Business english and the rotting of good communication

The consequences of my career choices after a MBA haven’t been all bad. There have been opportunities to travel, learn, think, do, make terrible mistakes, prepare PPTs, prepare more PPTs but call them “decks” for variety and finally two things that raise the hackles of some of my friends who haven’t chosen management as an option; network and use business English.

Well, networking’s necessary. Tough shit y’all.

On business english, you have a sympathizer. I detest it. Unfortunately I’m also one of the worst offenders. I can’t help it! The modern workplace is a miracle of emasculation. Absolutely no straight-talk is tolerated unless you’re at the top with enough levels below you to let the guano trickle onto until it thins out.

I sat stewing yesterday, drained out after a long month of business-planning exercises. They’re great fun except for the part where you have to write emails telling others about those business-planning exercises. You know, those emails remind me of the narrow, green on white, sterile corridors of a hospital. If they could smell like anything other than the metallic effluvium of your CPU, they would smell like those hospital corridors. Ugh.

It’s not all anesthesia and formalin, though. There are moments of fun. In one memorable incident a particularly formal client replied to my email from her Blackberry and the damn thing autocorrected my name to “Nerd” (how the hell did it know?). She had marked her superiors on the email. No amount of “Sent from my smartphone with two thumbs” style disclaimers could help her after that. I swear I received her call before the mail.

“Hey [name redacted] [use ‘Nerd’ as placeholder]!! *insanely cheery voice which made me suspect she was high*

“Hi! How are ya?”

“Ermm globbleglurblegluggichwuggleblemchuftaftikicfluggle” (that’s what her profuse apology and explanation sounded like to me)

“Huh? What happened?” *email ping* I read. “Ah, ok. Haha, no problem…” (I made a joke about it being true in an effort to calm her down but it just made things worse)

“GLARBLEGORBLEGLIBOOLURGWULL!!!!!!!” she glurbled with apoplectic guilt.

“No no! I insist, it’s OH KAY! Calm down! No harm done.”

“Are you sure? I’m really glurbleglotchitpooglewifshshaft about it”

etc

I’m afraid to attend any more meetings with her. Sitting in a room where the air is thick and apologetic tends to suffocate me.

A perpetual exception to stuffy language is your average South American. They’re the best! English isn’t their first language and they don’t give a fuck that it’s not. They seem to be very secure in their inability to string together a grammatically coherent sentence. Perhaps because everything they write *sounds* so sincere and emotive when you read it out. It’s hard to be offended.

“Not best to do but you decide!!!! Ciao x”

Was that a warning?!  It feels like a gentle nudge towards the coconut water stand instead of the soft drink cart as we walk along Copacabana beach with the wind in our hair.)

Such exceptions aside, 99% of the day contains business english bugbears; the really UNNNGGHHHHHRRRAAAAAAAAAAA phrases. Here are my favorites.

Think Outside the Box.

Yo, what or where is this box you speak of? Are you referring to this cramped conference room where the projector doesn’t work unless you dance for it and the coffee tastes like civet cat poop (No, the bit left over AFTER you take away what will become Kopi Luwak)? Outside the box is sitting by a Bali poolside sipping mojitos dipping our legs in the warm tropical water. So if you’re uttering these words inside a cubicle or meeting room, shut the fuck up man.

Strategy.

I used to study with this gasbag sonofabitch who fancied himself a strategy expert. It wasn’t the fact that he didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about, it was that sanctimonious stare into the distance he adopted at the mere utterance of the word. As if he were a yogi atop Mt Everest, watching the apocalypse approach a few hundred years before anyone else. Trying to grasp the ramifications of the word as a student is like trying to change your own diaper as an infant. You’ll make a godawful mess. Just go with the flow and let someone else do it for you. Unfortunately it’s one of those bad habits that follow you into the workplace if not checked early. Repeat after me – I MAY WORK FOR MCKINSEY BUT I’M TWENTY-FIVE AND THERE IS NO FUCKING WAY I KNOW ENOUGH ABOUT MARKET CYCLES TO KNOW STRATEGY. I say the following from experience –  Calling everything “strategy” is a tactic. Being honest enough to call it a tactic is good strategy.

