George Orwell made a living off of incredulity. Armed with a healthy distrust of capitalism and intense misgivings about the surveillance state, Orwell’s writings often presaged a bleak outlook for mankind. (His fucking head would explode if he could see what companies—i.e. Google and Facebook—and government agencies like the NSA have done to decimate individual privacy.) Though he’s most often invoked for his grim, dystopian Big Brother prophecies—there’s an adjective named for him, after all—Orwell railed with equal vigor against misinformation and political double-speak, two strategies of the ruling class he considered both duplicitous and injurious. Duplicitous because lies, even when cloaked in elegant prose, are lies no less, and injurious because imprecision in language might lead to any number of undesirable outcomes, not least of which, Orwell feared, would be the unconditional degeneration of the English language and a grossly uneducated rank and file. His most pointed condemnation comes from the 1946 essay Politics and the English Language:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs in Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties.
Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitant driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasant are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
Orwell’s excoriation didn’t solve anything, of course: politicians still lie practically every time they open their mouths. If anything, Orwell’s biggest fears have been exacerbated—contemporary life is, after all, largely dictated by what we see on our various screens. We can even talk to them now! The only real difference between the propagandists of Orwell’s dystopia and the propagandists of the present day is the makeup of the troupe of actors who play the purposefully ambiguous language game. Along with oppressive regimes, and their officers and chiefs, we must now be wary of corporations and their officers and chiefs as well.
The company you work for is not your friend. It is not your champion, and despite the messaging in those HR emails, your company is not your family. Your company is a monolith with a singular goal: to make money for its shareholders (or in the case of privately held companies: to make money for its owners). No amount of company softball games, or gym discounts, or trust fall exercises can change that simple fact. The costs/earnings algorithm that your company uses will very rarely consider feelings over math. Oftentimes, your company will become so obsessed with that dirty little word—earnings—it will decide it’s best to get the fuck rid of a lot of people without humanizing what cutting back means for those who worked with them. Instead, they might say that they have “decided to engage in a strategic truncation of resources,” or some equally vague rubbish.
Chief Executive Officers and Vice Presidents and Marketing Directors and whoever the hell else sits pretty on the top rungs of any corporate ladder are not sitting there to stroke the egos of their employees—they’re there to make money. Making money can be a nasty business, but because unfortunate anecdotes are bad for reputation, corporations are mostly loathe to tell whole truths after they’ve engaged in nettlesome little activities like mass layoffs.
Take, for example, the former chairman of I.B.M., Louis V. Gerstner. After laying off roughly 60,000 people—for context, that’s equivalent to the entire population of Bismarck, North Dakota—in the summer of 1993, he said that doing so quickly was preferable to the alternative, i.e. drawing the process out over the course of many rounds of layoffs. By Gerstner’s logic, one confident swing of the executioner’s sword was better than “Chinese water torture.” (His actual words, not mine.) Not only was Gerstner’s memorandum dehumanizing—it never mentioned any employees, just a “process” he wanted to get “behind us as soon as possible”—it was also passively racist.
When Hewlett Packard boss Meg Whitman decided to cut 30,000 jobs last year, she referred to her actions as a strategic “pruning.” When AT&T’s top business dick Robert E. Allen decided to eliminate 40,000 jobs in 1996 despite his company’s relative health, he framed his decision as a shrewd defense against possible future hardship. “The easy thing as we see the changes taking place in our industry is to rest on our laurels and say we are going pretty well,” said Allen at the time. “The initiative we took is to get ahead of the game a little bit and focus on what the markets would look like two to three years hence.”
At least Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit used the word “people” to describe his employees in the statement he released as he cut 50,000 jobs with one slash of his blade. “There is nothing easy about these decisions and the impact on our people... We do this because we must and not because we want to.”
(Note: Vikram Pandit is worth $60 million. When Louis Gertner left I.B.M. in 2002, he was given a severance package worth $189 million. In the year that he preemptively laid off 40,000 people, Robert E. Allen’s salary and bonus compensation totalled $2.67 million. Meg Whitman is worth $2.1 billion.)
America—especially corporate America—is the land of building shit up, and then immediately tearing shit down once it has lost its polished veneer. America hates a patina. Because it’s a land run by advertising and marketing, the compulsion to abandon perfectly good things has spread like an aggressive cancer into our private lives. Take the term starter home, for example. Buying one home and living in it forever is apparently not good enough—one day you may become a millionaire, and your decent two bedroom ranch just won’t do. Or, you know, buy one house and live in that perfectly good house forever! Do not let corporate lingo—and general Keeping Up With The Jonesing—influence the way you feel about your position in life.
