Tuesday, January 08, 2013 • 12:55 PM Comments (7)

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

posted by Tim Wright

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.

Comments (7)
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Thanks, Tim. I really enjoyed both parts, though I had much more fun reading the second part with the colorful metaphors. They are direct and easy to understand. I think I couldn't express "proactive platform integration" in another way because I don't really understand what it means, no doubt because I don't work in that world. So those abstract terms do seem to work better for the insiders, and let them have them if they wish. The others are more often cruel, as you point out, but are a pretty direct way to express and who knows what crudity and cruelty might be hidden behind the more abstract language? That's even more dangerous, as it brings us closer to the world of 1984, and echoes phrases like "collateral damage" and other military expressions that hide us from the true gruesomeness of modern war.

Much love to both you and Karen, Elizabeth

Posted by Elizabeth Wright on 1.10.13 at 4:05

Very nice Tim. If you want to have some more fun with language that doesn't mean anything, spend a bit of time with some art journals!

Posted by johnhimmelfarb on 1.10.13 at 15:00

I can really relate to the business jargon. And don’t get me started on the acronyms! One thing I have noticed too, is that everything MUST be strategic… “strategic orientations”, “strategic communication”, “strategic thinking”, “strategic objectives”, “strategic goals”, “strategic priorities and outcomes” —just put the word “strategic” in front of any word you like, and it’s all good.
Plus, one doesn’t “work with people” … one “engages with partners, stakeholders and other actors to leverage collective know-how and facilitate innovative and integrated approaches to achieve valued-added results”… right? It's like we WANT to make it as COMPLICATED as possible. Don’t forget: never say “problem” - always say “challenge! I work in the dark ages where people STILL say “win-win” and “think outside of the box” – double triple quadruple ouch!
[Anonymous owing to job security concern]

Posted by friend of author on 1.14.13 at 7:21

I think there are two very different purposes that professional jargon can serve, and one should always be keen to distinguish between these.

The first purpose is precision – e.g. an agreed and controlled vocabulary of anatomical terms allows doctors to be very specific as to which muscle, nerve, disease process, etc etc. to which they seek to refer.

The second purpose is impressionistic – to create the aura of expertise or mastery of the domain under discussion. This is not necessarily exclusive of the first purpose – the doctor that uses controlled medical vocabulary for peer-to-peer communicative precision, can use the same vocabulary to create a confidence-inducing aura of expertise when speaking with patients.

But much of what we call “business jargon” is noteworthy in that it focuses strictly on that second purpose (aura), with only a modicum of effort toward the first (precision).

But as long as one understands and accepts the inherent meaninglessness of the business jargon, then one can learn to appreciate it to its fullest extent – in the hands of someone highly skilled in the craft, a well thought-out, jargon-heavy business presentation can truly rise to the level of performance art. Just this week at my job I was in the audience for mesmerizing performance by some industry consultants about their vision to enhance our strategic positioning by a process of de-silo-ization, a shortening of intelligence pipelines, and a gaining of control over key actionable levers. As this truly virtuoso performance went on, I could feel wave after wave of positive organizational emotions washing over me, such that by the time the performance climaxed with the “actioning of whitespace opportunities”, I was, in my mind, standing on my chair and cheering wildly. (in reality, I remained calm and seated in a professional manner throughout).

I find that such performances, just like theatre, opera, or movies, can be a wonderful bit of escapism from the responsibilities and details of the real world. I also see parallels with impressionistic painting, in that key tidbits of jargon, lacking in any actual precision of meaning, can take on, for each audience member, whatever meaning they want for it – people can see and hear whatever they want to. Everyone leaves happy. It’s a win-win.

Posted by The Big Lefty on 1.19.13 at 10:26

I always appreciate your penetrating comments, Big. I have to agree that the climactic "actioning of whitespace opportunities" achieves a raising of the meaninglessness bar beyond the height of any single phrase I have run across in my jargon research.

Bravo to your consultant, and bravo to you as well for being able to appreciate it as pure performance, completely unrelated to any practical outcome other than giving the company's workforce a well deserved and entirely welcome break from actual work.

Posted by Tim K. Wright on 1.19.13 at 17:36

I might make another distinction, along a different axis, of two types of the business jargon that you discuss.

First there are the clearly colloquial stuff – all the sports metaphors, your kimono manipulations, blamestorming, etc. – which are generally understood to serve the purpose of helping to build a shared sense of fraternity (women-included!) via a commonly shared (and often fun) set of vernacular slang. I don’t believe that these are either intended or understood to communicate any precise or new+insightful meanings.

Secondly, there are the faux-precise terms of art that relate to my earlier comment post: they pretend to convey the sense of a precise, controlled vocabulary, but they are really impressionistic tools of the trade in the business world. These are what you called “abstract constructions which are often … seeming to obscure rather than clarify meaning” (you’re on to them Tim!)

In order to make terms within this later category more difficult for cynics to dismiss as meaningless gobbledygook, it can be essential that the terms appear to have some firm underlying basis in solid research and analysis (think of it as creating a provenance for a painting you just completed). Then doubters can be (publicly!) told that they need to read so-and-so’s book or article about whatever this season’s hot buzzword is. This creates a constant need for publishing of ‘research’ in domains such as ‘Management Sciences’ (a term about as incongruous as ‘Janitorial Arts’).

However, what purports to be serious research into these business domains is invariably little more than well-footnoted armchair speculation. This is for several reasons, chief among them perhaps that it’s rather hard to conduct double blind studies on companies.

I’ll leave you with my own personal favorite new “Research” topic in the business/management field this season: “Functional Stupidity”: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-6486.2012.01072.x/abstract

Look for it coming soon to a PowerPoint Presentation near you.

Posted by The Big Lefty on 1.21.13 at 8:54

I always thought you had a third degree black belt in lip Tim.

Thanks for weaponizing words.

Posted by msfreeh on 2.5.13 at 0:03
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