The new work speak flooding into offices is dripping with aggression


An insidious and highly contagious behaviour spreading through our workplaces is threatening to suck the soul out of every one of us: our incessant use of office jargon.

You are likely to have recently told a colleague you will “ping a report to them later”, asked them to “go for the low-hanging fruit” or suggested they “buy into a project” – evidence you have already been poisoned and de-souled by the rise of office blubbering. If you have some spare “bandwidth” (office speak for time in your day), then consider reading on. But be warned that you might find the unacceptable level of “analysis paralysis” (in other words, unnecessary analysis that leads to nowhere) rubbing your rhubarb up the wrong way.

Let’s be honest: commonly used and overused workplace phrases and jargon are not only highly annoying, they alienate others and mask the true meaning behind what we are trying to convey. The reasons for their use vary but most experts agree those who burble are out to amplify their own intelligence, fit in with others in our cubicle farms or cover up their incompetence.   

While we know that using jargon is wrong, we continue to drivel on – the blight of office speak shows no sign of easing. In fact, hundreds of new specimens pour into our workplaces each day. Look out for the boss who accuses you of “apple polishing” to get their own way (think flattery), a nasty colleague who tells you that you are “alcluistic” (completely clueless) and a supervisor who requests “a work spasm” (a period of intensive and productive work).

Do not be surprised if you hear a receptionist who regularly lies and blocks staff from seeing the boss as being described as “a deceptionist”, a meeting with your boss heralded as “over-the-shoulder-time”, a colleague describing working remotely as “homing” or someone asking for a HiPPO (the highest paid person’s opinion) on a problem.

If you happen to travel interstate or overseas with your boss on business, it is more than likely you will engage in a spot of “travel dazzling” (going out of your way to impress). And let’s hope you have never been accused of being a “cubicle vulture” (picking over and taking the best office stationery left over when a colleague quits).

If you have already heard any of these terms, chances are your office has been slurped into a whirlpool of the latest meaningless phrases and buzzwords. What is more concerning, though, is that as our workplaces make efforts to reduce spiralling levels of antagonistic behaviour, bullying and harassment, a tidal wave of new aggressive office speak is flooding in. 

That gusher is normalising existing hostile, combative and cringeworthy clichés such as “crushing it” and its varietals “smashing it” and “killing it” – all translated as praises for your efforts. If you still have some remaining bandwidth, read on.

Before you inadvertently jump on the aggressive conversation-crushing bandwagon, think carefully about the impact of others hearing bosses say “there is only one throat to choke” (the sole person responsible for a major blunder), a team is a “dysfunctional circular firing squad” (surely that one does not need explaining) or that you are a “decision sniper” (someone who remains quiet in a meeting until a decision is about to be made before firing off with a contrary view).

There is also “hand-grenade close”, “tree killer” and “throw the dolly out of the pram”. Those phrases, which all have their own unique meanings, are as subtle as a chainsaw massacre when it comes to forceful, aggressive or violent overtones. Excuse the jargon, but “going forward” aggressive animal-themed office speak will make its way into the workplace.

You will likely hear colleagues talking about “kicking the cat” (putting the blame on more junior staff), “kicking dead whales down the beach” (doing something unpleasant) or “rolling the tortoise” (adding new resources to make things move more quickly). While some are quick to laugh off aggressive work speak as simply a bit of fun, others believe such language embraces forceful, combative and unpardonable behaviours.   

Whatever your opinion, if you think using more office jargon will get you ahead in your job, think again. With more and more of us using cringeworthy clichés throughout the working day, not using them is a smart tactic to stand out for the right reasons. Or as an alternative, borrow some of the non-violent office speak from far-away countries to highlight your worldliness.

When you are engaged in activities that are totally pointless, you will stand out in a crowded cubicle space if you evoke the Dutch saying “that is like carrying water to the sea”. And if someone is making a difficult work task even more challenging, go Greek by saying “why are you going barefoot on those thorns”. 

At the very least, it is worth putting the use of office jargon on “your radar” and having a longish “thought shower” about it.

Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer at the Australian Institute of Management WA.