The most confusing workplace jargon around the world, according to workers

A new study surveys the office-speak that has us all spinning our wheels.
Circling back leaves some lightheaded.
Circling back leaves some lightheaded.
Photo: Chris McGrath (Getty Images)
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Have you ever felt trapped in the unbroken loop of the circle-back? Maybe, instead, your bandwidth is strapped, your project’s goalposts have been moved, or you haven’t gotten to gain traction on your to-do list. Your team has faced just so many headwinds lately. Or tailwinds. Or maybe—just maybe—all the corporate-speak at work has you feeling like something’s been lost in translation.

A new report on workplace jargon explains why buzzwords at work have us all spinning our wheels (or, rather, expending a lot of effort without making much progress). The study, conducted by LinkedIn and Duolingo, surveyed 8,000 workers from eight countries about jargon we use on the job—and finds that globally, more than half (58%) of professionals think the people they work with use too much of it.

But even if you’re acquainted with management-speak, you might not know just how far it’s traveled. English business buzzwords have crossed borders—and in a globalized corporate world, they’ve become commonplace even in nations that don’t count English as one of its official languages. According to the report, jargon is wading into office conversations from Bangalore to Bogotá.

“If you need any proof of the status of English in the business world, you can look to how English buzzwords get borrowed wholesale into workplaces that otherwise use another language for communication,” says Dr. Hope Wilson, senior learning and language curriculum expert at Duolingo, in an email to Quartz. “For example, even though there’s a Japanese word meaning ‘budget,’ yosan, the English-borrowing ‘bajetto’ is the most commonly used piece of jargon in Japan. And English words like ‘feedback’ and ‘networking’ are some of the most frequently-used buzzwords in Brazil.”

The most common workplace jargon across eight countries

So what’s the jargon du jour in offices around the world? It depends on what country you’re in.

Say you’re managing a collaborative project and need to gather the team to talk through its last steps. If you’re scheduling that meeting in Australia, you might ask who’s available to meet this arvo, or this afternoon. If you hold that same meeting in Vietnam, you could say you’ll start with the low-hanging fruit, or the easiest tasks. Meanwhile, in the UK, you may suggest you make sure the team is singing from the same hymn sheet, or expressing the same message, when you take the project public. All of these phrases, according to the report, rank among each country’s top five most common work jargons.

Sometimes, the most widely used management-speak is also its most mystifying. In Brazil, workers rank “feedback” as the most common corporate phrase they encounter. The most confusing? Also “feedback.” Vietnamese professionals are flummoxed by FYIs, with the acronym ranking #1 in both categories. In the US, employees agree that “ducks in a row” is at once among the most common (#1) and the most confusing (#3) of office idioms.

The most confusing business buzzwords by country

While some jargon shows up across cultures—like ASAP, which workers in Brazil, Colombia, and Japan all rate as confusing—each nation reports different office-isms they find most opaque. Just see where blue-sky thinkers overcome flagpole-runners, or where needle-movers beat out ocean-boilers.

Why we should all cut the corporate-speak

But while rating corporate phrases may feel like fun and games, there are drawbacks to acronymizing the all-hands. For one, jargon jams up teams from getting things done. Nearly half of workers report that the buzzwords they hear in meetings “makes them feel like their colleagues are speaking a language they don’t understand” at least once a week. And almost two-thirds (60%) say that they had to figure out what all that jargon meant on their own time.

“People are trying to use shorthand to get things done faster,” says Drew McCaskill, a LinkedIn career expert who collaborated on the report. “But the reverse is happening. When we’re using jargon at work, one of the unintentional consequences is that it really slows down productivity.”

There’s another issue with business-y buzzwords, too: They’re exclusionary. Sure, people who have come up in corporate offices may know what you mean by asking for that ROI by EOD. But buzzwords can isolate people who are encountering them for the first time, whether they work across borders or belong to a group that’s been historically barred from the boardroom. Jargon-y phrases can enhance difference—and in some cases, they can be harmful to teammates.

Take, McCaskill says, the “peanut gallery,” a common term with a complicated racial history. “If you don’t know where that term originated, but the African American people in the room do, you can unintentionally cause real harm to a colleague or coworker,” he says.

To create a more inclusive atmosphere, McCaskill adds, managers should work to use clear language over buzzwords, and employees shouldn’t feel afraid to ask questions when a word has them confused. But some teams who have a tough time trimming back their jargon have another solution: Company glossaries, which lay out the language your team is likely to use. In these documents, managers teams define common phrases and acronyms a new hire is likely to encounter—and include it in onboarding materials.

“If you can’t change the culture,” McCaskill says, “make the culture easier for people coming into it.” In that way, perhaps we can take down the barriers of big-business buzzwords—no matter where we’re meeting from.

This story has been updated.