Mind Your (Business) Language Opinion – Keith Bryer

Mind Your (Business) Language Opinion - Keith Bryer

It should be common sense for business to use plain English to communicate. Staff and customers must understand each other. Supervisors must be able to be understood. It is stating the obvious, but in many companies, especially large ones, plain English is made less so by a “business dialect”.

The main culprit is the use of acronyms – groups of capital letters as a shorthand for a phrase. The result is a language that, while recognisable as English, is so peppered with acronyms that only the initiated can fully understand it. Hearing it for the first time is like briefly losing your hearing at least once in every heard sentence.

Acronyms are often deliberately used to exclude those listening, making them feel cowed and ignorant or simply stupid. Even at board level, listeners to presentations nod their heads as though they understand what is being said, but don’t. New entrants to business are often the recipients of this business-speak. When English is not their home language, demotivation and bitterness at being excluded contributes to a lack of morale and loyalty. Even human resources staffers are guilty, though they should be keener on simple communication than anyone else.

As many as 170 business acronyms may be in daily use. To many new recruits it must seem as if they have joined an organisation run by Martians. Originating in the military, particularly during the two world wars, acronyms were rapidly adopted by business. They have since grown like mushrooms on steroids. The 170 figure is probably out of date already.

The effect has been to make business-speak a language apart, almost completely unintelligible to outsiders. Even worse, different industries have developed their own unique ones. This is not to say that acronyms do not have their uses. Abbreviation can add colour and – to a point – interest to human communication. Wartime usually produces a new crop. Snafu is one such. It means “situation normal, all f****d up”. It is still used to describe the usual chaos of armies in the field. It is used on the business grapevine by disenchanted staff when things go wrong in a badly-run company.

In some companies the danger of acronyms is recognised, but it is coupled with an acceptance that their use cannot be prevented. Some even print special glossaries of company acronyms as appendices to company documents. They even give acronym dictionaries for staff as an aid to translation. One wit has cleverly turned the word acronyms into one. It spells out “absurdly contrived representations of names yielding mass stupefaction”. The author deserves a medal.

Pointing to the irritation of many employees, a host of new acronyms has emerged. They are designed to give back in code what they receive the same way. Some are deliberately coarse, such as Ahoya, which translates as “a*****e of the year award”. This comes from the electrical repair industry. Another example is a manager described as Astro – is one who is “always stating the really obvious”.

For those readers who share a hatred of acronyms it could apply to what is written here. However, imagine you have just started your first job and you are listening to a senior manager exhorting sales staff to do better. You hear this:

“We have got to ensure that we all improve the company’s B2B. Not only that, we must make a big push to ensure that we do not ignore our B2C or our very important B2G. Remember they are all customers and customers pay your salaries. Without them we would be out of business and out of our jobs. “We must never forget that we are BTE, not to mention BTA. Every BTB sale is actually a very important link in B2B2C. “I hope you all take what I have said to heart,” the manager concludes, striding off, believing he has delivered a rocket to the sales staff. Meanwhile his staff pep-talk is incomprehensible to anyone new to business. There are examples like it heard every day. Even in letters written to customers, acronyms appear that are known to the writer but are incomprehensible to the recipient, so insidious is the effect of this business shorthand.

In some places the abbreviations themselves become words, understood by everyone, without being able to be spelled out. An example is the use of the term DFac – originally an acronym – to denote an eating hall in the American army or dining facility.

In our multicultural, multilingual country, where for many entrants to the business world for whom English is a second, third (or even more) language, it should be self-evident that acronyms should be used sparingly. They should be avoided in speech and spelled out with the acronym in brackets printed immediately after, and only afterwards used alone in the text.

This is a long-standing rule in all newspapers. It is a good one – and it’s one business should adopt.

* Keith Bryer is a retired communications consultant.


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