Update your obsolete language

by | Mar 15, 2012 | Blog | 0 comments

When’s the last time you used a pager, liquid paper or an overhead projector?

Probably sometime last century unless you’re an assistant manager of a pizza parlor in Oak Ridge, TN.

When I expressed amazement at seeing a bottle of Wite Out® next to the phone, he explained that the store computer is older than he is and too clunky and unreliable to use. So he does his weekly schedules by hand. When he requires a do-over, he turns to the liquid paper rather than the backspace key the rest of us use.

Nothing wrong with embracing old technology that works.

What is problematic is sticking with outdated language that no longer fits current situations.

We throw out dated technology faster than we stop using obsolete language. For example, some oldie but goody phrases still heard around offices include “broken record,” “cc” or “carbon copy” and “memo.”

Why is that? Maybe we’re obsessed with SOS (shiny object syndrome) and reach for the newest and fastest technological toys so fast we neglect to update our vocabulary. Or, we’re lazy about our language. Or we may like to cling to the comfortable, not recognizing that times are changing and our colleagues and customers have different points of view and new, more descriptive terms for what they’re experiencing. Who knows?

Yet, our antiquated language and concepts can contribute to confusion and friction in the workplace, especially among generations. Take these three examples:

1. Career ladder vs. web. Many leaders still talk about career development in terms of moving up. Ladders, paths and promotions are in their vocabulary as well as the descriptions of their career development programs.

Yet, employees—especially those younger than 40—are talking about a different type of directional movement. They express interest in having challenging experiences, taking lateral moves and making an impact. Their perspective is more accurate, especially in an era of slow growth and flattening of organizations.

Recent research on career management practices conducted by Edie Goldberg PhD and presented at a New Talent Management Network–San Francisco Bay Area Group meeting showed a gap between how employers describe their career development program and what actually happens. In her study of 34 Fortune 500 companies, 68% reported significantly fewer opportunities for advancement now. Yet only a third had developed strategies for addressing and describing the new reality.

2. Recognize the leader vs. give a shout out to the team. In many of the group and team conference calls and webinars I participate in, members regularly say “hi” to the leader by name and address their comments to him or her throughout the call, without acknowledging everyone else.

It’s as if we’re on an old-fashioned telephone party line where we’re listening in on one-on-one conversations between two people, waiting for our turn to jump in and start our one-on-one dialogue with the leader. Discussion is missing or minimal—maybe because it could be messy because we don’t have visual cues or other body language to watch. Nonetheless, if feels as if we’re stuck in the old “expert/idiot model” even though we really should be in a peer-to-peer situation where we can benefit from the smart mob.

3. Convoluted jargon vs. simple language. All too often our workplace communication, especially emails, PowerPoint presentations and reports, resemble TV remote controls. They’re chock full of excess buttons (words), TLAs (three letter abbreviations), and unclear directions. (What are you supposed to push when?) Instead, we should use Apple’s products as a model for our communication. Apple has clean designs, intuitive controls and easy methods for listening, viewing and creating.

Like Apple, we need to think about our “users’ experiences.” If we want to inspire people and encourage them to take action, we need to step in their shoes and think about how they’ll respond to our communication. Being clear, concise and compelling is the best way to reach them. It’s respectful, especially when we’re all starved for time, working under tight deadlines and dealing with an abundance of data.

Hmm. Maybe we should bring liquid paper back. We can white out all the extra, unneeded matter. But that wouldn’t look all that credible.

So how about refreshing our language? What do you think?



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