1 On the Scourge of 'Office Speak' | The Billfold

On the Scourge of ‘Office Speak’

Work is tiresome enough, and then there’s office speak. When transposed to the office, simple annoyances like your roommate eating a piece of cheese that belonged to you, or not filling up the Brita balloon into week-long campaigns of carefully executed passive aggression. It’s hard enough to tolerate your coworkers 40 hours out of the week, so why complicate it by perpetuating a vocabulary of empty phrases? It’s easy to create a false sense of comfort by lacing your daily speak at work with words that don’t make any sense at all.

The way we speak in offices now is a result of a movement to humanize the worker. Emma Green, writes about the history of office speak at The Atlantic and notes that the original reason for office speak was a shift in the thinking. Employees were no longer cogs in the machine, but individual human beings who excelled at work when they felt valued. By cloaking simple concepts in theoretical self-actualization, these phrases were meant to empower the employee and prime them for success.

I once worked with a chipper blonde girl who used to send emails that were thick with jargon-y buzzwords. “We really need this concept to be much more endemic to the program. I’m looking for a turnkey solution for this activation. Let’s circle back EOW and I’ll reach out and advise,” she’d write, and I would wrinkle nose at my computer screen, making it a point to respond using clean, plain, English.

“I’ll come up with a new idea for the event. I’ll let you know by Friday.”

The English language, for all of its quirks, functions well enough for a host of other scenarios. We break up with people we love in English, we talk about the Kimye wedding in English, we order bagels and buy toilet paper in English. There could very easily be separate vocabularies that exist for these different events, but we use the tools we have because they work. The scourge of office speak has been a thorn in my side ever since I started working, and there is no end in site. Here is a primer on some of the worst offenders.

All Hands/Town Hall Meeting: I understand the appeal of cultivating a soft and cuddly “we’re all in this together feeling during work hours, but I think that clarity is the missing piece of most office speak. Startup culture has bred an expectation of what company-wide meetings should be—wacky and inspiring, with a touch of the unexpected, like a group of train seals barking the Game of Thrones theme song while a Powerpoint slideshow rolls out key performance indexes. One company I worked for came close to that vision. The CEO hired a man on stilts off Craigslist, and had him unfurl a butcher-paper banner, detailing the company’s growth and direction. Aside from that, all other “all hands” meetings are usually dire affairs and serve primarily as the harbinger for massive layoffs or an attempt to bolster sagging company morale in the face of terrible press and general employee malaise.

Let’s take this offline: This is the verbal equivalent of yanking the keyboard out from under your hands as you type. It’s a clever way to tell someone you really just want to have a conversation with them in private, usually deployed in one of the many pointless meetings the workday is filled with. An offline conversation is a nice way to berate someone in the privacy of an office with a door about whatever shitty thing that happened in that meeting, or to talk shit about the person who said the stupid thing in the meeting you were just in.

Activation: You activate a machine, or the menthol feature in a Camel Crush cigarette. Fancy my surprise when I learned that activation was a fancy and entirely unnecessary term for an event, heavily sponsored by a benevolent benefactor paying lots of money for the opportunity to get a bunch of account executives and weird sales guys in seersucker blazers drunk in a tent at a music festival.

Please advise: I have an enduring fondness for this phrase because it is a study in the art of passive aggression. It’s the professionally acceptable way of calling someone out for not doing something you asked them to do, and for that purpose alone, it is brilliant. It’s rude, and feels grammatically incorrect, like a phrase my mother whose first language is not English, would use. What, precisely, am I meant to advise on? Tacking this phrase to the end of a strongly worded email regarding the lateness of an assignment is unnecessary, a sharp fingernail in the soft flesh above your elbow. “Why didn’t you do the thing I asked?” it hisses in your ear. “Tell me now, or we’ll have to take this offline.”


Megan Reynolds lives in New York.

Photo: David Wall


40 Comments / Post A Comment

garli (#4,150)

God yes I love a well placed “Please Advise” because everyone and their mom knows that it’s what you put at the end of a brutal call out. I don’t throw that one around lightly and always feel evil when it’s on the end of an email.

Aside from that I think a lot of business speak is just another version of insider language meant to keep the execs special and worker bees left out.

RiffRandell (#4,774)

My landlady regularly deploys “Please advise” and your description is on point.

Lily Rowan (#70)

I just told a colleague I’m about to start emailing him these faces: O.o, because of the level to which I cannot right now.

Non-anonymous (#1,288)

“Activation” is a new one on me. Maybe it’s because I work in education and there isn’t enough money around to make us worth activating.

Meanwhile, a “train seal” is probably just a trained seal, but I’m having more fun imagining a seal driving one of those miniature amusement park trains while balancing a big red ball on its nose.

Tripleoxer (#5,676)

My work has so many of these:

“Reach out”
“Ping him or her”
“we need to be firing on all cylinders”

nell (#4,295)

@Tripleoxer Ugh, ping! Why why why.

@nell “Ping them on that and if they don’t respond, circle back and we’ll escalate as needed.”

@Tripleoxer @nell I’m terrible because I really like ‘ping. Ping has the connotation of just a quick message sent out to remind someone else that you’re there and that you’re not necessarily needing an urgent reply (in this case bringing to mind the computer usage of ‘ping’ as well as a person flicking a glass to draw attention to herself and the brief sound the glass then makes).

Marissa (#467)

I laughed when I saw “circle back” in there. My coworkers and I mock anyone among us who takes that out of the office and into happy hour.

Allison (#4,509)

I love a good “Please advise” and all of the ways you can write a superficially polite email that is dripping in unsaid “you incompetent jerks”

samburger (#5,489)

Am I the only one who isn’t appalled by office jargon at all? I started my career in academe, where literally NOTHING was comprehensible to outsiders. “Ping me” seems so very innocuous to me by comparison.

andnowlights (#2,902)

@samburger This. I work at a university and these make so much sense compared to some of the things I hear.