Synergy.

The best part is, no one *really* knows what it means. It’s got something to do with the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, but when it comes down to explanations, there is more hand-waving and gesticulation than in an argument between Italians. Managers start talking about synergy and then trail off mid-sentence with a part-dreamy, part-desperate look in their eyes. That’s when the hands take over. First they kind of listlessly come together, unsure
of their role. Then the hands slam violently into each other, which is supposed to represent cooperation between the cross-functional team (CFT). This is repeated many times so the point of cooperation is reiterated to the cross-functional team (CFT). The hands find renewed purpose by tracing wide, delicate arcs culminating in light Zubin Mehta-style flourishes and finally, coming to rest hesitantly by their owner’s sides. The rest of the room observes another brave attempt at explaining the inexplicable, nod their assent and move on, secure in the knowledge that when the revolution comes, they will be spared because they had synergy.

The email sign-off.

Yours sincerely is so passe. It’s usually some form of regard. Best regards (which is something I write. I don’t know why.) WARM regards, which is something I used to write, but it made me feel like a lech appraising women in a DTC bus. My WARM regards dear lady (lech-y chuckle)…so I gave that up. That said, qualifying your regard is a powerful tool when engaged in subtle political duels. For example, cases of performance meeting or exceeding expectations merit your warm or best regards. However, objectionable, sub-par behaviour can be called to attention by dropping the qualifier completely and ending it with a terse “Regards”. Even worse, dropping the “Regards” completely and just signing off with your name. That’s like “meet me behind the schoolyard after 4 and we’ll settle this with our fists”. Personally, I like “Cheers” but lack the disposition to back it up.

Speaking of email sign-offs, have some self-respect. Show us that you contain the basic vestiges of feeling shame and DELETE THOSE 75-LINE 54-PICTURE SIGNATURES! Pro-tip: to avoid looking like an asshole, always ensure the number of lines in your email exceed the number of lines in your signature. I’m looking at you, geniuses who reply to a lengthy email chain marking everyone with “thanks” or “OK”, leaving us with bruised fingers as we keep scrolling in the futile hope of eventually making it past your signature and getting to the context. Like trying to find an oasis in a trumpet-blower’s Sahara.

Hi all.

Bhenchod, this is one of those absolute temperature-raisers. I understand the challenge of addressing the collective but Hi All? ALL? All you scamps, all you jokers, all you brilliant motherfuckers ending world hunger. Qualify it with SOMETHING man! I tried writing “Hi everyone” but it felt like the awkward, gawky stumble of a sneaker-shod tourist into a dive bar full of Harley bikers. Now it’s “Hi folks” which sounds reasonable to me. Other suggestions are also welcome.

Hope you are doing good.

This phrase wears around its neck one half of a locket. The other half belongs to its lost-at-the-Kumbh-Mela brother, “hope this letter finds you in the pink of health”. It always makes me angry because it reminds me I haven’t donated to charity in a while and that I’m a self-absorbed asshole. If I were doing good, I’d be adopting African kids and conspicuously sticking one leg out of the slit of an evening gown. But I’m not, so just ask me if I’m well and get on with it.

At the end of the day.

… I go home. You go home. We curl into a fetal position on our sofas and try to pound away the lingering stink of the day’s memories by drowning them in alcohol. THAT IS ALL THAT HAPPENS AT THE END OF THE DAY AND ANYTHING ELSE YOU’VE HEARD IS WRONG OR THE FIGMENT OF YOUR IMAGINATION.

Revert.

You mean reply, right? I thought revert was a U-Turn, a form of regression. If you still feel like using it, write “Please become Saudi Arabia by the close of business” instead. Hopefully that will change your mind. (Mental note: stop writing “revert” in emails)

Flip the presentation over/ shoot me an invite.

