Big Brother and the Thought Police, who would watch our every move and dictate what we thought and how we expressed ourselves, intrigued and horrified me. I was horrified for the most part because I thought the book was already somewhat close to reality or at least had the potential to be. Call me a paranoid freak but the book rang true for me and obviously for many others.

In the ramifications of Party doctrine she had not the faintest interest. Whenever he began to talk of the principles of Ingsoc, double think, the mutability of the past and the denial of objective reality, and to use Newspeak words, she became bored and confused and said that she never paid any attention to that kind of thing. One knew that it was all rubbish, so why let oneself be worried by it? (Orwel, 1984, p. 129)

So, while many may dismiss the use of jargon as an unimportant issue, it may be wise to consider its potentially insidious effects on our language and our field. Perhaps we should be concerned. After all, what you don't know can hurt you. Therefore with all these potentially pernicious effects of jargon firmly in mind, I asked several I-O practitioners the following questions:

(1) Do you think we use too much jargon in our field? Please explain.

(2) Do you think the use of jargon has any effect on the credibility of the person using it (either positive or negative) and/or on our field as a whole? If so, how?

(3) What are some of the buzzwords or jargon that you have heard lately that you either like or dislike, and why?

(4) What if anything should we do about the use of jargon in the field?

***

 

 

Subj: Re: Comments for TIP

Date: 1/20/99 4:40:53 PM EST

From: jmichela@watarts.uwaterloo.ca (John Michela)

To: J9151@aol.com 

I don't know if this is what you were looking for, but anyway...your use of "paradigm" as potential jargon in your inquiry reminded me of this experience. I was speaking with a client about the possibility that employees in his organization might perform more effectively if they looked at things in a different way. I said, tentatively and trying to signal that I realized I was in the danger zone for jargon, that we could refer to a way of looking at things as a paradigm. Whereupon he reached his hand to the middle of the conference table at which we were sitting, and he slid a pair of dimes lying there in my direction. To this day I'm not sure whether I did myself more good by signaling jargon-awareness, or more harm by using the term at all. He did, however, agree to the consultation that we were then considering.

John L. Michela

Department of Psychology

University of Waterloo

***

Subj: Re: Comments for TIP

Date: 1/22/99 200 PM EST

From: DeanStam@aol.com 

To: J9151@aol.com 

Hi Janine,

I shared your questions with my office colleagues and we took a group approach to the task.

(1) As a general rule, our firm (Sperduto & Associates, Inc.) makes a practice of avoiding management jargon. There are two reasons we frown on the use of catch phrases/buzzwords. First, we believe there are enduring fundamentals and processes in areas like leadership and that these fundamentals do not change every couple of years the way catch phrases/buzzwords do. Second, we feel that it makes communication between people less effective. In particular, often people ascribe different meanings to terms like paradigm. Sometimes these differences in meaning are subtle and hard to distinguish but at other times they can be quite divergent. This lack of shared meaning can lead to miscommunication. As an aside, regarding the word paradigm I have heard people pronounce it "paradine" with an "n" at the end. This really makes me wonder if they think it means the same thing I do.

(2) Jargon can definitely have a negative impact on the credibility of the person using it. This is especially true when you are dealing with "people who count." This would mean with colleagues and clients who are knowledgeable about the field and may have an aversion to trendy terms. For example, one of the most effective and intelligent leaders with whom I have worked hated "big words." This was not because he had a limited vocabulary—quite the contrary—but because he felt that people often hid behind ostentatious words. He believed that they used "big words" to mask the fact that they weren't as knowledgeable as they pretended to be. His philosophy was that simple, clear language was best. Again, his objection was that lofty phrases got in the way of clear communication between people.

(3) In our group discussion, we remarked on several trends that may explain why certain terms or phrases may become buzzwords. The first is what we call turning nouns into verbs. Examples of this would be coining new terms like "teaming," "incenting," and "visioning." These seem to be somewhat common. Another trend is the use of euphemisms in place of direct and sometimes negative terms. For example, terms like "rightsizing" and "areas for development" are used in place of layoffs and weaknesses. We also agreed that certain types of people might be more likely to use or hide behind jargon—for example, "people pleasers" sometimes use this type of language to gain influence over or control of a situation.

(4) I think we need to be careful here. First, we should make a distinction between jargon and catch phrases and buzzwords. In many fields (e.g., medicine, chemistry, physics, and even psychology) jargon is really just technical language and as such is completely appropriate. As one of my graduate school buddies once said to me "All graduate school is, is learning another language." Of course this is an oversimplification but in part it is true. It is probably useful to make a distinction between jargon (which can be described as the lexicon of a particular field) and catch phrases and buzzwords which are more generic and less technical terms. Second, we need to be careful in how we apply jargon. For example, I'm sure we have all heard people misuse clinical terms like "psychotic" and "assertive" which have very specific meanings. Using these terms inappropriately can eventually lead to a distortion of their meaning. All in all, we need to be careful about the words we choose and how we apply them.