Lily Rowan (#70)

@samburger I love jargon in general, but not every specific example.

guenna77 (#856)

anyone who sends me an email ending ‘please advise’ doesn’t get an answer back other than ‘i’m sure you’ll figure it out’.

i have never seen it used to ‘call someone out’ who actually hasn’t done what they are supposed to do. rather, it’s usually used by those assholes themselves who want to punt the ball instead of doing their work. they make up bullshit issues that they claim they are incapable of solving themselves, and write ‘please advise’ as a way of putting the onus on someone else; plausible deniability should the boss ask: “well, i emailed so and so, see?”

@guenna77 I only get “Please advise” at the end of technical support emails – which is pretty much the user’s business speak way of saying “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing and I’m too lazy to read your help docs or figure it out on my own thanks.” So, yes, agreed.

lilijing (#6,798)

Not sure if it’s purely office speak, but a “gentle reminder” is anything but that.

andnowlights (#2,902)

@lilijing I had a former coworker who actually did make gentle reminders using the phrase “gentle reminder!” It was so nice and she was the sweetest person you’ve ever met in your life!

Heather F G (#6,074)

@andnowlights @lilijing The HR department at my old job was notorious for being full of very young, very beautiful, very cold people, so my department always giggled a little bit at their “Friendly Reminders”.

Beans (#1,111)

My roommate works for a startup and uses these jargony phrases ALL THE TIME whenever I bring up a problem we’ve been having in the apartment. Like, “thanks for your feedback” when I tell her that she left the oven on all night long. Seriously.

The Mole (#2,633)

“It is what it is.”
Except when it’s something else.

honey cowl (#1,510)

@The Mole There is nothing I hate more than “It is what it is.” Tautologies have no place in the workplace.

nell (#4,295)

I worked at a start-up where for some reason common parlance was “can we pow wow about____” which absolutely drove me up the wall. MEET. The word is MEET.

chevyvan (#2,956)

I’m in academia. I had a colleague tell us at a meeting how she had all these friends who had MBAs who knew all this cool office jargon (“SOPs!”) and wanted us to start using it. I shut it down immediately in a very surly way (which I felt bad about, but UGH). If I make less money working in academia than I otherwise would in the private sector, I should at least be able to avoid the daily immersion in corporate-speak. Academic-speak is bad enough…and yes, I am guilty of using it!

Ping me later
We need to get in the ideaation phase
Please advise next steps
It’s the nature of the business

Also it’s review time at my office and in the email sent out for peer review the opening line was, “___ has asked for the gift of feedback…”

I saw that and nearly rolled my eyes out of my head.

rhinoceranita (#5,858)

Please advise is to the office as Bless your heart is to the South

Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

@rhinoceranita This! Thankfully. I enjoy me a good “please advise”.

Marille (#5,933)

@rhinoceranita “Bless your heart” is my FAVORITE part of living in the South. It gives you license to say just about anything about a person you dislike, because that “bless your heart” makes gives it the veneer of a charming little foible.

peutetre (#2,641)

My office is very fond of “revert back” used (flagrantly incorrectly) to mean “get back to me when you’re done with this.” WHYYY. Not only is it’s wrong, it’s redundant.

kellyography (#250)

I work in academia but the most cringeworthy words my boss throws around (and which I will be glad never to hear again once I leave this job) are “interlocutor” and “database” when referring to our contact mailing list.

Academia has these too! My hate-favorite is “To piggyback on that…” (meaning “to add to what that guy said”)


Tripleoxer (#5,676)

@mirror_father_mirror My colleagues use “To piggyback…” CONSTANTLY. Infuriating.

Clara (#3,450)

Megan R.: Is the color of your former co-worker’s hair relevant to to your post?

pearl (#153)

Am I mistaken about the meaning of this word or is “deck” just a misguided attempt to make PowerPoint presentation sound hip?

jenenifer (#5,422)

@pearl ugh, ‘deck’ is the worst. It’s a powerpoint, or a presentation if you don’t want to use the software name, but it certainly isn’t a deck. That one always gets my back up.

ragazza (#4,025)

“Bandwidth,” as in “do you have the bandwidth to take on this project?” You mean do I have the TIME? No, I do not. Now shut up and go away.

honey cowl (#1,510)

@ragazza I looooove bandwidth! I think of it as the space in your brain that you can use to think about things. Sometimes I have the time but I don’t have the mental bandwidth!

hershmire (#695)

I am in frequent e-mail contact with corporate lawyers and I’m pretty certain they’re all required to put “Please advise.” in their signatures (which seems a tad ironic).

Fleming Coffman (#6,807)

Oh, how I hate when people say “reach out!” You’re just sending email, not holding an intervention. I also want to ban the use of solution as a verb.

TechGuy (#6,820)

The article is horrible and the comments are amazing. The word deck to refer to a presentation started to be used when you had a real deck of slides that you put under a projector. I guess the idiot kids here don’t remember that period. The “Please advise” ending has been around for at least 30 years and is a normal way of saying let me know what you would like me to do. It is an easy way to say I respect your opinion. (And most of the opinions here don’t deserve it.) Maybe low level support people are bothered by that ending. Real engineers that get stuff done think it normal. Circle back has also been around for years and is a much easier way than saying “go back to those people/person and make sure we understand what they want.” I am pretty sure most of the people complaining on this thread don’t have lots of work experience . And the author is just making shit up.

In design work, you get a lot of requests to ‘rejigger’ things. This request makes me want to rejigger my foot up my collaborator’s ass.

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