This “flip”, “shoot” business is a manifestation of our need to feel like we’re doing something dynamic, dangerous, macho, physical. An escape from the painful reality of spending hours flattening our butts on ergonomic chairs. A sad reminder that the glory of man has been reduced from hunting wooly mammoths for food to drafting emails with menacing threats to “revert with a response at the earliest.”

If you think I’m scoffing at others making these mistakes, think again. At least twice a day I’ll open my Sent folder and gawk at the filth I broadcast under the guise of communication. Many emails contain phrases I’ve mentioned above. It’s second nature and a horrible epidemic. This is why I hang onto Twitter when possible. The cadence, brevity and soul make me feel all is not lost. They provide inspiration, not just the odd chuckle or swoon and open up my world to the possibilities of good, evocative communication.

That is, until the next email, in which someone has flipped over yesterday’s strategy presentation and is waiting for me to revert with changes.

 

 

This post was one of Blogadda’s Spicy Saturday Picks.

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54 responses to “Business english and the rotting of good communication”

  1. samantha7143 says :

    Lol this is really funny… Thanks for the post
    Samantha

  2. PsyBaba (@hackatac) says :

    lordy, I guess the other half in my team will now see a substantial decrease in the emails I shoot to them with such wordings :-/ :D heheheh

  3. Chartulal Chiranjeev (@supremus) says :

    What are your thoughts on “thought leadership”? Hi All is better than Dear All no? Hilarious stuff – sad reality is half my day goes in this.

  4. darkcomedy says :

    This was funny, but I guess, most have become habits that die hard. A new one that’s threatening to become the next platitude is “Sure, hit me up on Friday!”

    “Hit me up”. I get this and I’m always excited that I’m exchanging e-mails with Britney Spears. But really, I just wish they aren’t using this with their potential dates too.

    But why must you compare with Twitter? Twitter is everything work e-mails aren’t. Work e-mailing is awkward and passive aggressive and sometimes, uses politeness to mask expectations and threats. Nobody feels comfortable getting to the point in a work e-mail for fear of being seen as too rushed/ out of control/ hyper. Hence, the gaping void at the beginning of an e-mail that begs one to work on a coming weekend, filled with “Hope you are doing good.” Twitter, on the other hand, is too fickle for awkwardness.. things move too fast for your awkwardness to stick with you or your audience, passive aggressive behaviour isn’t good enough.. either you’re a cool cat or you’re a raging lunatic, and politeness is too difficult to be funny in. So.

    PS: I think “All ye mofos” should be a good substitute for “Hi All” because I’m always signing off with “Sincere Regards” these days. That’s the least sincere I can get.

    • daddysan says :

      Funnily, most of my reasons why I prefer Twitter are precisely why you don’t :) I should clarify. I find Twitter really useful from a raw sentiment and sentence construction standpoint. Good tweets pack a lot of information into limited characters and evoke reactions (of course, this depends on whom you follow). In addition, I find tweets excellent practice for writing impactful headlines in PPTs :)

  5. Shantanu says :

    My personal favorite is ‘I can not able to reply to your e-mail’, but that aside, I always send ‘Warm regards’ to colleagues in the US when it’s snowing there.

    That aside, Revert back is probably the best term. You can spend an entire day not doing anything and then claim that you were caught in the infinite loop of reverting back.

    (Btw, I have a Touch Base button on my blog that’s meant to evoke similar feelings in visitors)

  6. BziB says :

    ‘Please do not hesitate to give me a tinkle if you have any questions’, ‘Looking to your prompt and positive response’ and ‘Looking for your favourable confirmation of the same’ are my particular favourites.

    Your remark about the South Americans is so spot on. I love the Chinese too – when it comes to cutting through the bullshit, there’s no one quite like them, if, of course, you are able to figure out what they’re trying to say.

    Great post, as always!

