piece of work

Why Do We Use a Different Vocabulary at Work?

Photo: NBC

Piece of Work is a column about workplace behavior and feelings: everything that happens at the office, except your actual job.

In my place of work, there is perhaps no “word” more ominous than “hihi,” typed over Slack, sent by a person senior to you. Or, at least, that’s how I feel about it. “Hihi” means a request is imminent, or worse, a correction. “Hihi” means Listen up, buddy, in a not-nice way that is absolutely desperate to seem nice. One “hi,” unpunctuated, is bad enough, but two, joined together, is almost always a sign of unwelcome news. The same is true for the always disingenuous “quick Q.”

I feel comfortable enough saying this in plain view of my peers and superiors because I strongly suspect that they, themselves, hate “hihi” just as they hate its dismissive cousin, “kk,” which means something closer to If you say so. And yet, we continue to speak to each other this way, in this weird, repetitive, deceptively cheery tone. I don’t mean buzzwords, like “synergy” or “deep dive,” though those are also annoying. Let’s call it Slackspeak: the singsong, unnecessarily abbreviated, robotically polite way we talk to co-workers over Slack, or other similar messaging services. Dialects may vary from workplace to workplace — I don’t know, for instance how common it is to use “bandwidth” elsewhere the way we do, as in, “Do you have the bandwidth to add X project to your pile?” — but you know what I’m talking about. You have your own version, and you’ve likely found yourself slipping into it even as you’ve spent so much time mocking it when you’re off the clock.

But why? What comes over us when we’re at work that makes us sink into Slackspeak? I asked Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist and an adjunct full professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, for help.

Let it first be known that our self-hatred regarding the way we talk at work is nothing new, says Nunberg. Documented complaints to that effect date back to the 19th century at least, during which time workspeak (what I’ll call Slackspeak pre-Slack) was deemed “shoppy,” or too obviously derived from the professions, not dissimilar from what we now might call “talking shop.” Nunberg provides the example of an 1840 letter written by politician and author Thomas Chandler Haliburton, who wrote: “Still, my attention was riveted (I fear that word is shoppy).” Riveted was a work word, as in “secured by rivets,” and when Haliburton borrowed it for another context he, apparently, felt he must do so apologetically.

Our modern hatred for workspeak, however, took root in the 1970s, hand in hand with proponents of the “corporate culture.” During that time, says Nunberg, corporate consultants promising high employee performance were hired to “engineer” workplace lexicons meant, ostensibly, to inspire. Here, for instance, is where we see the word visionary, previously derided as an “airy-fairy intellectual,” newly defined as “a forward-thinking leader.” See also mission, as in the larger sense of purpose supposedly driving a company, or the profound meaning an employee is meant to derive from her work. These are not words we use in other contexts, says Nunberg. “At dinner parties, you don’t say, ‘Well, our mission is to retire by such and such and then visit France,’ or ‘Our mission is to get our kids into a good primary school.’” In normal life, we have goals and plans and things we want to do. At work, we have missions.

“Buzzwords” like mission and visionary aren’t exactly the same thing as Slackspeak, but both fall under the broader umbrella of “stuff we wouldn’t say anywhere besides work,” and both have been used (inadvertently or not) to unify many companies’ cultures. The desired effect is not unlike that of an Army boot camp, says Nunberg: get everyone using the same, specific terminology, and some kind of bond will likely follow. But workspeak’s very context-specific nature is what also drives us craziest about it. “You’re supposed to manifest a kind of enthusiasm and solidarity and esprit de corps independent of the way you feel about your ordinary life, so there’s an artificiality to it,” says Nunberg. Corporate culture asks that your personal goals and sense of purpose change when you pull into the office park, but most people just don’t feel that passionately about their jobs, being asked to fake it will eventually grow tiring for most. And in the internet age, our tolerance for the latest workplace slang is lower than ever.

Before our interview, Nunberg told me he consulted his collection of the journal American Speech’s “Among the New Words,” an annual list of emerging words dating back to the 1940s. “I was looking at the columns and realizing that the words on the new words list from the 1940s were still with us, but the words on the new words list from the 1970s were gone,” he says. “Words have a shorter half life now. They crawl up on the beach and they’re washed out by the next tide.” Consider, for instance, the cringey evolution of the buzzword “disruption.” Where once it might have taken years for words like these to seep into our daily work lives, it now takes minutes. And that which is overused (especially by a manager you might not like) becomes annoying, fast.

Still, I wonder if there isn’t something vaguely benevolent in the way we continue to use Slackspeak with each other, even at the same time we make fun of it. It is one thing to know, abstractly, that your co-worker probably isn’t just reaching out to say “hi” (twice), but it’s another for her to dispense with the greeting entirely. “Sounds great” isn’t always what I mean, but I say it because it’s my line, and we’ve got a performance to get through. If we can agree to assume we’d all rather be elsewhere, isn’t it polite, in a way, to simply play our parts, sending our office’s preferred keywords back and forth until we can go home?

For his part, Nunberg thinks employees’ willful participation in Slackspeak only creates “a certain kind of institutionalized cynicism,” in which we know what we’re saying is bullshit, but we keep saying it anyway. Cynicism, says Nunberg, only allows us to play the game while at the same time telling ourselves that we’re not really submitting ourselves to the tyranny of workspeak, or its broader corporate messaging: We’re not like the other employees, we’re ironic employees. Even in “informal” offices, where seltzer is free and jean shorts are acceptable, Slackspeak creeps in — “hihi” traded for a studiously casual “heeeeeyy.”

Of course, the same principle applies to much of our everyday, clichéd behavior: When an acquaintance asks how you are, you’re likely to say “good” not necessarily because it’s true, but because it’s easiest, both for you and for the person who asked. Maybe life is just a balance between that which you want to do and that which you should, and the way we communicate at work is part of that negotiation.

That said, I still think “kk” is truly grotesque.

Why Do We Use a Different Vocabulary at Work?