The Public Humanist

Opening the Kimono, Thoughts on the Language(s) of the Business World, Part Two

Editor's Note: Last week's post was part one of this essay, which described the opaque jargon of the business world.

But let’s now turn away from the language of proactive solution modeling and cross-silo synergies to a much earthier language equally native to American business. It appears to me that the former style of jargon more commonly emanates from the higher reaches of a company, often directed toward clients or toward subordinates; or if coming from underlings, tend to be aimed at superiors, possibly to show that the user has been reading in the literature of business improvement, from whence many of the most elevated phrases originate.

When talking among themselves, however, company employees are much more down to earth and witty, effectively channeling Sancho Panza in counterpoint to the high style’s Don Quixote. For instance, there is always tension between selling a service to a client and fulfilling it; Often, the sellers of services in the company are not the fulfillers, who are likely to mutter something like: “Sell the dream; live the nightmare” when they are presented with a new client to whom too much, in their opinion, has been promised. Evaluating a boastful client, someone may say “this guy is all hat, no cattle;” alternately, a problematic merger may be called “a bag of snakes;” or an overly comprehensive proposal may be dismissed as attempting to boil the ocean (i.e., a particularly dumb way to make salt); an easy company source of profit is said to constitute low-hanging fruit; if a presentation is overlong and overcomplicated, the presenter may be reproached with being too down in the weeds, in which case one of the tall foreheads (a reference to the predominance of older, balding white men in upper management) may add just hum a few bars (i.e., “summarize it”). “This task is easy--we just have to figure out a way to put socks on an octopus,” a colleague may conclude. In which case, case, a supervisor may insist the team put belts and suspenders on its proposed response keep it safer from client criticism; If client satisfaction is reported, a colleague may ask: “How did you engineer that?”, to which the response may be “PFM” (Pure F___ing Miracle). In some cases, the team may have to pretendgineer a solution.

Dealing with a single supplier or project manager has the advantage of offering only one throat to choke; when a supervisor wants the opinion of people directly involved in a client pursuit, he or she may say “get me someone from the ‘coal face.’” Spiffing up an old, incorrect way of doing things is known as paving the goat path or, in an all too common variant, putting lipstick on a pig. The rate at which money is being expended on a project is often referred to as the burn rate; if it doesn’t move the needle, i.e., generate profit, it will be cut back; in a meeting following a client’s demand that additional workers be assigned to a project, the supervisor may acidly remark to the team that “you can’t get a baby by putting nine pregnant women in a room for a month;” when there are signs that a client is mightily unhappy with a consulting team’s work, a team leader may call for a come to Jesus meeting at which flaws are openly admitted without criticism, after which her or she may conclude: “We have to run to the bullet on this one,” i.e., we have to acknowledge our error before the client charges us with it.

An ugly meeting in the wake of failing satisfactorily to complete an assigned task may be called blamestorming; as a result of which some employees may have to be promoted to customer, one of a legion of euphemisms for firing.

A mouse potato is a colleague who can only with difficulty be separated from his or her laptop. A demeaning position is called a McJob. A loafing colleague may be called a clocksucker. Someone who uses too many technical terms in a presentation may be said to have geeked out, although if the presenter is the company’s alpha geek (Chief Information Officer), it may have to be tolerated. Someone who starts dating a co-worker may be criticized for violating the don’t get your meat where you make your bread rule. An ambiguous evaluation by a supervisor may be called a complement sandwich, with the negative meat being surrounded with opening and closing compliments. To extend a critique is to press on the bruise; of someone who is felt to have been inappropriately promoted it may be said that “he must have checked Eskimo[on his job application], presumably picking the safest ethnic group to insult.

Of course over time, business jargon either changes or dies. Today’s pity phrase becomes tomorrow’s dead cliché. That’s one reason why I have ignored the use of sports metaphors, which are ubiquitous in the business world, but at this point too well worn to comment on.

But there are a few common expressions in business jargon that seem not only novel but grotesque to an outsider. For sheer tastelessness, consider the very common phrase drink the Koolaid, meaning to go along with a policy issued from above whatever one’s private thoughts about it are. Although one may admire the cynicism about hierarchical leadership it expresses, this phrase, used constantly in the business world, clearly references the cyanide poison mixed into a purple grape juice-like drink which am American cult leader, James Jones, ordered his followers to drink to commit “revolutionary suicide” in 1978, following the murder of an American congressman by his armed guards. Over nine hundred people died within minutes, including two hundred and eighty children. Jones himself was found dead on the site, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot. This phrase was first used metaphorically in the late 1980’s. By 2011, the columnist Meghan Daum wrote that the phrase had become "one of the nation's most popular idiomatic trends," quoting Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who said that he “drank the [Obama] Koolaid as much as anyone else”. In February, 2012, the phrase won first prize in an on line poll by Forbes Magazine “the single most annoying example of business jargon.”

Lastly, there is the phrase open the kimono, whose use in business circles goes back to the 1970s, but which seems to have taken new life recently. There is disagreement about its origin. Danny Bloom in Salon suggested it might have been a corruption of the Japanese phrase kamishimo o nugu which refers to a Samurai’s more informal way of dressing at home. This seems farfetched, and certainly far from the common understanding as a coarse allusion to a disrobing Japanese woman. Its current use is as a metaphor for disclosing confidential information to an outside party. Aaron Kweitten, for instance, a public relations executive, told CNBC that Goldman Sachs needed to “open the kimono a little bit” if it wished to improve its image. Venture capitalist Fred Wilson smirked a few months later that while one must sometimes “open the kimono,” “there are companies out there who love to get you to open the kimono but also have a reputation for one night stands,” which impeccably restores the sexist and racist connotation of the phrase, despite sometimes strenuous attempts to give it an abstractionist upgrade, as in an article by Robert Perrins, The Open Kimono: How Intel Balances Trust and Power to Maintain Platform Leadership. To an outsider, the image of one beefy middle aged man trying to get inside the kimono of his equally beefy middle aged counterpart seems irresistibly comical.

But for all its crudeness and vulgarity, I have to say I love the use of this kind of vivid metaphor and pithy directness, much of which expresses the dynamism of American business at its best, even as the abstract, Latin-laden style shows it at its worst. That said, I have to add that my wife defends many of the fancy phrases as effective shorthand. How would you, she asks rhetorically, more simply express the task of proactive platform integration. I’ve tried and I can’t. I can just regard the fact that she is able to accomplish such a task as a PFM.

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