Part 2 - Dishonesty
Business jargon is often used to hide something, whether it’s an outright lie or a little misdirection. The easiest way to spot this is to ask whether the information being offered by the cliché was needed. This is one of my go-to communication rules: if you’re feeling the need to offer descriptions no one has asked for, you’re probably not being honest. To quote a response to a denial in NBC’s The Good Place, “Okay, that’s really specific, and that makes me think you definitely did do that.” Or to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” If you think “I should say X so I don’t sound like Y,” examine why you think your statement will sound that way to begin with. Then change your words to be more precise, or else don’t say anything at all.
Oof. I know this is a brutal way to start off, but let me explain. I know exactly one person who regularly signs things this way who I think genuinely means “I want to express that I think warmly of you as a business partner or client.” Every other time I’ve seen this used, it has been at the end of an email whose content is far from kind. Kind Regards comes with the specter of the middle finger emoji that wasn’t attached hiding quietly in the background. Because of this stereotype, Amazon.com sells coffee mugs defining it with some, *ahem* colorful language.
If you want to sign off professionally, a good old fashioned “thanks” or “sincerely” will do just fine. If you can’t bring yourself to thank the person or express sincerity, it’s perfectly acceptable to sign your name and title, and leave it at that.
Gentle reminders are never given without a reason. No one starts a meeting or sends an email that says, “gentle reminder: the sky is blue.” Or “gentle reminder, water is wet.” Gentle reminders are a way to correct behavior without committing to saying, “you did something wrong.” The gentle at the beginning of the phrase may be your attempt to cushion the blow of a reprimand, but it can seem more condescending than comforting. This is especially true when the reminder is sent out to a large group of people, potentially exposing one person’s screw up to everyone else.
Everyone makes mistakes and needs correction sometimes, and that’s okay. If you need to offer constructive criticism, make it direct and specific. You don’t need to copy the entire office to remind Jeremy to stop microwaving his socks when his cubicle is too cold. Everyone knows who you’re talking about, and no one believes that a general gentle reminder is justified. It would be much more useful and professional to ask the culprit himself to keep his footwear on his feet.
Put a pin in it (and its friends: circle back and this discussion is really rich, but…)
Let’s be realistic. These are all business ways to say, “stop talking.”
Put a pin in it and circle back imply this should be addressed again at a later point. What’s more common is this shuts down conversation, and the topic is left in limbo indefinitely. If it’s a larger conversation you’re trying to end, this discussion is really rich, but… lets you tell a whole bunch of people at once that you’re moving on without pursuing it further.
These phrases don’t address the underlying issue, which might be necessary sometimes. If Jeremy has taken the company earnings report to piggyback onto why it’s so cold that he should be allowed to microwave his socks, it’s probably fair to tell him it’s not the time for that discussion. You don’t need to say “let’s put a pin in it” when what you mean is “shut up and put a space heater under your desk!” You’re better off being direct: “We’re not going to talk about that right now. If you have concerns, you can talk to me later.” But if your whole team is derailed talking about how cold the office is, consider whether this is an issue you need to address, rather than telling folks it’s time to move on.
I’ve given an example of a silly discussion, but in reality a lot of serious topics get shut down with let’s put a pin in that, let’s circle back, and this discussion is really rich, but—. If you don’t intend to revisit the topic, you need to be clear from the beginning. “That’s not what we’re talking about right now,” is a reasonable way to respond to someone derailing the conversation. “Hey everyone, let’s get back on track,” is a much better way to return a group to focus.
A word of caution—be sure you’re closing conversation for the right reasons. Not every tangent is unnecessary, and you don’t want to accidentally conceal a serious problem within your company that could become a liability later. You wouldn’t want it to look like you were trying to…
Keep something below the radar
Humans and the organizations we form are imperfect, and there will always be mistakes and conflicts. No one wants to go advertising these issues to the whole world, and that’s for a good reason. A problem, even one handled appropriately, can lead to a bad reputation. It’s no surprise that you want to keep some things below the radar.
