We recently started a discussion on a LinkedIn group that asked people what phrases drive them batty. I used "utilize" and "reach out" as my two. I figured we'd get a few responses and that would be about it. Boy, did I miscalcuate! We've gotten almost 500 responses and the conversation is still going strong. If you'd like to read some of the posts and/or join in, please do so.
Some of the phrases I've never heard, such as "blue sky thinking" or "level set," but many have been around for years (and continue to be annoying). What struck me most, however, was that many of the women had that "nails on chalkboard" feeling for many of the same phrases. Some of most cited of these include "at the end of the day"; using "myself" when "me" or "I" is the correct word; and phrases such as "touching base," "circling back," "on the same page," "drill down," and "thinking outside of the box." Of course, posters also had issues with abbreviated words, such as using "u" for "you" and "thru" for "through."
Two of the posters, Julie Jones and Lisa DJ Roberts, wrote clever paragraphs that incorporated many of the overused workplace writing phrases that people find so annoying.
Roberts: Irregardless of the previous comments, I'd like to piggy-back on what Dee said and utilize this forum to proactively reach out and get on the same page with all of you. Although I am so over colleagues circling back to touch base so we can level set expectations and grow the business, I, myself, plan to broaden my footprint by thinking outside the box and getting on the same page with those who innovate in lieu of regurgitating vanilla responses. For all intensive purposes I'm leaning in!
Jones: Thanks for dialing in to circle the wagons for this all-hands project. With so many balls in the air, our backs are against the wall. We're reinventing the wheel with best-of-bread special sauce. Net-new, we're polishing the apple for max ROI ideation soup-to-nuts, with bleeding-edge bifurcation and multiple stakeholders engaged. What's the delta? Synergy. Impactful disruption and sustainable innovation, with above-board low-hanging fruit in the pipeline. Let me bottom-line it for you on the back of this napkin: a bolt-on-to-baked-in elevator pitch band-aid where the rubber meets the road is business critical. Available bandwidth and blue-sky thinking makes it a win-win situation with more bang for the buck and post-mortem wiggle room. Next steps: Take it offline for a sit-down temp check. So yes, let's sync up.
As I read through the posts, I was reminded of George Orwell's essay " Politics and the English Language " (if you haven't read this essay lately, you should). I've blogged about this essay before and the fine points he makes about language and its use. Orwell's point is not that words are either "good" or "bad," but what makes them a problem is "[the] huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves" [emphasis mine]. In short, the idea is that these phrases are a problem because of what they say about the speaker: that the speaker hasn't taken the time to thoughtfully consider her ideas and how best to convey them to her listeners.
For instance, a supervisor trying to compel her team to be creative by using the phrase "think outside the box" or "blue sky thinking" may be perceived as less than creative herself. Likewise, if I use buzzwords repeatedly to get my point across, my listeners may tune me out, as they should, if I'm using words that lack any real meaning for those listeners.
The point is not that using the occasional buzzword will cause the earth to stop rotating; rather, it's that buzzwords rarely convey an idea in a way that's either unique or straightforward and, depending on the listener, may cause that listener to perceive the speaker as unthinking and lazy (Aristotle called this " ethos "--the image that the listener forms of the speaker based on the speaker's credibility; someone who use cliches to relay their ideas may be perceived to be careless and therefore less credible).
Thus, perhaps that "nails on chalkboard" feeling comes less from the words and phrases themselves than from what we perceive to be a lack of thinking on the part of the speaker and the perception that the speaker is unwilling or unable to carefully and thoughtfully consider the most effective way to get that idea across.
At the end of the day (okay, I'm using that as a joke!), good communication, especially in the workplace, is vital, and when we use words that lack any real meaning, or that our listeners perceive as such, we're making communication more difficult. Instead, the use of precise, straightforward language should encourage the same in others, while at the same time showing our colleagues that we hold them in high enough regard to use clear language that effectively conveys our ideas.
As an aside, I have greatly enjoyed interacting with the bright, clever women who contributed to this discussion; may they always be able to find humor in the mundane.