Corporate Speak - Dangers of Poor Communication in the Workplace

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Learn about the problematic nature of corporate-speak and garbage language endemic to modern work culture. We dive into the dangers of poor communication in the workplace and how you can avoid the pitfalls of corporate speak.

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Comment below if you understood what I just said.

If you didn’t understand, you’re not alone. Frankly, there isn’t much to understand. It might sound impressive or intimidating, but it’s really just “garbage language”.

Garbage language is a term coined byAnna Wiener in her Silicon Valley memoir, Uncanny Valley. It’s an umbrella term for “corporatespeak”, buzzwords, and business jargon.

It’s the kind of language that is endemic to the business world and modern corporate culture.

But is it an effective way to communicate? 

That’s exactly what we’re going to unpack today!

So why is garbage language considered garbage?

Well, for starters it’s a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, meaning it’s incoherent language devoid of meaning. Anna Wiener calls it a “nonlanguage [that’s] neither beautiful nor especially efficient.”

And if it confuses you, then it’s achieved its purpose. 

In fact, in her article, Garbage Language Why do corporations speak the way they do? Molly Young posits that “the hideous nature of these words — their facility to warp and impede communication — is also their purpose.”

Hold on - that seems odd, doesn’t it? The point of this type of communication is to block communication? Seem oxymoronic, I’d say.

But as Molly Young points out, “Garbage language permeates the way that we think of our jobs and shapes our identities as workers… The point is concealment; it is less obvious what so many of us are trying to hide.”

In computer programming, elegant coding solutions are called patterns. By contrast, solutions that make the code more complex or less efficient are called “anti-patterns”.

Garbage language is an antipattern. It eschews clarity in favor of complexity. In fact, going forward, let’s give this antipattern of communication a name: “anti-communication”.

Why Anti-Communication is a Problem

Anti-communication is problematic for many reasons. Let’s run through a few of them.

Causes Confusion

If you can’t understand what someone is saying, it’s hard to determine what to do next.Anti-communication sews confusion because the message is garbled. There’s little accountability associated with it, because it’s unclear what the meaning is in the first place. 

As Molly Young puts it, “In an environment of constant auditing, it’s safer to use words that signify nothing and can be stretched to mean anything, just in case you’re caught and required to defend yourself.” 

This lack of clarity causes individuals and teams to make mistakes and veer off track.

Suppresses Communication

Anti-communication is cloaked in self-important, authoritative-sounding words and phrases. It’s intended to sound complex and unapproachable so that it doesn’t invite a response, further communication, or investigative inquiry that might contradict it. 

After all, it’s hard to speak out against language that you don’t understand! This silences important dissenting opinions and reduces the diversity of ideas being shared.

Produces Negative Emotions

Anti-communication employs large, intimidating language for another reason. It evokes feelings of shame and inadequacy among the audience. 

The listeners feel embarrassed because they don’t understand what is being said. This implicitly raises the speaker and lowers the listeners. It’s a kind of power play that hurts the group.

Molly Young calls it “empowerment language” because it makes the person using it feel more important and that their work is more meaningful than they may actually feel. It’s self-aggrandizing. She says it’s “a way of selling our jobs back to ourselves.” Chew on that for a minute.

Stifles Productivity

Because of all the reasons above, anti-communication can have a significant negative impact on productivity. Confused colleagues, suppressed communication, and negative emotions all result in less work getting done and more frustration among the people doing the work. These issues often snowball and eventually you end up with project delays and employees quitting.

What’s even worse is when this style of communication leaks outside the workplace into the rest of our lives.

Imagine you started speaking this way to your friends and family. Its empty meaninglessness has a distancing effect on those it’s used on. Pushing away the people you care about most is the last thing you want to do. You see how destructive this could be.

So What Should We Do Instead?

The antidote to anti-communication is wonderfully straightforward: Say what you mean using as simple language as you can muster.

Instead of adding complexity to your communication, stomp it out entirely.

If you don’t have anything to say, then say so, or better yet, say nothing at all. If you require further clarification before providing an opinion, get that clarification. If you wish to be persuasive, take the time to gather the data needed to bolster your claims. Or ask for that time.

Whatever the case, under no circumstances should you feel compelled to utter a nonsensical garbage phrase that makes you sound authoritative while confusing people and wasting their time.

The goal in communication is not to sound self-important and smart. The goal is simply to be understood. It is to be intelligible, comprehensible. 

The best communication is the clear kind. 


Phew, I guess we had a lot to say on that topic. Let’s quickly recap:

  • Garbage language is nonlanguage. It’s anti-communication.
  • Its function is to conceal a lack of understanding or authority.
  • It causes confusion, suppresses communication, produces negative emotions, and stifles productivity
  • For these reasons, it is the antipattern of communication.

Sure, when someone is using garbage language, they are saying words. But their meaning is jumbled and nebulous. Don’t let garbage language trick you into thinking those who use it are good communicators. 

If anything, when you hear garbage language, treat that as a signal that the speaker doesn’t know what they are talking about.

Remember that our goal in communication is to achieve shared meaning, inclusivity, and transparency.

Clear communication shows clear thinking. It produces results and engenders appreciation and respect.

So the next time you hear garbage language, push back with clear language, and demand clear communication in return.

closing sign-off

So now that I've shared our thoughts, I would love to hear about your experiences with garbage language and anti-communication. Where did you encounter it and how did it make you feel? What strategies can you think of to combat it? Share that with me and the Explearning community in the comments below.

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With that, have an awesome week, Explearners. 

Thank you so much for joining me and I’ll see you next time for your next Explearning lesson.

Happy Explearning ⚡