I work in a grey, concrete-clothed 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 the caffeine-soaked piss that drips from first floor dick.
Over the past few months, I have 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 in my skin and under my skin and under my fingertips and under my eyelids and…everywhere. It’s just everywhere.
But (you may be pleased to learn, friends) the piss that I’m showered with doesn’t flow from first floor dick, but from first floor mouths. And it’s not really piss, it’s words. Office words.
Single shoulder-slumpers like ‘deliverables’, ‘upskill’ and ‘learnings’. Bilious conjoined twins of acid hate like ‘drill-down’, ‘value-add’ and ‘catch-up’. Wanky piss-parcels of email Poly-fila like ‘moving forward’, ‘enablers and barriers’ and ‘quick wins’.
The phrase I reserve my purest, fiercest hatred for is ‘close of play’. When I read it, when I am force-fed this faecal bisque at the end of a sentence like, ‘Would it be possible for you to turn that around by close of play?’ my eyes deaden. It’s just horrible.
Urban Dictionary describes ‘close of play’ thus: Increasingly common on business bullshit bingo cards the English-speaking world over, ‘close of play’ is the latest way to say ‘5.30’, presumably employed by people because they are cunts.
Not far wrong. But the real reason ‘close of play’ rankles with me is that the phrase originates from cricket.
Cricket is – and there is simply no questioning this – the single best thing that has ever happened to planet Earth, a glorious challenge of wit, skill and stamina (honestly). It’s my first love and the smell of oiled willow and the sight of the red ball arcing across the blue village sky still makes my heart sing.
So by trying to use cricket against me, to chivvy me along, to imply we’re mates asking favours of each other and to passive-aggressively poke me into doing my work with patronising cliché, the office drone has done its worst.
So what’s actually going on here? Where did this bizarre language come from? Why didn’t we section the first deranged psychopaths who used phrases like ‘boil the ocean’ and ‘soup to nuts’ and ‘stress test the straw man’ under the mental health act? Why is every (I haven’t checked, but I’m fairly certain) office in the Western World now infested with these basketcases?
I was reading Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct when I first thought about this, in which he describes the creation of pidgin languages – rough patchwork languages that develop among discrete peoples thrown together by historical circumstances (such as the multi-national slaves of the sugar plantations). With this fresh in my mind, I thought (and I thought myself fucking clever for doing so) that office-speak was therefore a sort of pidgin that developed organically to fill a language vacuum.
I reasoned thus: as our industrial economy gave way to our brittle knowledge economy and the first bewildered office pioneers trekked in from the factory floor, swapped their Dickies for T.M. Lewin and sat down behind their dreary desks, they needed a means to communicate with each other.
But with the vocabulary they brought with them, these naïve bushbabies couldn’t negotiate the early morning rush for workspace (hotdesking), nor describe the amount of downtime tedium (capacity) they now had, nor 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.
But actually I’m an idiot because this isn’t a satisfactory explanation at all. Language is the means by which the pinball thoughts that we have in 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 anti-language.
Let’s consider the following paragraph, which is the first 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, even now, over and over again, no thoughts arrive in my head. None.
So office-speak is not language. It’s not even jargon; it’s more verbal argon – inert strings of sounds or symbols used to confuse underlings, to deliberately bore them and keep them servile.
Office-speakers also use their anti-language to make themselves look busy and important and techy and numbersy.
When recently quizzed about his quest to acquire league-winning talent, Manchester United’s Chief Executive Ed Woodward replied that he had ‘experienced a number of conversations with agents and players’.
Experienced a number of conversations? Stop your mouth doing talking, Ed. You chatted to footballers and their advisers.
In using office-speak to describe his job, Woodward was trying to put on a show, to persuade us that what he’s doing is a grand and noble pursuit, that he’s a negotiator, a man whom history will remember as an architect of modern times, the successor to Lloyd George, the descendant of Gorbachev.
And Ed is not alone – any time your manager says they are ‘landscaping the competitive environment’ or praises ‘change agents’ or uses bizarre redundant phrases like ‘I, personally’ or says that they have ‘identified a number of key ways of working moving forward’ they are doing a Woodward.
To be fair, Ed Woodward didn’t create all this bollocks. He hasn’t been around long enough to have done so, nor does he seem to possess the head for it. So who did?
Well, I think American management consultants probably did. During the mid-20th Century, when today’s super power companies were looking to expand, nascent management consultancies were recruited by reticent executives to dole out fairly obvious, albeit effective advice. But (and this was their genius) the consultants knew that 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.
(That’s a very brief explanation, because you’ll find a much better description of the genesis of office-speak here.)
So we can probably blame management consultants for bringing us the language of today’s offices (most directly and irrefutably, they are responsible for the cowardly sophistry of mass-sackings – ‘rightsizing’, ‘streamlining’, ‘and ‘restructuring’). But that’s not the end of it (sorry).
Clearly, I’m not the only person that hates office-speak. Most people with whom I have sat near in offices hate it. I would hope you hate it. Ed Woodward probably used to loathe it himself until he started drinking the Kool-aid. It’s therefore a separate and more interesting question that if most people hate office-speak, then 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 concept of God or catchy tunes. Pictures of determined babies may be utterly hilarious, but they’re not really memes.
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 which 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. Provided there was some genetic contribution to the natural variation in male tail-length, this would in time cause the average tail-length of males in the population to increase.
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.
So I think the principles of evolution can explain office-speak’s rise. First, management consultants irresponsibly farted the meme into the minds of businessmen.
Then, in uncertain times, before office culture had the chance to bed in properly, people started using office-speak at the behest of the consultants. And because of their verbosity, the first office-speakers looked busier and looked more important and looked more techy and looked more numbersy. And they got promoted through the ranks for doing so, because that’s basically what office life is all about.
So despite annoying everyone and self-evidently 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 we’re now penalised for not using the anti-language of office-speak.
Those that do not possess the office-speaker’s loose tongue get ignored, or offend people with their transparent straight-talking, or seem reserved. I suffer particularly from the last of these three, because often in meetings there is absolutely nothing to say or that needs to be said – and it’s in that vacuum of insight that the office-speaker thrives.
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, just maybe, 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. And I know I will be waiting a very long time for the hard stop.
*I know, but it should be.