Garbage Language
New York magazine|February 17 - March 1, 2020
Why do corporations speak the way they do?
By Molly Young

I worked at various start-ups for eight years beginning in 2010, when I was in my early 20s. Then I quit and went freelance for a while. A year later, I returned to office life, this time at a different start-up. During my gap year, I had missed and yearned for a bunch of things, like health care and free knockoff Post-its and luxurious people-watching opportunities. (In 2016, I saw a co-worker pour herself a bowl of cornflakes, add milk, and microwave it for 90 seconds. I’ll think about this until the day I die.) One thing I did not miss about office life was the language. The language warped and mutated at a dizzying rate, so it was no surprise that a new term of art had emerged during the year I spent between jobs. The term was a parallel path, and I first heard it in this sentence: “We’re waiting on specs for the San Francisco installation. Can you parallel-path two versions?”

Translated, this means: “We’re waiting on specs for the San Francisco installation. Can you make two versions?” In other words, to “parallel-path” is to do two things at once. That’s all. I thought there was something gorgeously and inadvertently candid about the phrase’s assumption that a person would ever not be doing more than one thing at a time in an office—its denial that the whole point of having an office job is to multitask ineffectively instead of single-tasking effectively. Why invent a term for what people were already forced to do? It was, in its fakery and puffery and lack of a reason to exist, the perfect corporate neologism.

The expected response to the above question would be something like “Great, I’ll go ahead and parallel-path that and route it back to you.” An equally acceptable response would be “Yes” or a simple nod. But the point of these phrases is to fill space. No matter where I’ve worked, it has always been obvious that if everyone agreed to use language in the way that it is normally used, which is to communicate, the workday would be two hours shorter.

In theory, a person could have fun with the system by introducing random terms and insisting on their validity (“We’re gonna have to banana-boat the marketing budget”). But in fact, the only beauty, if you could call it that, of terms like the parallel path is their arrival from nowhere and their seemingly immediate adoption by all. If workplaces are full of communal irritation and communal pride, they are less often considered to be places of communal mysticism. Yet when I started that job and began picking up on the new vocabulary, I felt like a Mayan circa 1600 BCE surrounded by other Mayans in the face of an unstoppable weather event that we didn’t understand and had no choice but to survive, yielding our lives and verbal expressions to a higher authority.

Anyhow, I left the parallel-path job after six months—unrelated to the standard operating language, although I used a wad of it in my resignation.

In January, a very good memoir called Uncanny Valley was published. The author, Anna Wiener, moved to San Francisco from Brooklyn around 2014 to work at a mobile-analytics start-up, and one of the book’s many pleasures is how neatly it bottles the scent of moneyed Bay Area in the mid-2010s: kombucha, office dog, freshly unwrapped USB cable. Wiener talks about the lofty ambitions of her company, its cushy amenities, the casual misogyny that surrounds her like a cloud of gnats. The book hit me in two places. One of them was a tender, heart-adjacent place that remembered growing up in San Francisco, with its fog-ladled neighborhoods and football fields of fleece. The other was closer to my liver, where bile is manufactured. This was the part of me that remembered working at places much like the one Wiener describes—jobs that provided money to pay rent in a major urban area while I freelanced for magazines and websites that did not. Writing, it turns out, is an economically awkward skill. Despite the fact that it can’t yet be outsourced or performed cheaply by robots, it isn’t worth much. In the case of Anna Wiener (and maybe only Anna Wiener), this is a good thing, because it forced her to embed in a landscape that cried out for narration and commentary.

The status pyramid at most start-ups is roughly this: The C-suite sits at the pinnacle, followed by senior data and tech people, followed by non-senior data and tech people, followed by everyone else except the customer service, and then, at the very bottom, customer service. Which, by the way, has been rechristened “customer support” or “customer experience” at most companies—as though the word service might remind the college graduates recruited for these roles that they will, in fact, spend their days pacifying irritable consumers over the phone, chat, text, and email. Wiener worked in customer support.

Being the lowliest worm at a company offers observational advantages in that it renders a person invisible. Wiener describes watching her peers attend silent-meditation retreats, take LSD, discuss Stoicism, and practice Reiki at parties. She tries ecstatic dance, gulps nootropics, and accepts a “cautious, fully-clothed back massage” from her company’s in-house masseuse. She encounters a man who self-identifies as a Japanese raccoon dog. She’s a participant and an ethnologist; she’s impressed and revulsed.

Wiener writes especially well—with both fluency and astonishment—about the verbal habits of her peers: “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 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, “but customers loved him.”

I know that man, except he didn’t ride a scooter and was actually a woman named Megan at yet another of my former jobs. What did Megan do? Mostly she set meetings, or “syncs,” as she called them. They were the worst kind of meeting—the kind where attendees circle the concept of work without wading into the substance of it. Megan’s syncs were filled with discussions of cadences and connectivity and upleveling as well as the necessity to refine and iterate moving forward. The primary unit of meaning was the abstract metaphor. I don’t think anyone knew what anyone was saying, but I also think we were all convinced that we were the only ones who didn’t know while everyone else was on the same page. (A common reference, this elusive page.)

In Megan’s syncs, I found myself becoming almost psychedelically disembodied, floating above the conference room and gazing at the dozen or so people within as we slumped, bit and chewed extremities, furtively manipulated phones, cracked knuckles, examined split ends, scratched elbows, jiggled feet, palpated stomach rolls, disemboweled pens, and gnawed on shirt collars. The sheer volume of apathy formed energy of its own, like a mudslide. At the half-hour mark of each hour-long meeting, our bodies began to list perceptibly toward the door. It was like the whole room had to pee. When I tried to translate Megan’s monologues in real-time, I could feel my brain aching in a physical manner, the way it does when I attempt to understand blockchain technology or do my taxes.

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