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Volume 18, Issue 29;   July 18, 2018: High Falutin' Goofy Talk: III

High Falutin' Goofy Talk: III

by

Workplace speech and writing sometimes strays into the land of pretentious but overused business phrases, which I like to call "high falutin' goofy talk." We use these phrases with perhaps less thought than they deserve, because they can be trite or can evoke indecorous images. Here's Part III of a collection of phrases and images to avoid.
Children playing a computer game

Children playing a computer game. Both appear to be having a great time. Have you noticed that the boy appears to be more in control of the computer than does the girl? Maybe they'll have to switch to get to the next level.

Leadership and social status at work depend, in part, on how we use language. Being clever and evoking powerful imagery are two techniques that help to distinguish our own use of language. Because few of us are so clever and so facile with the language that we can create our own powerful imagery, we repeat what we've heard from others in our lives or in the media. Repeating something that's still fresh is probably helpful.

Repeating something that's no longer fresh is unhelpful. Notice that I avoided making a reference to the "sell-by date" of stale and overused linguistic forms. That term is itself an example of high-falutin' goofy talk.

Here's Part III of a list of phrases that are no longer fresh.

Bite the bullet
To "bite the bullet" is to finally take an action or make a decision that one would rather not.
The term probably comes from a (possibly apocryphal) tale that in previous centuries, battlefield medical personnel who lacked anesthetic would ask their patients to clench a bullet in their teeth before they underwent painful surgeries, such as amputations. Is that really an image you want to evoke in your meetings?
Drink the Kool-Aid
To "drink the Kool-Aid" Few of us are so clever
and so facile with the
language that we can create
our own powerful imagery
is to adopt whole-heartedly what one is told to believe. It is also a metaphor for extreme dedication to a cause despite the potential for self-destruction.
Kool-Aid is a powder used to make a fruit drink. In November 1978, in a remote settlement in north Guyana that had been established by an American cult called the Peoples Temple, over 900 cult members committed suicide (some unknowingly, and some forcibly) by drinking a fruit punch made from Kool-Aid, cyanide, and prescription drugs. Is that really an image you want to evoke in your meetings?
Think outside the box
To "think outside the box" is to think unconventionally, creatively, or from a new perspective.
This phrase is so heavily used that FastCompany has published an article about its use. [Kihn 1995] Its origin probably traces to management consultants in the 1970s or 1980s. If you're advocating "thinking outside the box," using a phrase as clichéd as this one tends to undercut your advocacy. Avoid it.
Throw <someone> under the bus
Now there's a gory image. To "throw someone under the bus" is to betray a friend, ally, colleague, subordinate, or supervisor for selfish reasons.
This idiom is of relatively recent origin — less than 20 years, more or less, depending upon where you believe it began. Still, it has been so heavily used in mass media that using it in the workplace is of no advantage, and might even lower your social status.
It's a win-win situation
A win-win situation is one in which all participants receive benefits. If there is only one participant, then the implication is that all outcomes are favorable.
The term is a play on either no-win or win-lose. Early in its usage, it was clever-sounding, because the latter two terms were so much more familiar that Win-win stood out — it seemed almost paradoxical. But by now it's so heavily used that the cleverness has worn off. Moreover, the term is often misused and misinterpreted as if it meant compromise. [McNary 2003] Avoid it.
Take it to the next level
To "take it to the next level" is to improve it in some significant way.
The term probably is a reference to the level-oriented structure of most computer games, wherein players face successively more difficult challenges arranged in groups, or "levels." During the early days of computer games, using the term at work probably seemed clever. Today using the term is no longer clever, whether you work in the computer game industry or not.

A memorable feeling accompanies hearing these phrases for the first time. It can even be thrilling. We repeat these phrases ourselves, in part, to recreate that feeling. That might work somewhat at first. After a few repititions, though, it's a dubious strategy. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[Kihn 1995]
Martin Kihn. "'Outside the Box': the Inside Story," FastCompany, 1995. Back
[McNary 2003]
Lisa D. McNary. "The term 'win-win' in conflict management: A classic case of misuse and overuse," The Journal of Business Communication 40:2 (2003), 144-159. Back

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See also Effective Communication at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

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When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
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