Where Did Soul-Sucking Office-Speak Come From?

How did we get to the point where people are constantly spouting nonsense about "deliverables," "drill-down," "catch-up," "moving forward," and "quick wins"?

Illustrations by D​an Evans

This post originally appeared on VICE UK

I work in a gray concrete office block in North London. On the first floor of that office block are the gents' toilets, where three urinals stand shoulder-to-shoulder all day long, swallowing liters of caffeinated piss.

Over the past few months I've felt increasingly empathetic towards these silent ceramic soldiers, these Armitage ranks. Because I, too, am showered with piss every day. I get home and I stink of it. It's in my hair and in my nose and on my skin and beneath my fingertips and under my eyelids and... everywhere. It's just everywhere. 

But—as you may be pleased to learn (or maybe not; I can't imagine you're that emotionally invested in me at this stage)—the piss I'm showered with doesn't flow from the dicks of my colleagues, but their mouths. And it's not really piss; it's words. Office words. Words like " deliverables," "upskill," and "learnings." Bilious conjoined twins of acidic gibberish like "drill-down," "value-add," and "catch-up." Wretch-inducing parcels of email Polyfila like "moving forward," "enablers and barriers," and "quick wins."

If you've ever worked in an office, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

But where did this bizarre language actually come from? Why didn't we banish the first sociopaths who force-fed us phrases like "boil the ocean" and "open the kimono"? And why is every office in the Western world now infested with people who use them? These are people who mostly seem all right—who have a sibling, or a dog, or a Sky Sports subscription: normal person stuff—but insist on talking like lobotomized middle managers.

I was reading Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct when I first thought about this. Because somewhere in there he describes the creation of pidgin languages—rough patchwork dialects that develop among peoples of different origins who've all been thrown together in one place (the multinational slaves of America's sugar plantations, for example). With that in mind, could office speak therefore be a kind of pidgin that developed organically to fill what was once a language vacuum?

As our industrial economy gave way to the brittle knowledge economy—as the first bewildered office pioneers trekked in from the factory floor, swapping their Dickies for T.M. Lewin—they needed a means to communicate with each other. 

The vocabulary they brought with them wasn't equipped for this new environment. They couldn't negotiate the early morning rush for workspace ("hot-desking"), or describe the amount of downtime tedium ("capacity") they now had, or needlessly quantify completely abstract concepts ("operationalize"). So they cut and pasted words and phrases from other reference points—from sport ("heads up," "ballpark figure," "touch base:), from literature ("swallow the frog") and mysticism ("blue-sky thinking")—in order to make sense of their confusing new world.

Really, though, this isn't a satisfactory explanation at all. Language is the means by which the pinball thoughts we have bouncing around our heads are ordered, arranged, and deposited into the minds of others. And by this definition, office-speak is not a language or even a pidgin; it's essentially an anti-language. 

Let's consider the following, which is the first paragraph from a real email I have received:

I've started thinking about our direction of travel under a number of key areas, keeping in mind that our long term ambitions could really be articulated around increasing reach, engagement, income and, importantly, impact through creative, compelling, resonant articulation of our work.

Have any thoughts formed in your head after reading that? I doubt it. I know the context of this email. I know who wrote it and why they wrote it and when they wrote it. But reading it now, over and over again, no thoughts arrive in my head. None.

So office-speak is not language. It's not even jargon, but more a verbal argon—inert strings of sounds or symbols used to confuse underlings, to deliberately bore them and keep them servile. 

I'm not the only person who hates office-speak. Most people I've sat next to in offices hate it. I'd hope you hate it, too. So if most people hate office-speak, how did it spread so quickly and so far?

To explain this, I think it helps to think of office-speak as a meme. In the true sense of the word (first described by genius biologist/idiot theologian Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene), memes are the "genes of culture," powerful concepts passed between our minds and down through generations, broadly staying the same, but subtly changing and evolving in response to the shifting sands of the cultural milieu.

