Dialogue: Maybe it pays to touch base with business-jargon users

It's difficult enough to work your way up in the business world, but to complicate matters there's a whole new secret language which must be grasped And it can be a minefield for the uninitiated.

If you can't work out why you're having trouble understanding what someone is saying, it's a sure sign you haven't mastered the basics of corporate-speak.

Listen carefully the next time an old-hand is talking and you will realise what is making his message seem indecipherable.

Doubtless, rather than speaking like the rest of us do, he will be merely linking a series of phrases together in a manner that sounds impressive but actually conveys very little. Because this person is usually a tall and impressive figure in an immaculate suit and tie, it's only natural for his audience to feel that they're the ones with the communication problem, not him.

To get you through these moments, let's explore some of the key phrases and words most commonly heard in boardrooms and meeting rooms around the country.

"I'll take that on board." Often used to end a discussion or move to another point.

Its nautical overtones help to brighten a dreary day in the office. The direct translation is, "Thank you for your comments which I have absolutely no intention of making use of."

"Let's touch base later." This refers to making further contact on the same topic, usually by telephone or e-mail. Its sporting reference gives it added cache.

"You're a woman. What do you think of the colouring of this package?" Invariably spoken by a man who somehow missed out on all the sensitivities the rest of us developed in the 1990s. It is best not to even dignify such a question with a reply.

"At the end of the day." Used as a preface to making an observation or statement or answering a question. Has no meaning as such but has two useful purposes. First, it makes what you are about to say seem more profound and thoughtful than it really is. Secondly, it gives you an extra five valuable seconds in which to work out what you are going to say.

"Punters." A noun used to variously describe shoppers, consumers or the target market. Commonly used to make one's job sound more glamorous and exciting than marketing disposable nappies to new parents actually is.

"That's a great idea but I'm afraid the board is never going to accept it." This is the coward's way of letting you down gently. The direct translation is "your idea stinks."

"Having a half-day then?" This sarcastic comment is a favourite of old-timers who spy you leaving work at 4.30 pm. Never mind the fact that you might have started before daybreak. It is slowly being phased out as management acknowledges that quality of work is more important than the sheer hours logged.

"There's a brain-storming session in my office at 2 o'clock." Brain-storming is supposed to be an egalitarian, non-judgmental method of mining the organisation's collective creativity. In fact, it's often used only as a last resort. The direct translation is "'I'm absolutely desperate for ideas."

"We're just going to have to run with it." Again, its sporting overtones help to disguise its somewhat impotent message. The direct translation is "I know this is unsatisfactory but there's nothing I can do about it."

"Let's take this offline." Derived from computer lingo, this is a convenient phrase to use in group meetings when one person is in vocal opposition and is diverting the group from the main topic. The direct translation means "We will talk about this privately afterwards," but its true purpose is to quell the opposing voice.

"We'll take the helicopter view on this." This macho-sounding phrase has added appeal because of its aviation connotations. The direct translation is "Let's focus on the big picture" but it actually means "I can't be bothered with the details."

"I'll make that an action point." Must be spoken earnestly and is most believable if you simultaneously write a note on your jotter. The direct translation is "I have absolutely no intention of actioning it but saying I will should get you off my back."

Corporate-speak is evolving all the time but if you master these rudimentaries you will soon be speaking like a native. You will know that you have really made it when you start coining a few phrases of your own. You should take that on board.

At the end of the day, what's truly frightening is the way this language can infiltrate our everyday speech. When you find yourself arranging to "touch base" with your friends and family, it's probably time you took a holiday and had a much-needed break from the corporate environment.

* Shelley Bridgeman is an Auckland writer.

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