This article appears in our second print issue, Anti-Sisyphus.
by Sophie Haigney
Illustrations by Colleen Tighe
A lot of words get borrowed. Sometimes the borrowing is subtle, and other times it’s more like outright theft from other languages; in English, we took “algebra” from Arabic and “patio” from Spanish and “ballet” from French. In linguistics, these are called loanwords. I like that term so much that I’ll borrow it myself, and use it slightly incorrectly for another phenomenon—for words that get repurposed, their meanings slightly altered, swapped from one realm of experience into another.
This happens quite often with words that refer to digital phenomena, perhaps because language hasn’t quite kept pace with our virtual lives. Hence we have “surfing” the web or “scrolling” through “feeds;” web content goes ‘“viral” and attracts “traffic.” These words have totally new meanings in digital form, but are palimpsests, too. They often contain odd resonances—viral content and traffic are both ostensibly desirable things online, but the words for them appropriately retain undercurrents of despair. This linguistic borrowing happens frequently in the workplace, where words are used casually and imprecisely and sometimes misleadingly. I decided to take a look at the loanwords that appear in corporate jargon, and how language got borrowed and repurposed toward the Sisyphean ends of working life. This is my Glossary of Repurposed Workplace Words.
DNA is a twisty tiny double-helix of nucleotides. It’s also one of the most basic underpinnings of human life—and life in most organisms. Our genetic material determines almost all of our physical characteristics, as well as less visible traits, like our chances of getting a certain disease or if we love or hate cilantro. It’s at once a record of the past and a template of sorts for possible future outcomes. For non-scientists, this lends DNA a kind of conceptual air; it’s like tea leaves of a scientific variety, a hard-to-read key to things that might happen later in life and things that did happen before. But it’s also materially immutable, a series of amino acid bases—adenine, guanine, cytosine, thymine—that exist in our cells and help to determine the way we live.
The concept of “corporate DNA” seems to date to the late 1990s, a heady time in the development of bullshit like business strategy, self-help for CEOs, and early dot-com dreams. It refers, generally speaking, to the “organizational culture” of a company or a workplace. It’s patently absurd, and laughable, as in a Forbes post, for instance, which opens: “DNA is the basis of all life. It’s also a great way to think about strategy 2.0.” The metaphor becomes extended and overwrought, with some business gurus equating the bases of DNA to concepts like “structure” or “decision rights” or “collaboration.”
This metaphor is absurd, but it’s also pernicious. It implies that there is something quite literally hard-wired into a company’s culture and structure and management, or alternately that those things are hard-wired into a company. The only possibility for change lies in mutation, a kind of freak development. There is no natural way to throw off the mantle of whatever structure or culture exists, even if it’s a bad one. The concept allows people-in-the-know to say things like, “Toxic masculinity was just part of Uber’s DNA.” Only of course it wasn’t, because Uber doesn’t have DNA, and there was nothing predestined, or hard-wired, or essential, about what happened.
Performance review is a bad time of the year, and it also feels like it’s always happening. It takes different forms in different offices: meetings with superiors, goal-setting, forms filled out with questions like, “What was your greatest accomplishment this year?” and “What can your manager do to help improve workflow?” There is sometimes discussion of money—whether you’ll get more of it—and the delicate dance of humbly but brazenly trying to sell your achievements. At the end of it all, you’re supposed to come away with a sense of where you stand, or more accurately, how good your performance has been over the past year.
We talk about “job performance” like we’re expected to walk in to work every day and do a little dance, then take a bow. Which of course we are, in one way or another. Then we’re reviewed on that basis and, more or less, paid on that basis. “Performance” is a revealing word because it gets at the odious heart of the contemporary workplace; it’s not just our accomplishments or our hours logged or even our “output.” It’s about waking up to a 6 a.m. alarm, doing seven minutes of meditation, smiling, putting on silk pants, smoothing our hair down, commuting on a crowded train, arriving early, clearing our inboxes, keeping our chins up, speaking in platitudes, not complaining, formatting emails correctly with keywords in bold, never saying no, always staying late, pretending the pay doesn’t matter, getting home in the dark, falling asleep on the covers, waking up and doing it again. It is, indeed, one hell of a performance.
