THE BLOG
03/15/2013 12:59 pm ET Updated May 15, 2013

Stop Talking Like an Idiot at Work

In 2011, I graduated from college and joined the ranks of working adulthood. What most struck me in my move from the academic to professional world was the shift in vernacular used by a wide variety of professionals. After nearly two years in the work world, I still feel like I am adjusting to some professional version of Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four newspeak.

A few examples of this professional newspeak, or "prospeak," as I like to call it, include:

Prospeak: "I know you haven't had a chance to go back and price the campaign but could you give us a ballpark figure?"
Translation: "When you get a second, can you give us an estimate of how much this is going to cost?"

Prospeak: "Why don't we circle back after you've fleshed this out a bit."
Translation: "Let's talk about this when you have all the necessary information."

Prospeak: "The memo is quite in-depth but gets a little far into the weeds in certain parts."
Translation: "Simplify this memo. It's too complicated."

We all do it, myself included, and used sparingly, prospeak is effective, as it is metaphorical speech and metaphors are powerful. Orwell shrewdly notes in his essay, Politics and the English Language, "A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image." Metaphors, when used appropriately, can often convey a thought more concisely and profoundly. But, after a while, metaphors become tired. They die and turn into clichéd phrases, "used without knowledge of their meaning."

The overuse of prospeak is evidence of two disconcerting phenomena, the first of which Orwell attributed to a simple lack of creativity: "... worn-out metaphors... have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves."

No matter how comfortable this metaphorical, linguistic box of prospeak, it risks seriously impeding creative thought. Professionals of all kinds are often tasked with "thinking outside the box." But thinking broadly and unconventionally is fundamentally impossible if the linguistic basis for thought remains so constrained by worn-out clichés.

The impact of language on thought has been debated since antiquity. Aristotle wrestled with "meaning creation," or, 'how meaning is derived from speech,' and vice versa. Nineteenth century philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, insisted that philosophy focus more deliberately on the role language plays in cognition. In 1956, linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf explored the relation of language to thinking, concluding that because of linguistic variance in grammar and usage, speakers of different languages understand and experience the world differently.

For millennia, there has been little doubt that the structure of a language conditions the way in which a speaker of that language thinks. It plainly follows that if you want to think outside the box, you must also speak outside the box, which prospeak often prohibits.

The second disconcerting phenomenon evidenced by the prevailing reliance on prospeak is the traditionally Puritanical discomfort with frankness. To employ a metaphor here, in our North American professional culture, people generally prefer to beat around the bush rather than risk offense. It's much less aggressive-sounding to say, "We need a ballpark figure," instead of simply asking, "How much is this going to cost?" The latter is blunt, yes. It's also efficient.

Before writing this article, I polled a handful of friends working in various fields and found that few professional settings are immune to prospeak. Admittedly, this email query was none too extensive, but revealing nonetheless. In fact, nearly every professional polled -- from investment bankers to consultants, travel agents, Capitol Hill staffers, public relations executives, entertainment associates and military personnel- - reported back with a laundry list of overused, workplace phrases.

The exception? Journalists.

"Journalism means communicating the facts to a wider audience. Extraneous words are frowned upon," reported a staff writer at one of Washington, D.C.'s leading beltway publications. "We don't use that kind of language in articles because people don't get what it means. We're encouraged not to speak in those terms either. Just get to the point."

Both in literature and the workplace, metaphors are undeniably valuable in evoking powerful images and concepts. But, when employed excessively at the expense of original thought and frankness, it is time to seriously reevaluate the linguistic effects of overused prospeak on both creativity and efficiency.