I’ve worked in offices large and small for most of my adult life. Although personally drawn to a more bohemian and artistic lifestyle, it doesn’t come with the type of self-sustaining paycheck I find so attractive. I like to sleep in a comfy bed and buy food, so I work in finance because, in the words of Willie Sutton the famous bank robber, “that’s where the money is.”
There are pros and cons. One of the pros: although there are divas, tantrums, and drama in even the dullest of financial accounting firms, these pale when you compare them to something like, say, ballet. We’ll get to the cons, but before you trot out the stereotype of the
Hollywood villain investment banker, please remember that assholes can be found in all walks of life. One of the most fun things to do is research the personal lives of those whose artistic works you love. They don’t come off too well, usually.
A downside specific to business is having to put up with daily hideous usage of the English language. It is painful, ubiquitous, and unavoidable. True, all professions and communities
use jargon to help distinguish the insiders from the outsiders. That’s why my kids can accuse me of “dragging it”, but I’d better apply this verb only to heavy objects lacking wheels that can’t be lifted with ease.
It’s the same in business. Managers in all industries like to use jargon. Using jargon makes them happy. It shows they know what is going on. They are in charge. They are the competent adults in the room. They can manage a budget and keep the riffraff accountable. Others may enjoy a rare chuckle during office hours, but not they. It’s nose to the grindstone and eye on the prize from the wee hours of the morning through and beyond Happy Hour. Is this just a New York thing? No, but you’ll find it here in spades. These words and phrases let you know who’s who. Shall we begin?
This is a venerable example, in use for so long that it hardly raises an eyebrow. Once upon a time, “impact” was a noun. “The impact of the charging bull broke all the eggs in my henhouse.” Dentists started using it to describe your genetically mutated jaw, as in “you
need dental surgery because you’ve got 4 impacted wisdom teeth.” Why would your teeth grow sideways into your other molars? Don’t they know up and down from sideways? No – which is why they get impacted.
Then, like wildfire, “impact” became a business verb meaning “to affect”. Why not just use the word “affect” when you mean “affect”? Why would you say “the company’s bottom line was adversely impacted by nonauthorized fiduciary activities” when you really mean “Our bank balance dropped to zero when the CFO drained the operating fund into his personal account in the Cayman Islands.”
Why indeed? See “optics”, below.
“This quarter, profits have experienced a negative growth cycle.” Well, this one is edging close to military euphemism such as “anti personnel device” (hand grenade), “surgical strike” (bombed) and “acquired the target” (also bombed).
Let’s try this one in everyday life: “the crops have been impacted by negative growth due to a negative increase in rainfall.” Translation? “The drought killed the corn.” Same thing in business: “we lost money.”
Why say it? See “optics”, below.
Three letter acronyms (tlas) are particularly burdensome for those of us with dyslexia (or dickslecksia as I like to say it), but are so ingrained in all areas of society that it is a plb (patently losing battle) to rto (root them out). I spend whole days speaking in nothing but tlas, often being impacted by tls (transposing letter syndrome) which can dmc (decrease my credibility).
Move the Needle
This one showed up just last year. Since it has replaced “kick it through the goalpost” and “move the ball down the field”, it is cautiously welcome. It might mean that sports
metaphors in business have had their day. “Move the needle” means that you are speeding up, you’re going places, you’re getting things done, you’re eating up your allotted tank of gas because you’re in the left lane and getting there fast. Maybe it’s the right lane, if you’re in London. “Move the needle” is always accompanied by pointedly literal PowerPoint slides featuring red, amber, and green speedometers, thermometers, or anything else that resembles a gauge. If you can’t explain it to your boss using an arrow accompanied by 15 words on a slide, don’t bother.
I hate this one. It appeared out of the ether in the winter of 2015, and suddenly it was everywhere. I haven’t heard it lately, so maybe it’s sinking back into the murk from whence
it came. What does it mean? Well, cadence is a perfectly good word that has to do with rhythm and pacing of speech, or of music. In business, it only means how many times a meeting appears on your calendar. If a calendar entry is actually CALLED the “cadence meeting”, it means you are free to dial in from home and check out mentally, because there’s no actual substance that will ever be addressed.
Keep it Crisp
Sometimes phrased as “execute crisply”, this means the same thing that RuPaul means when he says “good luck, and don’t fuck it up.” Managers who say this are usually in the midst of a corporate death march and are desperately grasping at straws to keep afloat while seeking victims to heave under a bus.
It sounds so science-y, doesn’t it? After all, optics is what got fixed on the Hubble space
telescope and gave us incredible images of deep space. Optics is a smiling lab technician in a crisp white jacket peering deep into your eyes. Optics is rainbows and smart people. Wrong! Optics in business means smoke and mirrors. It means the old soft shoe. It means the type of daily deception and hypocrisy that is necessary to keep everything running smoothly. “Optics” is why one of the first things that was invented after the “personal computer” was the “boss key”.
Here’s how it worked. You are smart and fast, so you finished your spreadsheet in 1 hour instead of 3. Now, you’re bored. You start playing “Klingons vs Zombies” until the next spreadsheet comes your way. But, that is bad “optics”! The boss doesn’t like it. It doesn’t
mean you’re not doing a good job, and probably better than everyone else — but it doesn’t LOOK like you’re doing a good job. It LOOKS like you’re having the type of individualized unapproved frivolous fun that is frowned upon at the Home Office. Even worse, TBB (“the big boss”) won’t like it if she catches a glimpse. TBB will start to wonder if your boss is keeping it crisp. Maybe she should allocate some negative growth to his budget?
Side note: approved frivolous fun includes discussing topics such as sports leagues or big-ticket purchases (cars, phones), playing ping pong in the pantry, and pulling airplanes for charity (a worthy cause, by the way).
The “boss key” was a hotkey (“ctrl-B”) that paused the game mid-Klingon Batleth-swipe, and switched to a random spreadsheet. It wasn’t a real spreadsheet – you finished that hours ago – it was just a screen picture. If you frowned slightly and leaned forward as if analyzing one of the cells, your boss would smile and pass you by. Optics intact, you could get back to the Klingons.
There are no more boss keys, but there are still many devious ways of “improving your optics”. I think you know them, too. If you take time to peer about in the cube farm, you’ll probably come up with lots more creative ones – like writing copy for a weekly blog in a corporate approved “meeting minutes” template using very small fonts.
Not that I would know.