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On-the-job jargon

Evolution of language a part of modern life

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If you're like me, you've experienced occasions when an unusual thought jumps into your mind, yet you don't know where it came from. Sometimes the thought is related to a forgotten task, while others are memories of times gone by. That's what's happened to me. For some reason, a thought popped into my mind that reminded me of some of the communication challenges I experienced early in my professional consulting career.

For instance, one of my first newly won assignments caused a huge personal shock. That's because just as I concluded my meeting with the client, he slapped his hand on the coffee table and said, "Well, now we can go to bed together!" No kidding! Frankly, I don't recall what I said in return but I do remember blushing to the brightest of red colours. Fearing an undesired future fate, I then quickly called a male colleague asking for help. Of course, my colleague belted out a hearty laugh and told me the client was simply confirming we could do business together. Yet, how was I supposed to have known that?

Such was the language of a male-dominated business world! This experience was so unsettling, I began collecting the various words and phrases I found disturbing and/or just a little off the mark.


I stopped collecting when I reached over 200 on my list. I was shocked with how many business terms were so related to sports, especially football and baseball.

As well, many phrases were very sexist and personally offensive. In my view, it seemed these phrases were at distinct odds with the growing number of women and newcomers in our workplaces.

I'm pleased to see time has brought about the removal of much of the sexist language from the workplace. Change has also been seen in other business language practices. For instance, at one time, writers were known to use the highest level of vocabulary possible when responding to letters and/or inquiries. While this effort at sophistication might have made the writer feel smarter, readers, on the other hand, failed to understand and of course, miscommunication resulted.

Thankfully, society and organizations in particular seem to have paid heed to the early critics of our language. These individuals rallied for years against what they saw as pompous and over-elaborate writing in documents and correspondence. This has led to the growing trend of "plain language" in the workplace. Plain-language writing means individuals must make an effort to focus on clarity and brevity and avoid technical language their readers would not understand.

However, language corruption continues today. For instance, many workers think it is "cool' to engage in what is called "business-speak." In other words, they pepper their language with the most popular buzzwords and other gobbledygook jargon. They think they sound intelligent and/or at the very least, up to date with the latest trends. The one word that drives me crazy is "ubiquitous." The word sounds great but do you know what it means? Why can't the speaker simply refer to their topic as being present everywhere?

On the other hand, workers also have a habit of sprinkling their conversations with the most popular business abbreviations. For instance, a subject matter expert is simply an SME, business-to-business marketing and/or sales is known as B2B. We refer to business objectives as the MBO and performance indicators as KPI or KRA. The use of abbreviations has also become a marketing trend, so now many corporations have been quickly joining in. For instance, everyone is familiar with KFC, IKEA, 3M, DHL, Kmart and of course LBG (Legacy Bowes Group).

At the same time, our vocabulary itself keeps changing and growing. Just think of all the new words and phrases developed over the past 10 to 15 years. In "human resource-speak," business leaders now use terms such as blended work teams, distributed workforce, flextime, hoteling, job sharing, mobile workers, telecommute and thought leader. Every day and every newly authored book seems to bring a new word and/or create a new, timely phrase that quickly becomes the latest buzzword in the profession.

But there are also some quite profound general changes with respect to how we communicate. For instance, instead of using the telephone, people are simply texting more and more of their messages both between family and friends as well as for work. This appears to have increased the use of abbreviations and Internet slang that represents entire phrases and messages. For instance, the abbreviation EDM stands for end of message. The abbreviation IAM stands for I am in a meeting, while OTP means an individual is on the phone and WAH means working at home.

So if someone sent you a text and asked to meet for an NWR discussion, what would you think? Well, if you weren't in the know, then you wouldn't realize the caller wished to have a conversation about something not related to work. With all of these acronyms and abbreviations springing up in our home and work language, many folks will need to start carrying a pocket dictionary!

It's sometimes suggested people use jargon, abbreviations and acronyms as a means of excluding others and sending a signal the individual is part of a so-called inner circle. However, I frankly don't think this is any longer the case. Instead, I believe people are sincerely busy and are using these language abbreviations because they are in a rush. Texting a brief message knowing it doesn't require a long answer is convenient and quick. Quick is where it's at these days. In fact, I refer to today's work and home environment as the "microwave world." Everyone wants everything instantly.

Changing language and communication habits by both individuals and businesses has also had an impact on organizations themselves. In particular, organizations are challenged to stay current with their HR policy manuals. Entire new policy sections on managing social media in the workplace have been added in order to accommodate the new realities of employee behaviour. Policies related to employee texting, tweeting and using Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram during work hours are now commonplace. And who hasn't read a news report regarding an employee who's lost his job owing to inappropriate "cyber-gripe" or Instagram photos showing unprofessional conduct on the job?

Yet, this is the world we live in... fast-paced with instant change and continual adaptation. Frankly, I'm not sure where the changes in our language vocabulary and our tools will take us; I just know language, as well as the "how" of communication will continue to evolve. Unfortunately, those who stubbornly refuse to adapt to these changes may well find themselves left out of the communication process.


Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP, M.Ed is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2014 H1

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