"Synergistically target team building growth strategies."

"Efficiently actualize out-of-the-box thinking."

"Appropriately empower fungible alignments."

If you can even halfway decipher the above sentences, then you, dear reader, are a fluent speaker of modern-day "corporatese." Navigating the distinct sociolects of 21st Century office culture is something most working Americans can relate to. From top executives down to interns, it’s become expected that employees quickly pick up on whatever quizzical lexicon of buzzwords, abbreviations, acronyms, stock phrases, euphemisms, and metaphors those at the very top of the company have institutionalized (even when it’s clear that few, if anyone, understands quite what’s coming out of their own mouths).

As a skeptic and a linguist, I’ve always felt a potent allergy to this conformist style of corporate-speak… and I’m certainly not alone there. At this point, phrases like "circling back" and "per my last email" have inspired online corporate B.S. generators, bingo boards, and thousands of viral memes. During the pandemic, when meetings that could have been emails really have become emails, working Americans have found themselves extra sensitive to how nonsensical this style of speech can be. Contemporary "corporatese" may seem fairly harmless at first — worthy of an online joke at worst — however, I know as a scholar of cult language that it actually has the potential to be quite cultish.

In her memoir Uncanny Valley, The New Yorker’s tech reporter Anna Wiener coined the term "garbage language" to describe this whole category of empty workplace vernacular. Garbage language has existed since the dawn of modern American corporate culture in the 20th century, though its themes evolve with the zeitgeist. In the 1980s, for example, Wall Street metaphors abounded: "value-add," "buy-in," "leverage." A decade later, we got digital technology symbolism: "bandwidth," "growth hack," "ping me." And now, in a world dominated by start-ups — where work-life balance has been replaced with fake wokeness, cold brew on tap, and team meditation workshops — our mouths have filled with the type of hazily spiritual, politically correct language you might find in a self-help seminar or SoulCycle class: "authentic," "holistic," "alignment," "synergize," "alignment," "dialogue," "paradigm shift," "unicorn." Our parts of speech have all scrambled so that verbs are nouns, nouns are verbs, and anything at all can be an adjective ("Let’s table this, sunset that, and offline about the other thing.").

It’s no mystery that this vocabulary is everywhere: First of all, it’s fun to master a new code language. Like putting on a snazzy fresh uniform, it makes you feel like you’re doing something right in life. It also makes you feel like you are a part of something. Most modern businesses actively want both their consumers and staff to feel like they're participating in more than just a company, but a "community," a "family," or even a "lifestyle." They intentionally aim to gain a fanatical "cult following" in the image of brands like Trader Joe’s and Ikea: companies that have successfully cultivated extreme loyalty from people both inside and outside office walls. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In today’s skeptical, transient market, having a unified language — and thus, a unified culture — is simply thought to be necessary to generate solidarity and return business.

In and of itself, specialized workplace jargon isn’t culty or dangerous. In many fields, from law to biology to music production, technical-sounding terminology is often just plain needed in order to pass information back and forth more efficiently and precisely; it makes communication easier. But you know that corporate lingo has crossed over into cult-like territory when the jargon does just the opposite: when it makes communication more confusing. When language causes speakers to feel disoriented and intellectually deficient, they’re more likely to comply without questioning.

Even without consciously meaning to, when higher-ups overuse "garbage language" in a competitive professional environment where people are eager to please their bosses, they may wind up discouraging dissent and suppressing employees’ individuality. Under pressure, underlings may wind up simply imitating upper management, reflecting values that may or may not be the most productive or the healthiest. At my previous job, all the abbreviations and metaphors seemed to fill people with an ersatz sense of superiority — an elitist "cool" factor — dividing employees into an elite "us," who used the language, and an unworthy "them," who didn’t. It also became obvious that the language served as a detection system for higher-ups to identify team players versus potential rebels — independent thinkers — who refused to speak their version of "corporatese." In a sense, it was a means of gaining and exerting control over subordinates.

Coercing your staff into conformity might help a company become more powerful in the short term; however, for my new book, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, I spoke to a corporate consultant named Manfred Kets de Vries, who told me that setting such a rigid standard for people’s communication styles actually hampers innovation, which is bad for both the business and its employees in the long term. Top managers and executives might consider asking themselves: Is "thinking outside the box" just a buzzy phrase, or is it actually encouraged as a way to help employees make progress? What about speaking outside the box? Because when someone is allowed to think for themselves, their language will reflect that.