“When you’re high up in the corporate food chain, you can disavow status trappings like jargon,” says Brown. But if you’re, say, a junior employee at a company where jargon is the norm, refusing to participate in an accepted form of status-signalling could be disastrous. “It’d be the same as saying, ‘I’m not going to wear a suit. I’m going to show up in shorts and a T-shirt.”
Corporate jargon presents an interesting case study in modern workplace dynamics. Brown believes it’s no coincidence that its usage has expanded in recent years – he argues it’s a natural consequence of “infinite” professional communication opportunities.
“One-hundred years ago, I would know everyone in my town. I would take the same profession as my parents,” he says. But today’s professionals can use email, LinkedIn and Zoom to network with strangers from around the world in minutes. A wider network means more opportunities to be judged – positively or negatively – by potential colleagues, he argues.
“We are short-cutting machines. We make inferences based on everything – what I’m wearing as a professional, what my Zoom background looks like.” For some, jargon may be a way to quickly establish credibility – or the performance of it. “The more public we are,” he says, “the more we have to perform.”
Cooper echoes that sentiment, adding that the rise in jargon accompanies an overall increase in professional insecurity. “If we were in a [more optimistic labour] market, I don’t think we would have this language as much,” he says. “We wouldn’t need to cover things up like job loss, mergers or restructuring. Now, people are worried – and in that context, you’re going to get funny language to try to cover it up, to make it seem as though it’s not as bad as you think. But it is.”
Whether jargon is used to obscure a dismal labour situation or to establish credibility in a pinch, it’s all just performance. Love it or hate it, if status signalling is good enough for the animal kingdom, it’s good enough for the boardroom.