  7. Gargi Mehra says :

    Liked your post but disagree on some points. AFAIK, revert is a perfectly acceptable word asking for a response. I see no substitute for a ‘Hi All’ when you are addressing a large number of recipients, nor do I find it objectionable. As for ‘Best Regards’, I find it baffling. It sounds like a cross between ‘Best Wishes’ and ‘Warm regards’. I never put ‘Warm regards’ in official mails, only personal ones. Otherwise its always just ‘Thanks and Regards’. I echo your sentiments on the signatures longer than emails – I detest those too!

  8. Aquatic Static says :

    Here’s one I’d never read before “I am blocked between 2 and 5pm today.”
    Tough shit indeed.

  9. Vjsub says :

    You’ve struck a very important chord here! As a long standing critic of bullshit business lingo for a long time ( also a career limiting move,at times) its heartening to see a generation of individuals rising in revolt! The single biggest drain in productivity, according to me, is the mind numbing jargon that’s filled up our creative spaces and the act of deciphering them.
    My personal ‘Most annoying’ ones are:
    Take it to the next level
    Going/ moving forward

    Well written, as always!

    PS – loved the guano trickle down effect. Will borrow that reference!

    • daddysan says :

      Thanks mate! Also thanks for the added suggestions. Feel free to use the guano reference…it came to mind because of a cartoon I’d seen ages ago in a magazine.

  10. Kits says :

    The revert thing is very funny. I confess to having used it on occasion. ‘Please revert back’ is a worse crime in my opinion.

    Noticed the comment about Japanese using English. They, like you point out, are super particular about how to express themselves and always tended to ask for better words to use.

  11. Mehmood Kazi says :

    This is a kind reminder to revert back with the approvals as requested.

    revert back = play on a merry go round

  12. Akshara says :

    Like you say, many of us use these phrase knowing fully well, how trite they sound. I grimace when I write “pl action” but I write it anyway. It’s almost a agreed-upon short hand. Sigh.

  13. Sri says :

    Funny funny.. much appreciated. Please keep me in the loop, we can show the value addition to our senior leadership team.

  14. @UnstoppableSen says :

    I empathise with the mood that urged you to write this post.
    Bijnechh Ingleesh is a subject by itself in India as much as in Japan, where I – no linguist at all – suffered for nine months (one full human gestation): that too in an English savvy R&D set up in one of Kobe’s old business houses.
    Shall follow your posts.

    • daddysan says :

      The Japanese are super-formal because English isn’t their primary language. However, unlike the South Americans, they do see merit in using it properly and stick to the rules so they don’t make mistakes.

      Have you experienced the same?

  15. desikhichdi (@desikhichdi) says :

    The boss also throws words like RCA, automate, collate, streamline, plan and the one word I dread MEETINGS. A consultants woe :P The sentences have to begin and end with at least one of the above words. Most days his words are a repeat of what his boss uses.
    Poor vocabulary is poor :P

  16. riffraaf says :

    Great post. Btw, it is amazing how many people in the business world make basic mistakes in their emails. (e.g. your and you’re) Our group even presented a funny “dos and don’ts” presentation (on a power-point deck of course) at the annual company meeting.

    • daddysan says :

      Thanks Riff! Powerpoint isn’t so bad. I’ve had a few heated debates with Patrix on this and I still maintain it’s a great tool. If a tool uses a tool, the outcome is stool. But I do concede to his point about PPT including more enablers in the software itself; a do’s and don’t guide that you referred to.

  17. Sudharsan Narayanan says :

    Also not to forget , “please touch base with… “.

  18. Salar Mohamed BijiliS says :

    PFA my comment. Please revert back with concerns, if any

  19. Food4Flatulence says :

    Forget 2G, the multi-bulti million-billion dollar scam yet to be exposed is StrateG
    (Yours truly: A Management Consultant below 30)

  20. Anirudh Shivanand says :

    Brilliant stuff! This reminds me of an instance wherein I mailed a spanish client for the first time and spoke about spanish food and women. He was completely taken aback. He then went onto narrate his first date experience. Now, I was taken aback :-P

    • daddysan says :

      Hehe they’re really quite open and engaging. Interacting with them is refreshing, if at times frustrating because of the language barrier.

