Banishing Buzzwords

buzzwords2
Elizabeth Klingen/Staff

The other day, I found myself at an information session for Ernst and Young, a “professional services” firm. Walking in, I had no idea what that meant. An hour and a half later, I still didn’t.

Somewhere between “enterprise intelligence” and “risk appetite,” I realized that the presenter’s words were going in one ear and out the other, not due to a lack of interest but because those phrases genuinely meant nothing to me.

I looked down at the sample case they’d given us; the first bullet on the instruction page told us to “utilize” a writing instrument. I picked up my pencil and began to “use” it with a hint of condescension.

As I looked around the room at a group that seemed perfectly at ease with “pain points” and “ideation,” however, the smug smile left my face. I felt like the only one who didn’t know what was happening, and the next time the presenter mentioned his company’s “innovative paradigm,” I just nodded along.

It’s a feeling I’ve had before, not just at business presentations but at all sorts of career fairs. When the recruiter from Yelp mentioned his company’s “strategic approach to scalability,” I pretended I knew what was happening because everybody else seemed to know.

The question is whether these terms, which I consider buzzwords, are clear to everyone but me, or whether, to some degree, they’re commonly used because nobody wants to reveal that he or she doesn’t know what they mean.

Jargon is present for a reason: A trader doesn’t explain what a “derivative” is every time he uses it for the same reason that my linear algebra professor uses “row-echelon form.” Every field has phrases that aren’t self-explanatory to those on the outside but useful to those in the know.

But I’m not convinced that “leveraging industry best practices” is something that can’t be explained in everyday language to the students listening to your presentation, and I see no legitimate reason that the instructions can’t say to “use a pen or pencil.” Jargon, despite its negative connotation, might be necessary. Buzzwords aren’t.

The distinction is twofold. Jargon narrows the scope of the conversation, whereas buzzwords broaden it, and jargon arises out of a genuine need, while buzzwords, I want to argue, are part of a power game.

There are technical terms that I don’t understand because I lack knowledge: I don’t know what a hash table is because I’ve never studied one. But hash tables, while unintelligible to many who aren’t computer science majors, are a particular technology — using the term, among the right audience, is more specific than saying “a way to structure data.”

In contrast, buzzwords are a cop-out. When you tell me you’re working with “thought leaders” to “disrupt the state of the market,” you’ve raised more questions than you’ve answered. Buzzwords generalize: Which leaders, and what are they thinking about?

So why use buzzwords at all, especially when you’re talking to a group of college students about your company? Because every time you use a word or phrase just unclear enough that nobody understands it but everybody thinks he or she should, you’ve increased your own importance. Suddenly, it’s not about telling me what your company does but about explaining what your company does, which is an entirely different power relationship.

It’s something I’m guilty of, too: I’ve told my friends I’m studying Nietzsche’s idea of the superhistorical and waited for them to ask for an explanation. It feels good to be the one dispensing knowledge.

As for the students in the audience, the pressure to look and act smart understandably increases when you’re in front of people who might give you a job. Few want the negative attention of asking what “team agility” means, which only perpetuates the feeling that everyone else knows what’s going on.

I’m by no means the first one to point out the importance of buzzwords in fitting in with a group. But in the particular context of job fairs and recruitment meetings, I think buzzwords are particularly dangerous. As a freshman without a clear career goal, much less a major, the information about what it means to work at a “professional services” firm could be extremely valuable, could determine what I spend the next decade doing. Nobody wins when students choose a career without fully understanding it.

Maybe by the time I’m a senior, after a few more years of career fairs, I’ll be able to decipher what an “innovative mindshare” is. Until then, though, I can’t help but feel like I’m missing out on information that could quite literally change the course of my life.

 

Contact Sahil Chinoy at [email protected]