The Business of Language

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August 6, 2007

It’s a languid summer afternoon and I’m tasked with fashioning a light radio piece on what not to wear to work. Two stylish men lolling outside a Bay Street office tower are my first victims.

One of them tells me that men wearing lycra bike shorts in the office, especially before morning coffee, is utterly unacceptable. He grimaces, chortles, then becomes serious.

He says what’s worn in the office has morphed over the past couple decades. It used to be that suits and ties were the norm, but the dot-com revolution changed all that by going ultra casual. Nowadays, jeans are paired with open dress shirts and blazers. 

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“We’re expected to be everything to everyone,” he sighs. And that made me think: fashion is just one form of expression that’s adapted to a society pressuring us to be all that we can be, and more.  

Just like the attire we wear sends out different messages, the language we use in the world of business has also taken on multiple meanings.  In an age of globalization, business (wo)men are having to supersize: provide more to a demanding customer. 

Take emails, for example.

Marketing professor at Queen’s University, John Pliniussen, says we’re still expected to stick to a conventional letter format with proper syntax, capitalization, and salutations for professional communication. However, there’s also an expectation we know when to send a cool, flippy email to show our more social side.  

He tells me he’s just finished sending an email to an MBA student, half formal – answering career queries – half chatty, ending off with an emoticon. Pliniussen says that nowadays, clients and audiences are much more diversified, composed of different age groups, genders, and ethnic backgrounds.

To properly address those audiences, he says: “You have to understand more the power of colours, words, numbers and nuances.”  He adds that we’re expected to be able to flow into and out of different modes of communication on demand. 

That’s not a bad thing. This linguistic dance gives value to a wide range of communication skills and keeps us on our toes. 

The language of business also shows its multiplicity in the lingo related to technology. Lingo develops with every generation, evolving with what Pliniussen calls gecomacts (generational communication activities). 

Every new generation develops its own unique expressions that help brand it, based around activities. It’s just that now, there are so many ways to communicate with the written word.

Each innovation supplies its own language: the internet, blackberry, cell phone, and now Apple’s new iPhone, which will likely generate its own lingo. They’re all ways we can communicate with customers and colleagues, tailoring messages appropriately.

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Another way in which business language refuses to be buttonholed into one fixed meaning is buzz words.

They’ve long been used to represent an industry’s philosophies and vision, but an advertising insider says that ever since ‘branding’ came on the scene in the mid-1990s, they’ve really taken off, some even jumping into the mainstream. In this sense, buzz words are used to convey a desired image, to sell people on an idea or product. 

“Buzz words are simply a new way to express an idea that is actually common sensical but gives the impression that you own it,” says the advertising insider.  

She says they’re more important than ever in an era where marketing has become such a science, where more and more people come equipped with marketing degrees to deal with savvy, scrupulous customers.

But the problem with buzz words is that they can have so many meanings, they can become meaningless: vague words that mask unformulated decisions and ideas.  

What do ‘synergistic’, ‘value-added’, ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘shifting the paradigm’ really mean? ‘Moving forward’? Where else would you want to move?Why say ‘ideate’ when you mean ‘think of ideas’? 

My personal favourite is an advertising industry expression: ‘strategic integration and executional synergy across all communications’. Translated: don’t waste money and make sure your message is consistent. So why don’t people just say that??

Buzz words are the epitome of trying to prove we’re all things to all people, a push to show we’re knowledgeable – even when we’re not.

Are today’s buzz words going too far in the quest to impress:  are we selling out our language? 

Adopting new ways to be creative reflects a changing society, but there’s still a need to retain meaning. The purpose of language, after all, is to make oneself better understood.

In the early days of my journalistic schooling, I was taught that a journalist’s job is to communicate in the clearest way possible. I frequently comb through media releases, looking for the ‘real’ words tucked behind buzz words and other meaningless expressions — words that communicate something substantial about the issue at hand.

Purposeful words are rare, therefore coveted. Communication that gives meaning to every word lays thoughts and emotions bare, with no words to scamper behind.

I advocate a real economy of language. It just makes good business sense.

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