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Acronyms and business b*llshit

In day to day terms, the use of acronyms is a convenient, acceptable and often necessary part of our communication, particularly in written form. Is there a need to write North Atlantic Treaty Organization when NATO is understood, or Military Intelligence Section 5 and Light Amplification by Simulated Emission of Radiation for MI5 and Laser, respectively and who knew that IKEA is an acronym for Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd (no, neither did I until I started researching this post)?

Acronyms are part of our everyday life; headbangers, with hair since lost to the bathroom sink, will recognise AC/DC as an Antipodean/UK rock band, although most of us will know it as Alternating Current and Direct Current (even if we have no idea what either actually does, we know we shouldn’t play with it in the bath). The military, for the obvious reason of succinctness, have always used acronyms. AWOL has been in use by the military since 1891 but today most people will recognise it in general conversation (for anyone wanting to make further research into historical, US military acronyms, I can recommend the tune, “GI Jive” written by Johnny Mercer in 1944, a brilliant use of acronym for lyrical purposes). As for science? Well, imagine having to ask for PolyTetraFluoroEthylene every time you wanted to use your Teflon® frying pan. You see, acronyms can make life easier, if they are understood and used appropriately.

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Where I have a real issue is where business types leave their super charged, high performance offices and use business acronyms in the real world. Yes, ETA in an email might be much quicker and does, actually get to the point but what’s wrong with asking, “what time will you be here?” instead of, “what’s your ETA?”? ASAP is often used in written form and I’m fine with that but when I hear someone saying it, as “AY-SAP” then my teeth start to gnash together, involuntarily. I can’t quite fathom it out, is it an attempt to impress? Or is it an example of the idiom, “blind with science or baffle with acronym” (ok, I know it’s “baffle with b*llshit” but the malapropism made the example work)?

And then there is the jungle of pretentious obfuscation that is “business language”. Notwithstanding acronyms, there are people out there in business world that actually use terms that are completely unfathomable to “normal” people. What began as an American phenomenon is creeping, inexorably, throughout organisations in Europe and beyond. It seems that they use these terms to intimidate in some way, as if their use of this language places them in a “smarter place” than the mere plebs who populate the rest of the organisation.

I can give actual, real life, examples:

  • Only a few months ago at a corporate meeting in the US the Senior Vice President of Sales gave a presentation and stated, “we are going to take this idea and weaponize it” (I did not work for an arms company).
  • In a recent Operational meeting that I hosted, the Global Sales Director put up a slide showing customers, highlighted some and referred to them as “burning platforms” (nor a fire prevention business).
  • Recently, the Exec VP of Operations, in an annual profit and loss review, referred to it in this way, “it’s got a hockey stick in Q3 and 4”
  • and just for good measure, I once had to stop and seek clarification when I was asked to, “stratify our clients”  

Here’s my advice; if in a business environment, ask, politely, for an explanation. If it’s not a business situation then may I suggest shouting “ARSE” loudly at the offender.

© Andy Collinsson 2020

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