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Nobody's Perfect Bullshit-Bingo für Fortgeschrittene

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Bei vielen Geschäftstreffen verbläst die Phrasenmaschine schon nach Minuten nichts als heiße Luft. Über Fachjargon und Wortnebel ärgert sich Ian McMaster, Chefredakteur des Sprachmagazins "Business Spotlight" - and now let's switch to English.

I have decided, going forward, to push the envelope. I'll be getting my ducks in a row, discussing cutting-edge synergies, and doing some blue-sky thinking. And I'll be giving you a heads-up on my new role as a rainmaker, as I attempt to increase our bandwidth.

Alles klar? I hope not. Because if this way of talking about business seems normal to you, then, quite frankly, you have a problem.

OK, that's a bit unfair. After all, many areas of work - and life more generally - have their own jargon (pronounced "JAR-gon"), which the Oxford Dictionary of English defines as "special words or expressions used by a particular profession or group that are difficult for others to understand".

The jargon of economists, for example, includes various bits of Latin, such as ceteris paribus ("all other things being equal"). Journalists talk about putting newspapers and magazines "to bed", meaning to finish work on them and send them off to be printed. Doctors, IT specialists, engineers and marketing experts all have their own jargon, too. And in many languages, jargon often includes terms borrowed from English.

At its best, jargon is simply a form of shorthand that enables particular groups (known as "discourse communities") to communicate efficiently. As long as everyone knows what is meant by these special terms, what is the problem?

In principle, none. But problems do arise when speakers use terms without really knowing what they mean, or without thinking whether their listeners will understand them.

"Rebalancing", "optimizing", "rightsizing": Jobs will be cut

Let's go back to basics for a minute. When we communicate - and, particularly, internationally and across cultures - we should always try to achieve two goals:

  • First, the listener(s) should understand what we are saying. This means using clear language.
  • Second, the listener(s) should know why we are saying what we are saying. This means being explicit about our intentions: Are we offering advice and support, giving instructions, or maybe disagreeing politely?

Listening to many politicians and business leaders, however, one can be forgiven for thinking that their aim is to make sure that we don't understand them. The world of management, in particular, seems full of terms that are designed to hide the real meaning. For example, "rebalancing", "optimizing", "restructuring", "downsizing", "rightsizing" or any term including the word "efficiency" all usually mean the same thing: jobs will be cut.

One of my favourite examples (linguistically, I mean) came a few years ago from a major international company that is headquartered in Germany. It announced a "comprehensive efficiency enhancement program" under the name "Global Excellence". At least the company had the decency to make clear that the result would be "a reduction of about 3,000 jobs worldwide". But the steps necessary to cut these jobs were described simply as "human resources measures".

Cutting through the bullshit - excuse my French, as we say in English - to understand what is being said is not easy. Indeed, it is often hard to tell whether the speaker really knows what he or she is saying, or is just trying to sound impressive by using lots of buzzwords.

And what does "synergy" mean? Jobs will be cut

Talking of bullshit, let's go back to my opening paragraph. Here it is again. Try to stay awake this time:

"I have decided, going forward, to push the envelope. I'll be getting my ducks in a row, discussing cutting-edge synergies, and doing some blue-sky thinking. And I'll be giving you a heads-up on my new role as a rainmaker as I attempt to increase our bandwidth."

What on earth was I talking about? Did I really want you to understand? Did I even know what I meant? Well, let's break the bullshit down into smaller parts:

  • Going forward: a very common business term nowadays. It means little (if anything) more than "in the future" or "starting from now".
  • Push the envelope: to innovate, to go beyond the normal limits or boundaries. Bizarre really, because an envelope (Briefumschlag) seems very old-fashioned.
  • Getting my ducks in a row: This just means "getting well organized". But the ducks create a more colourful picture, don't they?
  • Cutting-edge: the latest or most advanced stage in the development of something. In practice, it often means little more than "new".
  • Synergy: The idea that the combination of two items (firms, departments, etc.) will add up to more than the sum of their separate parts ("1+1=3"). Seen by many people as a synonym for cost-cutting and job losses.
  • Blue-sky thinking: thinking that is not constrained by the current realities. Often used to refer to a brainstorming process that puts no limits on the ideas that can be considered. The thinking can be as wide as a blue sky.
  • Giving you a heads-up: a North America term that has now become popular elsewhere in business. A heads-up is an advance warning.
  • Rainmaker: another term of North American origin meaning someone who brings new money into a company, either by organizing (brokering) big deals or finding investors or sponsors.
  • Bandwidth: originally a technical term to refer to a range of frequencies or the rate of data transfer. In business jargon, it means the resources available, for example, for a project.

There is an almost unlimited list of such terms in business and management. Some of them, like the ducks, are quite fun. Others, such as "heads-up", aren't really business terms at all but are now used frequently in business contexts. You can generate your own bullshit terms at this website.

The real problem, as in my example, comes when whole groups of such terms are used together. The result can best be described by that delightful English word "gobbledegook" (Kauderwelsch).

Bullshit Bingo might be a strategy

So, what should your strategy be with business partners and colleagues who speak like this? I have two suggestions: one silly and one serious.

The silly strategy is to play "bullshit bingo" in meetings or presentations. Beforehand, make a list of possible bullshit terms that could be used and tick them off as you hear people saying them. For an example, see here.

The serious strategy is to interrupt people and ask what they mean by a particular term. The same strategy can also be used for abbreviations, another common cause of confusion. Here are a few phrases you could use:

  • "What exactly does … mean?"
  • "What exactly do you mean by …?"
  • "When you say …, could you explain what you mean?"
  • "Could you tell us what you mean by … ."

Particularly for non-native speakers, it is essential to practise and use such interrupting and clarification strategies. And there's one thing you can be sure of: you won't be the only person who doesn't understand what is being said. So never be afraid to ask. To paraphrase Karl Marx, going forward, we have nothing to lose but our collective ignorance.

Ian McMaster ist Chefredakteur des Sprachmagazins "Business Spotlight", das alle zwei Monate erscheint. Er ist Brite, lebt seit 1989 in München und hat ein Vierteljahrhundert Erfahrung im Umgang mit Bewerbungen. McMaster ist ausgebildeter Lehrer für Wirtschafts-Englisch und Koautor des neuen Buches "Communicating Internationally in English".

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