The corporate ladder is the hierarchy of a company or an organization. In theory, if we have a certain kind of job, or maybe even if we don’t, we want to climb it. The most essential thing is that it’s shaped like a ladder: a rigid up-and-down kind of ladder, with steps an even distance apart. It’s unidirectional, this fictitious ladder, in that you start at the bottom and work your way up. (It’s conceivably possible to fall from its rungs, but it doesn’t happen often and it’s rarely talked about in these terms). We know a little bit about what’s on top—money, certainly—but much of it is shrouded in mystery, too. It’s a kind of real-life pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. The whole purpose of this is metaphor is to perpetuate the myth of a corporate meritocracy, that great story about someone who starts in the mailroom and becomes CEO through years of staying late and giving it his all! You too can do this with a little effort and dedication! In many ways, the corporate ladder is the opposite of another American myth: the get-rich-quick scheme. It enshrines time and good behavior and the long slow climb. It glorifies the eventual payoff of the daily grind.
The business and marketing website Investopedia has a webpage dedicated to the corporate ladder and how to climb it through promotions. Helpfully, it notes, as an aside: “Important: Certain roles, such as clerical ones, may have their own limits to scaling the corporate ladder, where the skillsets don’t easily translate into executive positions.”
This is strange, of course, since the ladder is supposed to be unidirectional and essentially endless—but it turns out the ladder might not be for everyone, that it might have its limits, that its rungs might not be so easy to grasp after all. This is why another piece of jargon for corporate hierarchies seems much more apt to me: the corporate foodchain. It’s fixed, unclimbable, and bloody.
“Let’s circle back to that one.” It can be a relief to hear that phrase in a meeting, because it’s often used to refer to something a little bit complicated, too thorny to just cross immediately off the to-do list. After a little discussion, the tricky task gets “tabled,” with the promise that eventually we’ll circle back. Sometimes a date is set, but more often it’s open-ended, a loop that eventually has to occur. The phrase is an oblique reference to the cyclical nature of much of our work, which is predicated on constant circles. We do a task, it’s complete, and then the task generates another task. We send an email and then there’s a response and we have to respond again. We discuss a problem; nothing is done; that problem eventually falls back into our laps.
“Circling back” makes these processes sound elegant and neat, like we’re running on a highly functional hamster wheel. It makes it sound like our systems work and that we’re totally in control of them. In reality, it tends to feel more like the circles are out of our control, a kind of spinning and infinite set of loops around and around and around again. We circle back and circle back, and it often gets hard to tell where the end is.
War makes for good metaphors. Sports players and fans love to use them—players do battle, fight to the death, play through the pain, vanquish each other. War imagery crops up too in the language of relationships; love and war are often twinned, so we get “conquest” and “pursuit” and “all’s fair.” On the other hand, the workplace doesn’t lend itself that well to metaphors of combat, though it’s often brutal. There usually isn’t enough action or tension. Instead, the workplace is a long, monotonous churn with opaque conflicts that are difficult to dramatize.
Perhaps this is why we get “war rooms” in our workplaces. They are separate from the everyday monotony of working, the admin and the invoices and the inboxes—set apart so there can be no distractions from battle. A war room is typically an actual room, though they can also be virtual—Skype combat! They’re reserved for a limited time so people can, so to speak, “get down to business for a bit.” There might be whiteboards and schedules, and there will certainly be lots of agendas. There is probably a long conference table. There could be coffee and bagels. The war room is a gathering space created to generate tension, drama, heightened experience, and a sense of unity around a common goal. It is, in effect, set up to create conditions that rarely exist in most actual workplaces.
In many ways a war room is not so different from a locker room, where pump-up rituals and dramatic speeches and general rah-rah is meant to prepare sports players to go head-to-head at full throttle. But while sport is a means of literally enacting conflict in a way that’s both finite and clear, it’s much murkier in the workplace. While the war room may create camaraderie and urgency, it’s often directed toward a vague and uninspiring goal—maybe a deadline, suddenly moved up by a client. For one: who are you fighting against in this war room? What is the endgame? What are you uniting toward? It’s a strange battle, with no obvious winners and losers, and certainly no end in sight.