Classic examples of memes are the concepts of God, or catchy songs.  Pictures of Kanye looking sad in short-shorts and a red helmet that doesn't really fit him may be hilarious and everything, but they're not really memes in the strictest sense.

Richard Dawkins in 2008. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

As I've been at pains to point out, office-speak is a very bad thing. It opposes productivity and obstructs meaning. But that doesn't stop it being a powerful meme. Evolution is blind and can actually encourage the development of characteristics that appear intuitively burdensome. Dawkins describes evolution's ability to create seemingly bizarre animal characteristics in one of the most captivating sections of The Selfish Gene:

Extravagances such as the tails of male birds of paradise may have evolved by a kind of unstable, runaway process. In the early days, a slightly longer tail than usual may have been selected by females as a desirable quality in males, perhaps because it betokened a fit and healthy constitution. A short tail on a male might have been an indicator of some vitamin deficiency—evidence of poor food-getting ability. Or perhaps short-tailed males were not very good at running away from predators, and so had had their tails bitten off.

Anyway, for whatever reason, let us suppose that females in the ancestral bird of paradise species preferentially went for males with longer than average tails.

Females followed a simple rule: look all the males over, and go for the one with the longest tail. Any female who departed from this rule was penalized, even if tails had already become so long that they actually encumbered males possessing them. This was because any female who did not produce long-tailed sons had little chance of one of her sons being regarded as attractive. Like a fashion in women's clothes, or in American car design, the trend toward longer tails took off and gathered its own momentum.

Looking at it like this, I think it's reasonable to apply the principles of evolution to the rise of office-speak.

The first seeds were sown in the mid-to-late 20th century, when today's superpower companies were beginning to expand rapidly. Executives of big players like General Electric and AT&T became frightened by the pace of their competitors' progress and sought comfort in the counsel of the newly fashionable management consultancies Bain, BCG, and McKinsey.

But (and this was their genius) the consultants knew they needed to dress their advice up in order to paint themselves as superhuman business oracles. And they did this not with branding or advertising, but with insidious neology—they created the new-age-techno-babble-pseudo-scientific nonsense of office-speak. (Most directly and irrefutably, management consultants are responsible for the cowardly language of mass-sackings: " rightsizing," "streamlining," and "restructuring.") 

A painting of John D Rockefeller, who you can partly blame for office-speak. Image via Wikimedia Commons

As soon as this meme was born, managers began breathing it out upon their subjects. And as they began to adopt this anti-language, office-speakers started to look busier and more important and techy and numbersy. They thrived in meetings where there was absolutely nothing to say—and nothing that needed to be said—by powering out office words to fill the vacuum of insight. They talked about "change agents" and "landscaping the competitive environment" and began to see themselves as negotiators—people who history will remember as the architects of modern times, successors to David Lloyd George, intellectual descendants of John D Rockefeller.

And because they looked busier and looked more important and looked more techy and looked more numbersy, the early office-speakers were quickly promoted through the ranks. Because that's basically what office life was, is and will always be about. 

So despite annoying everyone and being an impediment to effective communication, the office-speaking meme became associated with power and efficiency and money in much the same way that a long tail became associated with attractiveness in birds of paradise. And once office-speak became yoked together with power and money, the ratcheting wheels of evolution took over. Because now, we're penalized for not using the anti-language of office-speak; those who don't possess the office-speaker's loose tongue get ignored, or offend people with their transparent straight-talking, or seem reserved. 

This is all deeply disconcerting for me, because I know I will never be an office-speaker. I think I missed "the golden window," or something. But if my theory holds true, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Dawkins finishes his section on the bird of paradise with the sentence:

[The trend towards longer tails] was stopped only when tails became so grotesquely long that their manifest disadvantages started to outweigh the advantage of sexual attractiveness.

So maybe—hopefully—there'll be a backlash against all this rot when office-speak goes too far and reaches a tipping point of counter-productive drivel. When more words in work conversations are nonsensical than sensical and the Western world's economies are crippled by linguistic disease.

But unfortunately, I know that evolution takes a very long time. So I also know I'll be waiting a very long time for "the hard stop."

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