 

Dean Stamoulis
and the Management Consultants
at Sperduto & Associates, Inc.

***

In sum, it seems that there is some potential for jargon to be harmful to those who use it. First, it can jeopardize one's credibility with others. Second, and more importantly, it can hinder clear communication between people. Third, it can pose an even more serious danger in the long term. Specifically, one of Orwell's concerns was that eventually the use of "Newspeak" would lead to the inability of people to think critically about the world around them. Obviously, this would be a bad thing. Probably the best strategy is to avoid it altogether. Of course, this is easier said than done.

If I Didn't Loathe You I'd Hate You

By now you probably have at least a general idea about the kind of jargon am I talking about. However, since I am short on subtlety and can't control my mischievous impulses I have put together a brief list of some of the buzzwords and catch phrases that I find to be the most problematic and overused. These are my personal favorites that I love to hate.

Anything + capital Intellectual capital, knowledge capital

Leverage + anything Leverage knowledge capital

Anything + leadership Thought leadership, loyalty-based leadership

Anything + points Talking points, texture points

Energy around + anything Create some energy around thought leadership

Grow + anything Grow the business, grow our employees

Anything + services Professional services, portfolio of services

Process + anything Process check, process map,

Paradigm + anything Paradigm shift

Value + anything Value added, value based, value equity

Anything + driven Market driven, customer driven

Anything + solutions Business solutions, real estate solutions

To my way of thinking, these phrases are unnecessary. There are many suitable alternatives that are less trendy and therefore less likely eventually to become outmoded.

Real stuff from Fortune magazine:

I also want to share a few more of my recent findings with you. While poking through a recent issue of Fortune magazine, I began to notice a disturbing trend among their corporate sponsors. It seemed to me that many of the advertisements used an overabundance of vaunted phrases designed to make their company and its products and services sound a lot loftier and more impressive than normal. As Dean and colleagues said in their response, part of today's jargon is the use of euphemisms. Some of the more amusing ones I have seen lately are listed below. My question is, do these advertisements really make the organization they represent sound more or less appealing? You be the judge.

What the ad said

What it means
We… We…
"offer advanced calling services" are a phone company
"are a leader in container transportation and logistics services" organize and move stuff
"manage your network resources for competitive advantage" help you with computer stuff
"are a global, real-time, event-driven enterprise" do stuff around the world
"offer expertise in loss mitigation and avoidance" do stuff around the world
"offer comprehensive data warehouse strategies" tell you how to file stuff
"offer mailing systems" mail stuff
"have global multi-modal capabilities" do stuff around the world
"offer global delivery services" mail stuff around the world
"are a fully integrated beverage company" make beer and soda
"offer global leadership in capital raising, asset-based lending, cash management, risk management and foreign exchange" are a bank

Surf's Up!

Recently, a colleague of mine handed me a copy of Fad Surfing in the Boardroom by Eileen Shapiro, a former McKinsey consultant and Harvard MBA. Basically, Shapiro devotes most of the book to talking about our society's quest for instant answers to complex organizational dilemmas. Further, she argues that many companies engage in "fad surfing—the practice of riding the crest of the latest management panacea and the paddling out again just in time to ride the next one; always absorbing for managers and lucrative for consultants; frequently disastrous for organizations." The latter portion of the book contains a dictionary for would-be fad surfers to use to get up to speed on the latest business lingo. I have excerpted some of the more humorous examples for your reading pleasure from The Expanded Fad Surfer's Dictionary of Business Basics:

Accountability: A characteristic of which everyone else in the organization needs far more. Not to be confused with authority, which is what I need more of.

Benchmarking: The basis for great jobs in which the incumbents have no substantive responsibilities other than to gallivant around the world, meet all sorts of interesting people, make occasional proclamations about all the neat things other companies do, and submit appropriately lavish expense reports.

Continuous improvement: A label that provides dignity to the repeated efforts of an organization to get it right.

Groupware decision processes: A system that enables 20 or more people who don't have a clue about what's going on to respond electronically to situations in the belief that this collective lack of knowledge, when aggregated and presented in multicolor graphs, will represent wisdom.

Horizontal career path: New name for the occupational breakdown lane.

Process check: Politically correct way of saying "shut up" and otherwise retaining the power to control the agenda of a working group; related to a hockey check.

Statistically significant sample: Four people in a focus group, especially when three of the four express the point of view espoused by the CEO.

Trust-Based leadership: How I can get you to believe in me long enough for me to build trust funds for my children and grandchildren.

