Language is what connects us, and language is what separates us. Communication is at the core of our social fabric, and inability to share ideas and be understood pushes people apart.
I have always been fascinated by language and how much it can reveal. Starting from school, where I noticed that my international friends were making very particular grammatical mistakes — Chinese students often mixed up “he” and “she” (in Chinese there is no differentiator in the same manner), students from India reordered words in sentences (word order in Hindi works in a different way), and the Russians tried to structure complicated sentences and translate idioms and jokes literally (these are the very essence of the way we, the Russians, communicate).
This is when I first started thinking that language is a mirror of who we are and where we come from. Language is a reflection of many factors that define us: our accent can give away not only which country or region we come from, but which social strata, the words we use reveal how we perceive the world (e.g. through sense or logic), our culture (the British to Foreign translator anyone?), our experiences, education etc. Some people have the gift of the gab, and some can barely string a sentence together.
What is even more interesting to me is that the above factors not only shape how we speak, but also how we listen and what we hear! What is language, in essence, if not just a code — a series of sounds that we have learned to interpret? Which then places the emphasis on “interpreting” — not the sounds.
There is an old Russian joke (from the time when majority of population did not speak a foreign language - things have changed now): A foreigner is lost on the streets of a Russian city. He asks a passerby for directions in English — he is not understood. He asks in German — not much better. He repeats his question in French, then Italian and Spanish. The passerby just shakes his head and thinks to himself: “So this guy speaks 5 languages, and how did that help him find his way??”
So the important part is what the person on the receiving end has learned as the meaning of the sounds you are making. Which means that if they have come to associate the same sounds with a completely different meaning — if any at all — they are taking away very different messages from what you intended.
Alignment of verbal frameworks
Have you ever found yourself in a conversation where when you speak, it feels like the other person hears the same words but completely different sentences altogether? Therein lies the irony of language — it is meant to be something we share that brings us closer and fosters understanding, however it often causes a greater distance.
This is even more critical in corporate communication — we all know that professional jargon doesn’t make you sound smarter. Sometimes jargon is not much of an issue, because people in the same professional circle have come to learn their meaning in the same way, and by using certain terms they immediately connect. The challenge comes in when people from different backgrounds start exchanging these terms — and do not acknowledge that they may assign different meanings or value to them. They, in fact, start speaking different languages. This is when these become buzzwords and jargon, rather than professional terms.
It is fascinating to hear how certain phrases and terms have made their way into a corporate vocabulary, and still do not mean a lot to many people. They would, of course, never admit to it. Here are some examples of the buzzwords I hear most often and my interpretation of what people actually mean by these most times:
- Aligned/ alignment — “we all thought about this — roughly, and we need to try to sound like we want to work together.” Mostly used by consultants, or seniors who are a bit further away from the detail.
- Collaboration — “this thing that will solve our problems and make us sound in step with the times! it has something to do with talking to each other”. Typically delivered through a prescribed process and framework, which may be found somewhere on the intranet. Not many people know where, so they carry on focussing on their own silo.
- Culture change — a must have alongside any corporate initiative. Usually happens with the help of even more buzzwords in mass email communication that nobody reads.
- Innovation — a definite must have for any self-respecting professional. Best done following standard “innovation” and “continuous improvement” processes out of one’s cubicle or via email chains. In the absence of a cubicle in the modern open-plan offices, a meeting with a “brainstorm session” might do the trick.
- Business change / Reorganisation — there is a new boss who needs to make a stamp and/or who needs to make more or save money, or both. The boss also wants to progress his/ her career so there will be a lot of consultants around for a while. Just hold on until everyone gets bored and then you can go back to what you did before.
- Big data — the panacea for most business challenges. Especially, when the actual challenge is not known, but a large number of spreadsheets have become unwieldy, one must apply a “big data solution”. Also, something to do with social media, but since we do not use Facebook at work, it doesn’t apply to us.
- SMART — it (technology, procurement, city) will magically function with no human intervention and save loads of money. Typically has some digital component. “I want it!”
- High performing culture — what we all should strive for. Most times can be seen driven by people with no people skills telling others to perform better. Sometimes accompanied by banners with values you did not know you had.
Of course, this does not apply to all organisations , some have actually figured out how to be successful at some of these. Also, business trends change and bring new buzzwords with them. However, sometimes an ability to make something extremely routine and inconsequential sound like the most exciting and meaningful discovery is almost a prerequisite and part of certain job descriptions, and is definitely a valuable skill. The simpler the better, as the commonly accepted truth teaches us, is the way to go — “How would you explain this to a 5 year old”? Well, half the time I would rather not explain any of these concepts to a 5 year old for fear of scarring him/her for life.
How do we avoid speaking a different language to one another? We need to take accountability for less than effective communication in such cases — not assume that you and the other person share the interpretation of the terms.
What are the buzzwords that you most often come across or find most misunderstood / misused?
If you would like to share any other buzzword or ideas, please get in touch - firstname.lastname@example.org
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