I just wanted to circle back on this. Have we digested the learnings from our fact-finding mission? I need to leverage these insights in the deliverables.
Perhaps you haven’t received this email verbatim, but if you glance back through jargon-littered emails from various jobs you’ll probably find something startlingly similar. Corporation, start-up, sole proprietorship or family company: bad business speak is endemic to many work environments – and, sometimes, infuriating.
In what can seem like universal condemnation, business jargon is considered bad form. There are dozens of overused words that some argue make smart people sound less intelligent. Movements have even sprung up to bin corporate speak.
Yet the backlash might not be worth the effort.
Don’t shoot the messenger
We don’t hate the actual words of corporate jargon, according to Gretchen McCulloch, internet linguist and author of the forthcoming Because Internet.
She says the words associated with business speak are just euphemisms for all the frustrations we harbour about work: colleagues who we would not actually befriend in the real world, office politics and even the daily onslaught of communication.
“In many cases when you see people disliking something about language, it’s more a symptom than a cause. You see this everywhere – people dislike how teenagers talk because they have worries about where ‘the youth’ are going,” she adds. “Euphemisms eventually take on the quality of the things that they’re being euphemistic for.”
Corporate language is like any other euphemistic speech. So, when you ‘run it up the flagpole’ for review, eventually the words stop being a tepid stand-in for getting approval for whatever ‘it’ is. The phrase becomes as grating to hear as waiting for superiors to sign-off on the project itself.
A word like ‘synergy’ that inspires ire is not harmful in itself. The word has been in use since at least 1850, says Geoff Pullum, professor of general linguistics at the the University of Edinburgh. “Meanings evolve, rather slowly,” he says. “The people who suddenly turn on [these words] as ‘jargon’ are being irrational.”
In a way, he is right: anger with the words in an email isn’t actually what you should be mad about. McCulloch says that the words themselves are innocent bystanders in your frustration, but it’s “easier to take those frustrations out on a phrase than it is to admit that you’re annoyed with this other person and you don’t enjoy email and you wish you could just swear at the other person”.
The ‘social contract’
As much as you may want to lash out at your colleagues – for using jargon or any other reason – you cannot. There’s a social contract in place here: you have to show a certain amount of respect and decorum to those around you.
But you still need to get work done. That’s where corporate speak comes in – especially in a situation which involves a clear ‘power-dynamic’ i.e. one person with more power than the other.
“You’re using these phrases to signal that you respect the power differential and respect their time, yet you still have to bug them to follow up,” McCulloch says. A phrase like ‘circling back’ is a more polite way of asking colleagues why they haven’t done something yet – minus the more charged words you’d actually rather say.
That’s one of the many reasons McCulloch says that there’s “no cure” for business jargon. Day-to-day working life can certainly be annoying, yet we still have to abide by rational workplace rules. “It’s not the words themselves that are at fault. It’s the context which people find frustrating. And as long as people find that frustrating, they’ll blame whatever words are used to create that.”
‘Hairless primates’ in an office block
It is probably unhelpful to analyse business speak in a vacuum anyway. Think of these phrases catching on in the same way that avocado toast is the dish of the day and decluttering the new hobby. Many use jargon simply to fit in, says Pullum.
“I don’t really think I believe that ‘business speak’ exists,” he says. “We’re all the same species of bipedal mammal. Putting business suits on a bunch of hairless primates and putting them together in an office block doesn’t really change them much. [The way] they will tussle, rival each other, look for leadership, listen to each other, pick up words and phrases will evolve from each other.”
New York City-based executive coach Alisa Cohn agrees. “We are tribal animals, and there is something about jargon that marks us as insiders – one of the tribe – [who] will be protected and not eaten in the event of an attack by tigers.”
Cohn hears a lot of jargon in her line of work, and even has her own favourite words: ‘ecosystem’, ‘swim lane’ (aka scope of someone’s job) and ‘peanut butter the raises’, which she says “means spreads evenly like a peanut butter sandwich”.
London-based business coach and Academy of Executive Coaching faculty member John Gray also says many executives speak in figurative language and jargon (“coaches spend lots of time working with clients’ metaphors,” he says). He hears a lot of ‘outside the box’, ‘going forward’, ‘rebase the business’, ‘helicopter view’, ‘reaching out’ and more, but lets his clients indulge in their business speak since it’s the language with which they are comfortable.
If the mere sight of these words still causes you to retch, think of your own health.
“When I see those phrases, I make it a habit not to get annoyed about language,” McCulloch says. "Life’s too short to waste my blood pressure on something that’s really the symptom and not the cause."
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