A Few Key Takeaways from the Church of Workism (Plus One Gamechanger)

On the Garbage Language and Metaphors We Use

David Zahl / 3.10.20


Several years ago we posted a short tongue-in-cheek guide to current colloquialisms, guessing at the emotional content behind ten phrases that had come into common usage. For example the tautology “It is what it is” translates more or less to “I can’t stand this particular situation I’m in. Actually, I hate it and don’t want to talk about it.” Snarkier than our usual fare, but a pretty fun exercise.

Were we to update the list five years on, the main area I’d want to include would be the corporate techno-jargon that’s made its way into the mainstream. Words like ‘optimize’ and ‘monetize’ and ‘ping’ and ‘scale-able’ and ‘bandwidth’ and ‘circleback’ and so on burst their entrepreneurial prisons at least a couple years ago, to the point that everyday communication sounds more and more like one big conference call.

Needless to say, I hear these words used in the religious world space all the time. It was only a matter of time til the pushback began.

Cut to one of the more the insightful essays on language I’ve read in quite some time, Molly Young’s piece for Vulture on “Garbage Language: Why do corporations speak the way they do?” Warning: shades of seculosity abound! In particular the seculosity of career AKA the religion of workism AKA how many neologisms do we need to describe a bunch of neologisms? Here goes:

No matter where I’ve worked, it has always been obvious that if everyone agreed to use language in the way that it is normally used, which is to communicate, the workday would be two hours shorter.

...If workplaces are full of communal irritation and communal pride, they are less often considered to be places of communal mysticism. Yet when I began picking up on the new vocabulary, I felt like a Mayan circa 1600 BCE surrounded by other Mayans in the face of an unstoppable weather event that we didn’t understand and had no choice but to survive, yielding our lives and verbal expressions to a higher authority.

[In her memoir Uncanny Valley, Anna] Wiener writes especially well — with both fluency and astonishment — about the verbal habits of her peers: “People used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient: a mash-up of business-speak with athletic and wartime metaphors, inflated with self-importance. Calls to action; front lines and trenches; blitzscaling. Companies didn’t fail, they died.” She describes a man who wheels around her office on a scooter barking into a wireless headset about growth hacking, proactive technology, parallelization, and the first-mover advantage. “It was garbage language,” Wiener writes, “but customers loved him.”…

I don’t think anyone knew what anyone was saying, but I also think we were all convinced that we were the only ones who didn’t know while everyone else was on the same page…

But unlike garbage, the hideous nature of these words — their facility to warp and impede communication — is also their purpose. Garbage language permeates the ways we think of our jobs and shapes our identities as workers. It is obvious that the point is concealment; it is less obvious what so many of us are trying to hide.

In the 1980s, garbage language smelled strongly of Wall Street: leverage, stakeholder, value-add. The rise of big tech brought us computing and gaming metaphors: bandwidth, hack, the concept of double-clicking on something, the concept of talking off-line, the concept of leveling up.

At my own workplaces, the New Age–speak mingled recklessly with aviation metaphors (holding pattern, the concept of discussing something at the 30,000-foot level), verbs and adjectives shoved into nounhood (ask, win, fail, refresh, regroup, creative, sync, touchbase), nouns shoved into verbhood (whiteboard, bucket), and a heap of nonwords that, through force of repetition, became wordlike (complexify, co-execute, replatform, shareability, directionality)… [They can be divided] into categories like Hyphenated Mash-ups (omni-channel, level-setting, business-critical), Compound Phrases (email blast, integrated deck, pain point, deep dive) and Conceptual Hybrids (“shooting” someone an email, “looping” someone in). All of these were phrases with “aspirational authority,” [author Jessica Helfand] told me. “If you’re in a meeting and you’re a 20-something and you want to sound in the know, you’re going to use those words.”

Our attraction to certain words surely reflects an inner yearning. Computer metaphors appeal to us because they imply futurism and hyperefficiency, while the language of self-empowerment hides a deeper anxiety about our relationship to work — a sense that what we’re doing may actually be trivial, that none of this was worth going into student debt for…

When we adopt words that connect us to a larger project — that simultaneously fold us into an institutional organism and insist on that institution’s worthiness — it is easier to pretend that our jobs are more interesting than they seem. Empowerment language is a self-marketing asset as much as anything else: a way of selling our jobs back to ourselves…

The metaphors we use say a lot about us, whether that be body-as-machine or romance-as-marketplace or discourse-as-video-game #punchingdown. Most of the time this is helpful. The problem comes when the metaphor begins to shape or flatten whatever object it’s trying to illuminate–when it starts to degrade rather than describe. The body is not actually a machine to be hacked any more than a spouse is something to upgrade.

In any religious community language use signals righteousness and therefore belonging. And that goes for capital-R Religions just as much as our various seculosities. I remember the first time, for example, that I used the word “Semi-Pelagian” in a group setting and the looks of acceptance and understanding that flashed my way. It felt good, not unlike the pride of being mistaken for a native speaker of another language. Never mind that the attendant pride marked me as an unwitting Semi-Pelagian! Clearly the liturgies of the cult of productivity are written in corporatespeak.

Yet there’s more going on here than the valourization of efficiency. Garbage language may also be a means of shielding oneself from further encroachment by the bottom line. That is, Young suggests that part of the proliferation of garbage language has to do with the ever-present scrutiny under which many of us labor in a gig economy. These words have evolved and blossomed to provide cover, perhaps even a little mercy, for those who must stand ready to justify their timesheet at any moment. She writes:

One reason for the uptick in garbage language is exactly this sense of nonstop supervision. Employers can read emails and track keystrokes and monitor locations and clock the amount of time their employees spend noodling on Twitter. In an environment of constant auditing, it’s safer to use words that signify nothing and can be stretched to mean anything, just in case you’re caught and required to defend yourself.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the gospel passage for this weekend—the account of Christ’s interaction with the woman at the well (John 4:5-42)—involves someone being caught in their transparent evasions. More than that, it involves a metaphor, but not one marshaled in defense of wrongdoing or as a way to prop up an in-group-out-group division. Instead, Jesus transgresses disrupts ethnic boundaries silos to address a Samaritan woman with an invitation info-dump about Living Water. This is water which quenches every thirst, including the thirst for righteousness and acceptance and even meaning. An omni-channel solution if ever there was one.

This woman may not have known exactly what Jesus was saying, but something about his words must have, er, moved the needle in a mission-critical way: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

A game-changer of a takeaway if you ask me. Some might call it… bleeding edge.