Office patois: Business language and what it means to speak it

Ah, business language. It is a concept that gets more interesting the longer you consider it. Native to the office environment, it is a linguistic transition that individuals in a professional setting just automatically consent to as a group. They engage in a mass translation of simple everyday thoughts into a jumbled creation of formal language that no one really speaks outside of a cubicle, office, or work-related context.

The voice is usually passive; the vocabulary is more difficult and less direct. You’ll notice a stricter grammar (an absence of conjunctions, for instance.)

More importantly, there is an assumption of a role by the speaker, an impersonation of an “older”, “respectable”, “business-like” voice. Who exactly are we impersonating when we speak in business language? Who are we trying to talk like when we write cover letters using phrases such as “…regarding my prior achievements…” or “This opportunity, which I would be happy to discuss…”?

When my great uncle learned how to properly address God in prayer when he was a boy, he was taught to use archaic terms, “thees and thous”, because old fashioned terms were considered “respectful.”  The end result was a patois using the everyday language he knew how to use, and his imaginative interpretation of how English must have been spoken in Shakespeare’s day. And that is what business language is, an imaginative reconstruction of how we think experienced professionals must speak, even if our CEOs, when they leave for the day, use conjunctions, short forms, and slang. Although, you have to admit, an entrenched linguistic habit with a built-in veneration for an older generation is a sort of sweet counterpoint to the idea that we live in a culture that worships youth. To be successful, it’s ingrained that we try to speak as senior-like as possible.

The Russian formalist school of literary theory had a good point about the important relationship between form and content, structure and message—that structure in fact influences content. For instance, business language can be practically invisible when used to convey a business-like message. However, as soon as that form is used to deliver a message that is silly or casual, it becomes a parody of itself and all of a sudden the devices used to sound professional become obvious.

Thus it was that I had never before considered business language at all until I received three consecutive e-mails at work regarding e-mail signatures, complete with an attached power point presentation illustrating good vs. bad signatures. All of a sudden, that common sentiment so many of us have felt in our off-hours when opening e-mail from our family and friends – PLEASE STOP WRITING YOUR E-MAIL SIGNATURE IN BOLD PINK CURSIVE AND ADDING INSPIRING QUOTES AT THE END OF EACH MESSAGE – was transposed into a starched professionalism that I, personally, found hilarious.

But that was it, the disguise of professionalism and the tools usually used to convey it, were unmasked: assuming a linguistic form can really only ever be effective when that form allies itself with the message it contains.

Something to think about the next time you write an e-mail at work.

About the author

Heather Gilroy

1 comment

  • See, I find that I am under a constant, terrible pressure to sound really, really, really happy at work. This, unfortunately, requires a number of exclamation marks. Too many! (any is too many)

    Thanks!

By Heather Gilroy