Corporate Speak – “Sandwich Artists” and other nonsense phrases

I hate corporate speak.  

Here is an example: the fast-food chain Subway refers to the staff who put lettuce and tomatoes onto your bread for close-to-minimum wage as ‘Sandwich Artists’. 

Everyone has come across exaggerated corporate speak before, but here is what I mean by the term: any phrase used by a big business or group that intends to show the company or its actions in a better light, or is simply an unnecessary, obscure word to use.  

Here is another example: your ‘terms and conditions’ contract that’s as long as War and Peace and can make it possible for media companies to access and sell all your data.  

Why do companies do it, why is it bad, and why should you care? 

There are many reasons why companies have used and continue to use corporate jargon. The simple and saddening answer is, well, because it works. It works by making them sound more important, trustworthy and knowledgeable than they actually are. When you are giving a presentation, telling your audience that you are “currently energetically developing competitive streamlined initiatives with a focus on action-based solutions” sounds a lot better than what you were really doing – “frantically trying to find a solution to a problem we have no clue how to solve”.

Corporate jargon works in the case of Subway, by making the job description sound better than it is. How would you like to find out that you are a ‘Sandwich Artist’? It sounds a lot more appealing to employees than telling them they are working a job in which they are overworked and underpaid and most customers want as few interactions with them as possible.

In the case of company contracts, corporate jargon generally works. Ever wondered why ‘terms and conditions’ contracts are so long and torturous to read, instead of being written in plain English? It allows companies to make the wording ambiguous enough to not scare off anyone who does find the courage to read it, yet precise enough to allow companies to collect and sell your data.

The underlying theme here is that corporate speak intends to hide or obscure the actual meaning of the words, and that ought to make you suspicious of anyone who uses it. Corporate speak is an insult to its audience, and a perversion of language, as it obscures information using the very structure needed to communicate it. After the 2008 market collapse, American bankers were interviewed by regulatory commissions to explain the disaster. They delivered long and impressive reports of the finest corporate jargon every produced, that are available for anyone to look up, but present very little useful information.

Fortunately, overusing corporate jargon is not without consequences for a company. Customers can be left feeling isolated and might become hesitant about using the organisation’s services. Corporate speak can also cause confusion about the offer being made. In the case of Subway, applicants could be put off by the phrase ‘Sandwich Artist’, mistakenly believing it might require design work.   

Similarly, readers of academic papers are also subjected to being misled by these kinds of nonsense phrases. Some academics struggle to write their papers in a way which makes it easy for everyone to understand. The authors use unnecessarily obscure phrases, leading readers to misinterpret their intent. Aspiring teachers often have to read academic papers on new teaching methods, some of which are almost incomprehensible due to their overuse of nonsensical and overly technical phrases. This may lead to ironic situations, such as when the very people who are supposed to inform you about how to teach children cannot teach other people themselves. 

So, what can you do to limit corporate speak? Try to not fall into the trap of using nonsense phrases yourself and demand that your co-workers also use simple and direct language. Avoid thinking of “big words” as better, and make sure people with lower education levels can understand what you are saying. Most importantly, however, if you need a dictionary and a lawyer to understand the implications of what someone is telling you, you should treat them with a healthy dose of suspicion.  

Neil Lightman

The author Neil Lightman

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