Keeping something below the radar is inherently a little sneaky. It’s a reference to aircrafts avoiding detection in times of war by flying below the level of the radio waves meant to spot them. Planes don’t fly below the radar to make their routes quicker—they do it to either surveil or attack enemy targets without being caught. It’s an image of violence and uncertainty, and it offers no useful information to your team.
Rather than keeping things below the radar, speak directly about how these concerns should be handled. “We don’t want to publicize this, but if you’re asked a specific question, here is how you answer.” This not only cultivates trust, but it gives your staff a sense of ownership and security about how things should be handled.
Striving for excellence
The first problem with striving for excellence is that no one without a bad case of business-itis talks like this. Far from being clear, plain language, only one of the three words in this phrase is one that people use under normal conditions. (Realistically, if there were a way to make a preposition more pretentious, the person saying this probably would have.) All striving for excellence means is “trying hard to do a good job.”
This goes back to my rule about over-explanation being a sign of deceit. Putting aside the excessive pretension of the words, when a company says they’re striving for excellence, I imagine them saying the opposite. “We’re doing our best to be terrible.” No business is trying to be terrible, (at least, you hope), so why the need to say, “we’re trying really hard to be good?”
This isn’t the same as committed to excellence, which suggests that excellence is always expected and delivered. Striving for excellence comes off as a fancy way of saying “we try hard not to fail.” If you’re feeling the need to indicate that you’re striving for excellence, maybe don’t announce that you’re failing to achieve it, and focus your energy on whatever is keeping you from it.
One of my growing edges is that I’m too direct—I have had to work hard at softening the way I say things, because malicious or not, sometimes words hurt. The term growing edges—the things you do badly—is itself an attempt to soften an uncomfortable conversation. It suggests “here are things you could do even better” rather than “here’s why you suck.”
No one believes that growing edges means “things you could be even better at.” If the person were already good at the thing, you wouldn’t be having the conversation. Feedback should always be respectful and direct. Growing edges fails on both fronts—it’s disrespectful of the person’s ability to handle themselves professionally, and it doesn’t say what it means. So instead of saying “One of your growing edges is appropriate microwave usage,” just say “Microwaving your socks in the staff room is unhygienic. Please stop doing it.”
If you use these business clichés and euphemisms a lot, it’s probably because you don’t want to make waves—that is, cause conflict. Most people aren’t looking to start a fight, especially at work. We try to avoid even the suggestion of disagreement, as though, like Beetlejuice, the mere mention of it will make it appear in the room.
Make waves introduces the idea of conflict without saying the words. It’s usually used to say, “I don’t want to cause a conflict, so let’s maintain things as they are.” The desire not to make waves implies there is a conflict already—it’s just being covered up. It ignores the fact that conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Discussions and disagreements can help a team or company adapt and grow. Instead of trying not to make waves, face discussions head on.
Rightsize means “to make something fit its purpose,” but it’s often a euphemism for changes that the listener will not like. Rightsize sounds a lot better than “making cuts to staff/budget” but that’s often what it means. You never hear a CEO say, “We’re going to rightsize this department by hiring 50 new coders,” because hiring and expansion are generally seen as positives in the workplace. They don’t need a euphemism to disguise an expanding budget and healthy growth.
When you want to hide unpleasant news with euphemisms like rightsize, consider how you would feel in the place of your listener. Would you feel better about a layoff because your boss said they were rightsizing rather than downsizing? Or would you just feel insulted that they didn’t have the personal integrity or respect for their employees to say what they mean? It bears repeating as always: be polite, be direct, and be specific.
Some workplace jargon is dishonest, and some is nonsense, but what about the things that are just annoying? There are valid reasons to stop using those ones too. Look out for the third and final part of our series to find out why!
About the Author
Kate Callahan is a Marketing Specialist for WordRake. Before her passion for learning and writing led her to join the team in 2023, she worked in non-traditional education, content creation, and translation. She started her career by teaching ESL to elementary school students in Japan. You can follow her on Twitter @KateC_Writing or connect on LinkedIn.