  21. NishitD (@nishitd) says :

    Are you sure you have nothing to say about “leverage”?

    • S says :

      And touch base ? and bottom lines ?

      I am falling off my chair :D

      • daddysan says :

        There were a few more I considered but I ran out of tequila so I didn’t have enough ranty material.

        Touch base (as Sudharsan pointed out below)

        Bottom Line/Top Line (This one is OK because there’s no other dignified way of referring to income other than “rokda”)

        Net Net – In Soviet Russia the correct response to this is Nyet Nyet

  22. Lavanya says :

    Ooh, this is the first time I’m commenting on your blog! Mostly because this post reflects a lot of email-related angst that goes through my mind whenever I have to communicate with anybody who isn’t related to me. :) (Don’t know why there are no comments here yet. I suppose you have to approve them before they can be displayed?)

    However I must say that no matter how pretentious we may feel while writing those platitudes we should remember that they’re there for a reason. E-mail is, first and foremost, a very impersonal form of communication. It is difficult to take an e-mail as seriously as a letter or a memo (ever notice how even a 2 line memo can sometimes carry more weight than a 20 line email, with Regards and all?)

    Thus, usage of such “Business English” is actually very helpful in establishing relationships & maintaining boundaries :) Especially when talking to a superior, I’d feel a lot more comfortable e-mailing my boss if I had a “Best Regards” at the end of the e-mail rather than just a simple sign off with my name. 20 years ago when e-mail did not exist, I’d probably have to go through his secretary to get to him. This new age of directness comes with its own downsides :)

    Just my 2c! Well written as always.

    • daddysan says :

      Welcome Lavanya! Thanks for the comment. Those are valid points you make. It also reminded me I’ve written the post from a very male perspective. Especially my desire to have more informal email communication – more of the back-slapping, casual banter that puts people at ease. I agree this may not be the best with female colleagues no matter how well you know them, so your point is well taken.

      • Lavanya says :

        Yup! Also, informal email communication does come with its own downsides. Not just for women, think of it this way: it’s probably not the best idea for a boss to be on super friendly terms with his employees. What if he has to chastise them the next day? Or fire them? This wall of (maybe false) niceties has its purpose.

        Sure, words like “synergy” are probably overused (after reading your post I was thinking about how I could not think of a single example where the word “synergy” had any meaning.. except for “hire me! my value to this company far exceeds what you’re paying me” :)) but that mostly stems from a lack of exposure and education – it is easy to hide behind business jargon when you are unprepared or you don’t really know what you want to say. Everyone’s done it before! (heterogenous market segmentation to prevent product fatigue and create value addition? I’ve used that sentence in a presentation once and I don’t even know what that means.)

        We all want to feel like our work has more meaning than it does, sometimes. The sad truth is that consultants usually tell their clients exactly what they want to hear, and therefore business jargon is their justification for the exorbitant prices they charge :D

        Am I taking this subject too seriously? I think I need to go shop for a sense of humour instead of new clothes :D

        • daddysan says :

          Haha, I understand your point but I must say that the post refers to the drain of communicating in cliches for fear of violating boundaries or appearing inappropriate. I certainly don’t advocate inappropriate behavior with anyone, but there’s got to be more substance to talk about with less stuffiness.

  23. irsquared says :

    Hi all,

    Fwding to Mr. Deshpande in HR…….. This might be voilation of social media policy.

    Thanking you and best regards

    • daddysan says :

      I vehemently deny all charges and call them baseless.

    • neo says :

      Now thts d kind of email tht was being talked about, a threat (not even surreptitious), carrying a thanking you & best regards, sounds like “Congratulations Mr. Prisoner, You are being sentenced to death”. E-mail needs to be a bit formal, but yes we do overuse certain terms. I always sign of as Thanks or mostly regards & name. That’s all everyone is here to work, no one should judge me by my sign-off (ok it is terse & impersonal, but it helps).

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