Startups have a language problem

“We have to be cognizant of how this rollout could affect stakeholders – it may mean we have to adjust the omni-channel experience for this vertical. I’ll discuss it with Dave offline when he’s done geobragging on vacation and circle back next Monday…”

Come again?

As an angel investor and entrepreneur, I’m no stranger to corporate jargon. As much as I hate to admit it, startup neologisms are a regular part of my vernacular. But there was something about what I just heard that made me think…

There’s something awful about the way we talk.

I’m not the first one to notice this problem. In a Vulture article titled, “Garbage language: Why do corporations speak the way they do?,” Molly Young cites an excerpt from Anna Wiener’s Silicon Valley memoir “Uncanny Valley,”

“’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 [Anna Weiner] 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. . .”

This type of nonlanguage is more harmful than it seems. As Young later writes,

“Garbage language permeates the ways we think of our jobs and shapes our identities as workers. . .”

The words we use are important. In fact, they’re so important that Dr. Jordan Peterson devoted an entire chapter to the value of proper speech in his book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos.”

In the chapter “Rule 10: Be precise in your speech,” Peterson writes,

“If you identify things, with careful attention and language, you bring them forward as viable, obedient objects . . . You simplify them . . . If you leave things vague, then you’ll never know what is one thing and what is another. Everything will bleed into everything else. This makes the world too complex to be managed.”

And that,

“You have to consciously define the topic of a conversation, particularly when it is difficult—or it becomes about everything, and everything is too much.”

Garbage language is so psychologically grating because it’s the exact opposite of precise speech – it's fluffy, non-committal, and leaves ample room for misinterpretation. I believe some people cling to garbage language for this exact reason; its superfluous nature allows them to convince themselves and others that they are more efficient, important, or brilliant than they really are.

Bullshit baffles brains, as they say.

Young concludes in her aforementioned article,

“The meaningful threat of garbage language — the reason it is not just annoying but malevolent — is that it confirms delusion as an asset in the workplace.”

While delusion has been said to be an asset in entrepreneurship, it can be particularly dangerous in an organization because it leads to harmful groupthink. In fact, many commentators have attributed major organizational failings (e.g. NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, the 2008 Financial Crisis) to delusive groupthink.

Founders Have to Throw Out Garbage Language

Many of us are guilty of using garbage language. However, despite its seeming innocence, garbage language is a poor method of communication that poses a barrier to effective collaboration. It’s up to founders to disavow garbage language and promote clear, transparent communication in the workplace so that their employees don’t just sound productive – but actually are.

Aaron Hoddinott

Investor and marketer willing to take big swings at bold ideas.

Aaron Hoddinott

Investor and marketer willing to take big swings at bold ideas.