When Grant Thomas was freelancing at an ad agency last December, it was the first time he heard someone say they were “taking a bio break.”
“It’s a phrase I can smell,” Thomas, an engineer and creative director based in Portland, Oregon, wrote in a post on LinkedIn. “Just a nasty term.”
He recalls asking himself: Are people trying to disguise normal, human bathroom breaks as something more productive?
“It makes you sound like a robot or a machine,” says the software architect at development firm BlueInGreen. “You’re trying to hide this very natural thing that everyone does behind this slick veneer of professionalism.”
Along with “bio break,” Thomas says he has heard more of other classic corporate phrases like “touch base” and “nice to e-meet you” since the coronavirus pandemic forced him and his clients into work-from-home setups.
Virtual work is leading employees to fall back on corporate jargon more often. Business lingo may let remote employees signal that they’re still part of the company’s “in crowd,” or help anxious, scattered workers regain some sense of professionalism. But it is also leading to frustration and misunderstandings. Some companies are even turning to AI-powered “writing assistants” for help, but these tools to curb so-called corporate-isms come with risks of their own.
During the pandemic, corporate cultures with little tolerance for human foibles like tiredness or forgetfulness gave way to Zoom calls where co-workers gaze right into your cluttered kitchen while your toddler screams in the background. At the same time, workers are juggling more new technology than ever and adjusting to communicating digitally with co-workers they rarely see.
For many employees, the pandemic came with rapidly shifting expectations and blurred boundaries between home and the office. Admit that you’ve got to get up from the Microsoft Teams meeting and pee? Not a chance. Suddenly, a “bio break” may feel more acceptable. “I’ll circle back” sounds better than “I’ll Slack you later because my water heater broke.” And “I’m out of pocket” has a different ring than “I’m away from my desk because my son wants to show me a dead praying mantis.”
Melissa Jones Briggs, a lecturer in organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, says some people use business euphemisms and insider terms like an armor against uncertainty and embarrassment. Remote and “hybrid” work have brought plenty of both.
“When we’re vulnerable, it’s tempting to use more corporate speak because it distances us and helps us obscure our personal selves,” Briggs said.
Corporate speak isn’t always a bad thing. Many professionals have shared lingo that helps people work together faster. But they can pose a risk to companies at a time when employees may already feel disconnected by the technology between them, Briggs said. If Slack, Zoom and email are one layer of separation, corporate speak can be yet another.
Those risks come in a few forms, according to Tim Ito and Bob Wiltfong, co-authors of “The BS Dictionary: Uncovering the Origins and True Meanings of Business Speak.”
One is miscommunication: If business jargon sails over some people’s heads, it leads to mistakes and poor decisions, Wiltfong said. For instance, “end of day” might mean two different things to two different employees.
Another is exclusion. Employees rely on language that’s confusing for outsiders because it marks them as insiders, Wiltfong said. At a time when some companies are making verbal commitments to more equitable work environments for people of different backgrounds, corporate speak works against that goal, he said.
Both points could spell trouble for companies considering hybrid work models, with some employees in the office and others at home. Split workforces call for extra clear communication, and corporate-speak can lead to “delusion,” Briggs said.
But new work models could also present an opportunity for corporate types to rethink the way they communicate and champion better habits, said Wiltfong.
“Over the last year and a half, I think there’s an acknowledgment that, whether we like it or not, we have to be more human,” he said. (Though Ito pointed out that “hybrid work” is itself corporate-speak.)
Some companies are turning to AI to help influence employees’ word choice and manage corporate-isms. One AI writing tool called Linguix has seen its user base balloon from about 3,000 to 115,000 since the pandemic began due to remote work, its co-founder Alex Lashkov said. One client in the IT industry used Linguix to deter its employees from using the word “powerhouse” to describe things, he said.
Demand for another AI assistant called Writer, which uses machine learning to scan employees’ communications for words and phrases their companies want to avoid, has shot up during the last year, CEO May Habib said. Writer counts Twitter and Intuit among its clients and its revenue has doubled since January, she said, without providing specific figures.
Writer’s algorithms draw on natural language processing — complex artificial intelligence that’s “trained” by ingesting written language, which it can then, theoretically, understand and reproduce — to read what employees write and make suggestions. The algorithms make way for helpful tools like automated writing and advanced search. But some models have been criticized for reinforcing racial bias. Last year, a former Google AI researcher claimed she was fired after putting forth research pointing out the risks of certain AI language models and criticizing the company’s treatment of minority employees. At the time, Google’s head of AI research said on Twitter the researcher had left after a paper she co-authored didn’t meet the company’s standards for publication.
Most companies use Writer to monitor external communications with customers, but some also use it internally to discourage employees from striking the wrong tone in emails or Slack messages, Habib said. That might mean avoiding passive-aggressive wording, or language the company deems too casual, like “wanna” instead of “want to.” But some clients use Writer’s technology to target business lingo, prodding employees to think twice before they request a “go-forward plan” or threaten to “operationalize” something.”
“We definitely help folks communicate in ways that indicate competence and confidence at work, and overuse of those types of terms really undermines that,” she said, noting that the vast majority of her clients don’t compel their employees to adopt the tool, but some do.
Thomas said he wouldn’t want people — even the bio-break takers — subjected to such AI reminders. But that doesn’t mean we have no choice but to ping, flag, hop on calls and circle back.
People who want more clear, direct and human language in the workplace must start with their own communication, Briggs said. Before you think about how others see you, think about what they need from you and what your shared objective is. Then, choose words that genuinely help you get there, she advises.
If you’re feeling brave, you can even admit to using the bathroom.
“I think everyone would be happier if we could all be more authentic all the time,” Thomas said. “But I think that makes people uncomfortable in a different way.”