Babble On

Another interesting book I came across in my research (if you can call it that) was Business Babble: A Cynic's Dictionary of Corporate Jargon by David Olive (1990). This book provides many serious and some tongue-in- cheek definitions of popular business jargon. Although the author does not wax philosophic on the cause and effect of jargon in our culture, he does nevertheless provide some pretty clever interpretations.

Bottom line: The figure representing hope minus reality.

Census reduction: Mass layoffs, an effort to fire as many people as possible.

Compusavant: A person of prodigious mathematical ability, whose talents and personality invite comparison to a pocket calculator.

Environmental audit: How many trees did we kill today?

Leverage: The act of borrowing five cents to purchase control of something worth one dollar in the expectation of locating someone with five dollars to unload it upon.

Opportunity for learning: The bright side of a mistake.

Paradigm shift: Term used by the CEO to tell his entire army that it is out of step, now that he hears a different drummer.

Restructuring: An attempt at self-redemption, in which everyone and everything is moved up, down or sideways, and then given a new name to see if the firm works better that way.

Safety-Related occurrence: An accident in the workplace.

Strategic planning: Planning undertaken with care and deliberation, as opposed to normal planning.

Vision: An idea in black tie.

SIOPisms

Before I go I have a bit of house cleaning to take care of. For some time now I have been working on some jargon of my own that is used to describe some of the behaviors and situations one may find themselves in at the annual SIOP conference. These were developed with a little help from some friends and colleagues at last year's SIOP social hour. If you find yourself experiencing any of the following phenomena in Atlanta, give me a holler!

Session obsession: The obsessive and often compulsive act of asking everyone with whom you come in contact, "What sessions are you going to?" and the subsequent need to justify any selections you have made that are different from those of others. Similar to the "What's your major" phenomenon that one experiences at all college parties.

Poster sprinting: The frenzied act of madly rushing into the beginning of a poster session to grab up all the available papers in which you are interested before they disappear. Not to be confused with the SIOP 5K Road Race.

Card dropping: The frenzied act of dropping business cards at every poster station where papers were unavailable in the hope that you will receive a copy of the paper in the mail before next year's conference.

Craning: A behavioral tic that occurs during conversations at the annual conference. Characterized by excessive 180_degree head turning and room scanning; usually to see if there is anyone more important to whom you need talk than the person with whom you're currently talking.

SIOP neck: A sore neck that results from craning.

SIOParanoia: A state of anxiety created by the excessive interpersonal stimuli that one is bombarded with at the annual conference. Characterized by feelings of dread regarding perceived interpersonal blunders (e.g., no one likes me, no one knows me, my career is ruined, why did I drink so much at the social hour?).

SIOP funk: The fugue like state one experiences after spending 2 or 3 days at the annual SIOP conference. This is heightened at venues with limited access to the outside world (e.g., Opryland Hotel, Disney World), and is often a side effect of SIOParanoia.

SIOP truancy: The act of skipping out on the Saturday afternoon sessions to do some shopping and/or sightseeing. Considered a minor felony. Can lead to SIOParanoia and SIOPerjury—that is, the act of lying to others about what you did on Saturday afternoon.

SIOP nostalgia: The annual occurrence of reminiscing about and sentimentally glorifying the "good times" one has had at past conferences while simultaneously ignoring all the SIOParanoia and other mishaps that occurred.

SIOPost traumatic stress syndrome: The state of complete emotional, mental and physical exhaustion one experiences directly following the annual conference. Symptoms include impeded verbal ability, extreme fatigue, and, in its most severe cases, a comatose or semi-vegetative state.

I hope this edition of The Real World has done more good than harm by raising awareness of an issue I feel is important. If not, then please excuse my presumption and accept my (and Shakespeare's) humble apologies.

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream


As ever, I would like to thank my contributors John Michela, and Dean Stamoulis and friends. Thanks to Allan Church for his feedback and to Seth Berr for lending me his copy of Fad Surfers. Please feel free to contact me either by e-mail at J9151@aol.com  or at W. Warner Burke Associates, Inc., 201 Wolfs Lane, Pelham, NY 10803 (914) 738_0080 (tel.), (914) 738_1059 (fax).

References

Adams, S. (1996). The Dilbert principle. New York, NY: Harper Business.

Harvard Communication Update, January 1999 www.hbsp.harvard.edu/ideasatwork/adams.html

Micklethwait, J., & Wooldridge, A. (1996). The witch doctors: Making sense of the management gurus. New York: Times Business.

Olive, D. (1991) Business babble: a cynic's dictionary of corporate jargon, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Orwell, G. (1949) 1984, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

Shapiro, E. C. (1995) Fad surfing in the boardroom, Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.


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