Nobody knows what you’re talking about. And they are afraid to tell you.
That’s the conclusion of a LinkedIn and Duolingo survey of more than 1,000 U.S. workers just released this morning. Among its findings:
The most confusing workplace jargon terms are…
- Boiling the ocean
- Herding cats
- Ducks in a row
- Move the needle
- Run it up the flagpole
- Drinking the Kool-Aid
- Out of pocket
- Building the plane while flying it
- Throwing spaghetti at the wall
- Juice worth the squeeze
The most commonly used workplace jargon terms are…
- Ducks in a row
- Out of pocket
- Too many cooks in the kitchen
- Drinking the Kool-Aid
- Circle back
- Double click
- Take it offline
- Parking lot
- Fully baked
- Low-hanging fruit
The most offensive workplace terms (and some explanations on why)...
- Chinese menu
- Bottom of the totem pole
- Open the kimono
- That's crazy talk
- Beat a dead horse
- More than one way to skin a cat
- The peanut gallery
- Boomerang employees
Millennials are guilty of using the most jargon at work, and Gen Z employees are the most bothered by it, according to the survey. More than half of professionals surveyed say that when they started their most recent job, they had to figure out the workplace jargon on their own; this was most acute among Gen Z and millennials (70%), and lowest among Boomers (27%). Half say misunderstandings around workplace jargon lead to wasted time every week.
But the problem isn’t just that too much jargon is annoying, or that it drags down productivity. It’s also a real barrier to inclusion, creating a sense of clubbiness of a group more seemingly “in the know.” Some 61% of the survey’s respondents say that people with an understanding of workplace jargon are able to get ahead at work through raises or promotions than those without, while a fifth say the use of a lot of jargon works against an environment of inclusion and belonging. For non-native English speakers or neurodivergent employees who think in more literal terms, some of the phrases their colleagues see as commonplace may instead seem prohibitively opaque.
Yet many of these phrases are so ingrained in the way we work, think, and communicate that de-jargonifying a workplace (or even ridding some words entirely) can be a challenge. I am guilty of using a lot of the words above and not realizing I was even doing anything wrong. Reading the list of offensive or overused phrases made me think of countless others I utter regularly: B2B, SEO, CBO. (That’s business-to-business, search engine optimization, and community-based organizations.) I realized that in using the shorthand, I am missing a chance to explain—and repeat, for the uninitiated—the way these constructs relate to my business model. I am inadvertently creating a culture that is not welcoming to new hires, outsiders, or non-traditional talent.
Is there hope for us?
I asked LinkedIn career expert Catherine Fisher and Duolingo senior learning and curriculum manager Hope Wilson to explain what managers and workers can do to be more intentional in their communications and undo their dependence on jargon.
Rooting out offensive terms
Just as our employers and industries are constantly in the midst of upheaval, so is language, says Wilson. “Over time, words and phrases can undergo a process known as semantic bleaching. This is when a piece of language loses aspects of its earlier meaning,” she says. For example, she explains, the word “literally” has lost its meaning of “happening in real life, in a non-metaphorical sense,” and shifted to describe something “shocking and emotionally charged.”
In the workplace, this process can lead to individual and generational differences in how a term is perceived. Regardless of malintent, “people for whom the offensive connotations are very relevant probably won’t ever be able to forget the offensive links, and so they’ll never get to a place where these terms are bleached of their offensive meanings,” Wilson says.
“Offensive workplace phrases can definitely be a tough one to navigate,” says Fisher. “While every situation is different, my advice would be to have an open and direct conversation with your manager about what terms you find offensive at work, and how this might be remedied.” Managers can set an example by identifying terms in their own daily use that might be quietly offending their employees, and not simply retiring them, but announcing why.
Making language more inclusive
Fisher offers this advice to employees and managers trying to de-jargon their workplaces:
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions to get clarification on what something means. Asking clarifying questions can help you get your work done the right way—and you might help someone else who is struggling, as well.
- Keep it simple. For example, instead of saying “let’s get our ducks in a row before this meeting,” try replacing it with simpler language like “let’s prepare and get organized before this meeting” to eliminate any possible confusion about what needs to happen.
- Let empathy guide you. If you’ve been in the workforce for a while, there may be certain phrases like “run it up the flagpole,” and “is the juice worth the squeeze” that feel very familiar to you. But keep in mind that not all professionals come from the same background or have the same familiarity. Be mindful of this learning curve to help professionals of all backgrounds and levels feel included and understood. If you’re not sure whether something is jargony enough as to feel non-inclusive, ask: Would you have known the meaning on your first day on the job?
Wilson also suggests ensuring everyone has access to definitions of commonly-used company jargon. For example, a company-wide glossary that defines jargon terms and that anyone can add to.
They both say to think of new workplace entrants, non-English speakers, and others who might not have been exposed to the workplace language you learned. Metaphors, in particular, drive a lot of workplace jargon, and many of the ones used regularly at work come from white American culture. It’s much better to try to be understood and undo the harm caused by non-inclusive language norms than to continue business—and speaking—as usual.