If you’ve spent much time in the media, tech, or larger corporate world, there is a good chance you’re familiar with “garbage language”—the constellation of buzzwords, acronyms, and idioms like “parallel path,” “RACI,” and “let’s put a pin in this” that could populate a whole subgenre of office language bingo cards. Though Anna Wiener recently coined that term in her new book Uncanny Valley, the phenomenon of buzzwords and potentially obfuscating language is as old as business itself and has long been satirized in American culture as a way for people of modest intellect or low character to hide meaning, from Scott Adams’ Dilbert to “The Company Way” in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
This week, Molly Young wrote about some of the particular absurdities of garbage language for New York magazine, arguing that it’s a pernicious force in the business world. “Garbage language permeates the ways we think of our jobs and shapes our identities as workers,” she observes. “It is obvious that the point is concealment; it is less obvious what so many of us are trying to hide.” Young’s fundamental critique seems to be that this productivity-obsessed vernacular is papering over an existential pointlessness at the heart of modern work. I won’t debate the condition of the human soul under capitalism here. But Young writes something else that I would like to surface and problematize: “No matter where I’ve worked, it has always been obvious that if everyone agreed to use language in the way that it is normally used, which is to communicate, the workday would be two hours shorter.”
I’m here to say that this simply isn’t true. I use garbage language in my daily work in product development at Slate, and my job would be much more complicated—and take far, far longer—without it. To be sure, listening to a group of highly educated adults speak in short business terms might sound ridiculous, and indeed, the dialect can sometimes be used to obscure plain incompetence or even malicious intent (think Office Space or Succession). But used correctly and judiciously, those terms serve two invaluable purposes: They save time, and they clearly communicate meaning to peers.
At its core, garbage language is just a shared set of idioms that help people move through meetings and accurately define tasks. “Stakeholders” is much more efficient than “the people who will be most affected by this work and therefore should be included in any decisions.” “Parallel path,” which Young targets for particular scorn, is a succinct description of how a series of equally important but independent tasks should proceed—in parallel without either blocking the other. It’s more descriptive than saying “do both at the same time,” and much quicker than saying “these two tasks are related in their end goal but independent of one another; please push each as far as you can, and we’ll go with whatever comes to fruition first.”
Young also scoffs at “RACI charts,” an organizational tool she admits to never actually using. These matrices clearly define who needs to do something (responsible), who is the final decision-maker (accountable), who you need buy-in from (consulted), and who needs to be aware of the plan (informed). While RACIs can certainly be confusing to an outsider, once understood, they’re an invaluable tool for coordinating a series of tasks with large teams that cuts down on meeting times and clearly identifies who is making what decisions. These charts, alongside their cousins Gantt charts (which visualize timing for parallel and sequential processes), have been useful tools for me at every company I’ve worked at, from multinational ad agencies to small startups to Slate itself. They act as guardrails for the flow of many workers with lots of energy, keeping us moving forward and making sure projects get completed in a reasonable amount of time.
Garbage language can also smooth the edges of difficult interactions or help people save necessary face. “Let me do a deep dive and circle back” can often mean “I have no clue, but I’ll do some research and get back to you.” In many organizations, particularly client-facing ones, it’s hard for junior team members to admit they don’t know something; the above idiom is a socially acceptable cop-out that lets everyone move on with their day. “Let’s put a pin in this discussion” is a very polite way for someone leading a meeting to say “this conversation isn’t productive” or “shut the fuck up, John” without ruffling too many feathers or being overtly rude. We accept these social niceties in every other aspect of our lives—no one balks at an insincere “we should totally hang out sometime” or “I’ll have to check my calendar and get back to you.” Why is it such a problem if we show compassion this way in a business setting?
It’s certainly important to make sure garbage language stays in an appropriate setting—having “stakeholder deliverables” seep into elementary schools or RACI charts show up at a Gap store almost certainly doesn’t make sense. It’s also important to create corporate cultures where every team member, particularly those from historically marginalized groups who are all too often discouraged from asking questions, feels comfortable admitting they don’t know something and where leaders are encouraged to get people up to speed instead of speeding over them. But even here, well-utilized garbage language can be a tool to smooth over knowledge gaps: Terms like “deep dive” and “pain point” might sound ridiculous, but they’re immediately intuitive, and using fewer words leaves more time for someone catching up to learn by doing instead of sitting in endless meetings.
Every workplace has its own set of garbage language or workplace vernacular. Doctors use Latin or specific medical terms because they’re more descriptive than their vernacular counterparts. Journalists talk about ledes, nut grafs, and kickers because having a shorthand for story structure keeps the presses rolling. For me, garbage language isn’t about complicating or hiding. I use it because it means I can spend less time communicating what I want to happen and more time operationalizing goals and streamlining my workflow … OK, fine, actually getting things done.