Commentary: Corporate Doublespeak | KERA News

Commentary: Corporate Doublespeak

Dallas, TX –

There is a funny story going around California these days about Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay and possible contender for the California Governorship: She is so wedded to business jargon she named her sons Prioritize and Skill Set. This is of course a joke, but it's funny how indecipherable most corporate jargon is these days. Not only is corporate America in trouble financially, but most of us can't understand what exactly these executives are saying when they explain what caused the trouble.

Take John Thain. He's the former CEO of Merrill Lynch who spent $1.2 million to decorate his office and gave $4 billion in bonuses to company executives. Thain speaks in what seems like a language all his own. It largely consists of verbal gymnastics and redundancies which succeed in saying little while being verbose. When explaining how Merrill Lynch lost so much money, he said, "Virtually all of the losses were from legacy positions that had already been there." First of all this statement is redundant. Secondly, what exactly are legacy positions and why can't you simply say what exactly they are? They are mistakes you made in investing and planning, which of course sounds much worse than bad legacy positions. In explaining why he approved huge bonuses for senior executives even as he was negotiating for Merrill Lynch to be taken over, he stated, "If you don't pay your best people, you will destroy your franchise. Those people can get jobs at other places, they will leave. So the necessity to maintain the franchise is why you really have to pay." Huh? Why not just say "If we want to keep good people we have to pay them a competitive salary?" Oh, maybe because the people aren't that good or they wouldn't have run Merrill into the ground in the first place, but he could never say that because that might be, well, the truth!

Of course, the George Orwell of corporate doublespeak was Alan Greenspan who once said, "Any onset of increased investor caution elevates risk premiums and, as a consequence, lowers asset values and promotes the liquidation of the debt that supported higher asset prices." Um, okay, I guess that makes sense to someone, but not to me. I think no one really ever understood what Greenspan was saying but as long as the stock market was rising and people were working, he could have spoken Klingon and everyone would have been happy. It's different now. What seemed like a quaint characteristic of a gentlemanly grandfather now just seems irritating and unnecessarily impenetrable.

I was recently in a meeting for a non profit I'm involved in, and someone kept saying we needed to "dialogue" about something. The English major in me cringed. English is a beautiful language, but it has become bastardized by people who simply refuse to say what they mean. They have created this language that succeeds in obfuscating their real meaning, while making them sound intelligent. It's a lot of sound and fury but really signifies nothing except to perhaps protect or inflate the ego of the "human thesaurus" speaking.

I think a stipulation for businesses to take TARP or bailout money should be that all corporate jargon is banished from corporate communications. In the name of interface and Six Sigma everywhere, please stop the madness! If you don't do it for me, please do it for little Skill Set and Prioritize Whitman.

Stephen Whitley is a writer from Dallas.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.