This is a bloodless word. It’s a word that emerged around 1980, in the midst of the globalizing economy, the decline of organized labor, and corporate takeovers that led to CEOs upping their contract work. “Outsourcing” had no prior meaning. It’s not a borrowed word, but one composed of two mostly meaningless parts, smashed together to suggest a sense of movement with no clear direction. What’s being sourced, and from where, to where? (Jobs, likely elsewhere.)
It’s almost intentionally confusing, and serves principally to elide what’s happening behind a long, long metaphorical chain of boardroom meetings and cost-cuts and “tough calls” and suddenly disappearing livelihoods. It hints at interconnected systems, a web of economies around the world, without explaining just what, exactly, they are or what their impact might be. Like the related word “layoff,” it’s supposed to be confusing enough to soften the blow and just chilly enough to get the point across.
Ping me later! Did you get my ping? Let me ping him for you. As in, your life is devolving into an endless series of pings on Slack, email, text, and internal messaging services. Workplace communication has never been more constant and our lives have never been more permeable to it. One report found that the average American worker spends 28 percent of the day reading email, which translates to 2.6 hours spent and 120 messages received. This means many, many pings.
The concept of a “ping” is borrowed quite literally from the sound of a message arriving on your screen. It’s a notification, an alarm, an intrusion. Those little dings are easily silenced but still recognizable, a constant in almost every public and private space. The presence of pings would have been difficult to imagine just a few decades ago. We still retain remnants of the concept of unreachability: the assumed 9-to-5 hours of availability on email, the out-of-the-office message, the work phone kept separate from the cell phone. But for the most part any separation is a thin fiction. Our boundaries are porous, we are always theoretically online, and if we aren’t, we might need to be there. So ping away!
A “ping” sounds innocuous. Maybe even fun! Just a gentle sonic intrusion for you to deal with when you need to. But over the course of a thousand pings—ping, ping, ping, ping, ping—the rest of your life will slowly erode into the cacophony.
We talk often of the value of facetime. As in, facetime with the boss. As in, “It’s really facetime that matters in the end, in terms of sealing the deal.” Facetime is really just normal human interaction, the face-to-face kind, but it is made to seem rare in the workplace and as such valuable.
It is a privilege to get facetime with clients or facetime with the boss or facetime with anyone who isn’t your computer screen in your cubicle. It has become a kind of commodity, a prize, the basic normalcy of a stilted conversation over a coffee with a person who may or may not control your salary. The experience, as I remember it, was kind of deflating, a letdown, in part because something normal had been so hyped—finally getting coffee with the boss!—and in part because in the end it made no difference to my career. There’s an interesting newer dimension, too, now that ‘facetime’ in the workplace increasingly refers to FaceTime. Or, forgive me; rather, it now means Skype or Google Hangouts or Zoom or any of the myriad other ways we beam cartoonishly outsized faces into conference rooms. Now even that elusive moment of face-to-face contact is happening in an immaterial dimension, a weird abstraction of human contact that was already mostly a fiction.
Corporate jargon is dead lingo. Its purpose is generally to elide, or to misdirect, or to gloss over the realities of the workplace and working life. But the assumptions that it rests upon, when even lightly examined, proved to be revealing—and damning. The insistence that “corporate DNA” exists is an insistence that companies have predetermined and unchangeable cultures. The “corporate ladder” is a persistent and inaccurate myth. And the endless “circling back” of tasks and troubles is emblematic of the constant loop of the workplace: the rising and grinding and rising and grinding. The loanwords of corporate life are sad, funny, strange, and off-putting; they reveal, repeatedly, that the contemporary workplace bears a resemblance to the experience of rolling a boulder up a hill and watching it come down again. ♦
Sophie Haigney is a journalist and critic who often writes about art and technology. Her work can be found in The New Yorker, The Baffler, The Nation, Slate, and more.