Companies must change to grow, but know what this means for your job role. Often a corporation’s desire to be financially diverse or dynamic also drives a corporation’s backhanded way of increasing or changing workflow. They call this pivoting. Strategic pivoting tends to mean that, without warning, the job you were doing a fine job at last week is no longer your job. Your company’s need to revamp its product to stay relevant in the marketplace means that you’re also then forced to pivot or you’ll no longer be relevant to your landlord. It’s no good—take note when it happens, and know that taking on more or different responsibility should come with equal reward. A pivot in overall mission or employee goals usually means one on a budgetary level, too.
Despite their clear talents for language fuckery, the bloodlusting sociopaths at the top of the capitalistic hierarchy don’t have a patent on corporate speak absurdities. Check your work email. Check it right now. Odds are you’ll find therein at least one of these phrases:
Shift a paradigm
Leverage best practices
The list goes on (and I’m too depressed to type any more examples). These words and phrases aren’t necessarily harmful on an individual or economic level, but they are harmful in that they make you sound like a fucking moron. Stop using these words when you catch yourself defaulting. Stop using these phrases at all, if you can help it. If you receive an email containing any of these words or phrases, ignore that email for a little while. Resist this kind of speech at all costs.
Sure, it’s hard not to want to assure your manager that yes, going forward you’ll keep best practices in mind when reaching out to the client about any pending paradigm shifts. There’s something to be said for collective intoxication, and for assimilation—even if what you’re assimilating to is an asinine lexicon born of the cold machinations of business. Using these phrases makes you feel like an equal, and feeling like an equal—in any context, not just at work—is a crucial component to self worth. But you can preserve your dignity and speak like a normal human being while still maintaining your self worth.
Instead of saying “going forward”, you can say “next time.” Instead of “reach out,” use “contact.” Instead of “ping,” try using “message.” And instead of “circle back,” let’s go with “check in.” It’s time to start using real conversational words and phrases again, thereby taking at least some power back from the corporate robots. Lord knows they’re not about to give us all the million dollars we need to buy our second homes.
Avoiding corporate speak is difficult—perhaps impossible, even—because, unfortunately, capitalism is the system that dominates the globe. To exist within it—not to succeed within it, but rather just to fucking exist within it—we all, at some point, must work some job we probably don’t like very much. And because most of us aren’t lucky enough to own the company, we’re all then subject to the whims of our company’s higher ups. But there’s hope, and that hope lies in not being romanced by the thing that’s the shiniest.
Perhaps the most pervasive issue here is that many people have a tendency to define themselves by the work they perform. Our jobs are our lives, and so if in casual conversation—say, at a bar with someone you kind of know but don’t really know but who you want to impress and maybe fuck later—we’re able to use arcane buzzwords when describing what it is we do. (Buzzwords that obscure the fact that we might hate our jobs because we find absolutely zero joy or meaning in them. We’re somehow then able to convince ourselves, while convincing someone else, that we are in fact not wasting the precious little time we have on earth. The corporations we work for love this outcome, and some of them even offer us shiny little perks to distract us from the fact that selling someone else’s product on the internet to make someone else a bunch of money (or whatever else we’re doing to make someone else a bunch of money) is a pretty shitty existence.
A gentle reminder that room full of ping pong tables and bean bag chairs is not compensation.
“Equity,” that buzzword startups seem to love so much, is not compensation. (Your equity will almost certainly never turn into financial gain, but you will be taxed on it anyway. Getting taxed on money you’re not actually making and will probably never see is bullshit.) A company sponsored cruise around the harbor on a Tuesday is not a day off from work—it’s a forced hangout on a boat with a bunch of people who, if it were an actual day off, you probably wouldn’t choose to hangout with. (George from HR eats tuna everyday and wears BRUT and will no doubt be complaining that the cruise menu doesn’t include tuna and his BRUT will wear off midway through the three hour tour and it doesn’t matter that there’s no tuna on the menu because he brought his own tuna anyway. You’re not hanging out with George from HR on a Sunday.)
Your health insurance isn’t a perk—it’s a right. Your paid time off isn’t a perk—it’s a right. (I’m aware that not everyone gets company-sponsored health insurance and paid time off, and I am very angry about this at all times because both of these things should be a right.) That $700 juice maker isn’t innovation that’s changing the world—corporations, especially those of the tech variety, love to exclaim that they’re changing the world. In reality, most of us are no more than a cog—I know that feels cynical and dark, but it’s true—and the sooner you reconcile that the sooner you’ll be able to adopt an IDGAF attitude with regards to your employer.
Take a tip from Bartleby, who in Melville’s second most important text proclaimed that he would “prefer not” when asked to perform tasks. Prefer not to participate in the grotesque messaging of corporate speak, especially if you feel it is being angled against you. If that fails, you could prefer not to drink their Kool-Aid. If your company doesn’t care about you, why should you care about your company?