Jason & The Jargonauts

His name was Jason. I met him at a networking event at The Westin Hotel at Grand Central. I don’t like networking events. Sure, some networking goes on, but mostly it’s just listening to other people talk about incredibly boring things until it’s your turn to talk about incredibly boring things. “Human Resources” people are the worst.

I handed out business cards. I didn’t do that electronic Pez dispenser thing that allows you to exchange contact information by rubbing it against somebody else’s Pez dispenser. Seriously, they exist. It’s not the indiscriminate rubbing that bothers me. It’s all those germs.

Jason looked just as bored. So, when I sat down next to him, I asked what he thought of the event. He lifted a flute of champagne and winked. “Great,” he said. He was young, wore black boots, and was dressed like a member of the Serbian militia. Turns out he was there to give a talk about his company, a startup that makes software for scheduling when and where to rent office space. I feigned interest and went into listening mode.

He told me about his vision for “revolutionizing” the workplace and that millennials wanted “a life, not a job.” I told him I must be a millennial. He didn’t laugh. Then he followed up with what I call “Twitter Talk”–positive psychology platitudes that are more marketing than insight. Still, he was articulate, smart, and spoke with conviction. When you sit with someone like that, you are cool by association. Anyone who has been to high school knows this. Actually, I felt as if I were in high school. We agreed that business needed an entrepreneurial spirit and an openness to risk. This included a rejection of business jargon, since language shapes thought and behavior.

Sensing an opportunity, I went into my rant about business words and phrases that, well, drive me up the wall: trickle down, triage, deep dive, synergy, incentivize, thought leader, circle back, change agent, best practices, out of the box, data dump, heavy lifting, new normal, bandwidth, granular, takeaway, off-shoring, drill down, leverage, and–my favorite–low-hanging fruit. Believe it or not, I have memorized the list and even accompanied the last phrase with a somewhat vulgar gesture, which he did laugh at.

Here’s the thing. What I have discovered is that while Jason and entrepreneurs like him (his partner was across the room stuffing himself with sushi) denounce the ancien régime and its approaches to markets and innovation, including the old language, they may not have revolutionized anything at all but merely substituted one form of business jargon for another.

The new dispensation may even be worse, since it’s not just about language but consciousness. There is an ideology attached to this new vision of the workplace. Conformity, thought control, and political correctness are staples of it despite the rhetoric. Look no further than Google or the Toronto School Board, which, in its stupidity and arrogance, has prohibited use of the word “chief” out of deference to Native communities. I wish I were making that up.

In the same way, Jason’s startup doesn’t just make software; they “improve the world through shared workspace.” His company’s offices are outfitted with couches, foosball tables, espresso bars, and margarita carts. As he sees it, they are speaking to a new generation of socially conscious, sophisticated “partners,” not customers, to achieve the larger goal of personal and societal transformation.

“Wow,” I said with two pinches of sarcasm. “I thought you looked like Che Guevara.” “We broke the mold,” he said, sipping champagne. “We are our own category.” I thought of that old expression about breaking the mold, which wasn’t exactly a compliment. I got the feeling he expected me to ask for his autograph on the event brochure. I thought about it just to see if he would do it. But then his partner pulled him away to meet so-and-so of such-and-such venture capital firm to discuss an “awesome” idea to get, you know, “ahead of the curve.”

“Good luck with your talk,” I said as he walked away. He winked back and said, “Dude!”

You want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Note to self: I just read a study that said most people have above average intelligence. So much for studies.

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