Feb 21

Buzzword Reaction Syndrome

Cliches in work environments are like fog in San Francisco, political machines in Chicago and expensive apartments in Manhattan: it practically defines the environment.  I experienced this at a recent meeting where a manager I have known since he started at the ground level went through a litany of tired buzzwords during a discussion that was meant to get people excited about an upcoming very large transition. Management by buzzword is his style. I do not believe I have ever been in a meeting with this manager in which he has not used at least one to two overused, exhausted management buzzwords. And I admit that I cringe in mental agony every time he drops one of these buzzwords into his conversation.

This leads to a few questions.
(1)Where do buzzwords come from?
(2)Why do people adopt and use buzzwords?
(3)Why do I, and others, react so negatively to buzzwords?
(4)Is there a way for me to change my reaction to buzzwords?
(5)Can I learn something from people that are using buzzwords?

(1) It’s a mystery to me how these things get started and I can only speculate. It might have something to do with phrases and terms used in academic texts and environments being adopted for use by students or other readers of those texts or participants in those classes. Metaphors are very useful in the sciences as starting points to bring in neophytes to difficult ideas, but these metaphors are often used and the actual messages by students, readers and others as the actual message itself. This can create a sort of Chinese Whispers effect with the actual idea and you end up with rather startling reality impacting practices such as creationists radically misusing the word “theory” outside its very well defined meaning in the sciences and a whole world of people using “begs the question” when they mean “leads to the question”.

(2) Again I can only guess people use buzzwords as shortcuts for larger concepts the same way that people use metaphors as shortcuts for understanding concepts. Once a buzzword is in use by a large number of people (or, to use a current buzzword that’s in full bloom right now, ‘in the wild’) then it has taken on a conceptual meaning that quite likely doesn’t have anything to do with the origin of the phrase. People probably use the buzzword to convey a large conceptual idea quickly. This does make the broad (and often incorrect) assumption that everyone will have experienced the buzzword or will be able to grasp the meaning from the words within context. Of course, I am sure that many people use buzzwords to look ‘in the know’ about their field and to assert themselves as being knowledgeable and current about their field. That is a charitable way of saying people use buzzwords to try to make themselves look smart, often trying to look smarter than they really are or cover up deficiencies in their knowledge or skills. Sadly, I have a suspicion that a great deal of buzzword use falls into this latter usage.

(3) is interesting to me because it is a self-exploration into why I have an immediate emotional reaction to something. I will just say that I essentially cringe, mostly internally but often quite externally, at the use of buzzwords. In particular the use of buzzwords by managers or even co-workers that fall into using them simply as a method of forwarding themselves as ‘in the know’ in their field in addition to using them to cover up deficiencies in their skills. It makes me mad. There’s no way around that part of it. It makes me mad at how broken both people and systems are that reward a behavior that should be viewed as a warning of a person’s ignorance. Perhaps ignorance is too strong of a word, though. Lack of creative or critical thinking skills is more likely the warning one should take from buzzword use. Using buzzwords is often a shortcut to latching on to a popular, bigger idea that looks like it is working for everyone else. Certainly, in some cases, buzzwords evolve into larger conceptual frameworks that genuinely describe an industry-wide phenomena, such as an industry’s adoption of a management methodology or best practice system. There might even by a cyclic relationship in those cases where a buzzword idea evolves into something more significant, into a systematized and documented way of thinking, behaving or acting that becomes actual practical practices. But the negative reaction I have to buzzwords has never changed, and what I am writing here is an attempt to explore why I react and if anything positive can be achieved from experiencing their use.

(4) This is the key to why I am here. What can I do to not only change my reaction to buzzword use, but to take something positive away from it. I doubt that I will ever take away what the user of the buzzword wants me to take away from it.  The only way I think I can change my negative reaction to it is to make a game out of it that goes beyond Buzzword Bingo and make it more of a scavenger hunt instead. Instead of just checking off the words, gather them and do something with them. Make myself a prize at the end: discover what was meant by the use of those buzzwords by asking the person about them later.

(5) Can I take the negative activity of someone else and make it positive for myself in a way that is useful, compelling, and educational for me and not in a way that simply comes down to “Don’t do this.”? I supposed one way to treat it would be to take notes of the buzzwords. Write them down. Figure out what they mean and why the person may have used that buzzword to convey their idea. The next step would be to contact the person and ask them what idea they were trying to communicate with using the buzzword.  Do they remember using the buzzword? This would be a good exercise in avoiding the buzzwords and more thoroughly thinking through my own use of words and vocabulary. It would also open up a line of communication with a person that uses the words and might start a relationship with them that could open them up to changes in their communication techniques and might open me up to taking buzzwords a bit more charitably.

I have the opportunity to practice this very soon, in fact. As odd as it sounds, using a buzzword bingo sheet or a list might end up being the best way to keep track of the use of the words.  The big step is going beyond tracking them and choosing a few of the ones used and contacting the person and asking about what they meant by the use of that word and what idea they were trying to communicate.