94% of professionals regularly hear (and probably use) annoying business jargon in their workday
It’s a plague upon businesses everywhere! According to a September 2019 survey run by TrustRadius, nearly 4 out of 10 people hear business jargon, cliches, and buzzwords often in a typical work day. On top of that more than 2 out of 10 said they hear buzzwords way too much. Only around 1 in 20 respondents survives a full workday free of business jargon.
The 27 worst business buzzwords of 2019, and why they’re so annoying
764 professionals weighed in. We asked survey respondents to complain about the the top 3 cliches, figures of speech, or jargon that annoy them the most. Without further ado, here are the most frequently mentioned buzzwords business people hate, from least to most mentioned.
#27: Acronyms (FYI, ROI, KPI, etc.)
Acronyms come in all shapes and sizes. But all of them are confusing and pretentious–the jargon-iest of business jargon. Lots of survey takers simply said they hated all acronyms and seemingly unnecessary abbreviations, “because I have no idea what the letters or shortened names mean.”
Consensus is that three-letter business acronyms were especially annoying. For example, respondents threw shade at KPI (“Key Performance Indicator”), BAU (“Business as Usual”), and EOB (“End of Business”):
- “KPIs – people love to use acronyms when they could easily use more simple words (like ‘goals’).”
- “BAU – it doesn’t help I worked with someone named Bao but can we not just say status quo or business as usual?”
- “EOB – just say by the end of the day.”
They also complained about “technology acronyms that have multiple meanings or interpretations, and which can be exclusionary, such as ERP, CRM, IAM.”
#26: Bottom line
Invoking the “bottom line” means money. What’s the cost, and where’s our profit? Metaphorically, it’s used to mean practically, pragmatically, or realistically. It’s not a new or trendy business buzzword. But literal or figurative, it gets at the heart of business. Are you truly talking about “the bottom line” in every conversation? Probably not. But love it or hate it, if you’re in business, you can’t stray too far from this kind of thinking. And that’s the bottom line.
“Right” has several different usages. All of them are annoying. For example: “right away,” “right off the bat,” “up and to the right,” and even “when people say ‘right’ after making a statement that may or may not be correct as if to convince you they are right!”
We get it, confidence, urgency, and beating the competition are important for success. Duh, right? Whether it’s self-affirming, used to mean “now” or “from the start,” or describing the market leadership position (such as on a Gartner Magic Quadrant), people are sick of hearing it.
As in “get in alignment” or “drive stakeholder alignment.” It’s a more formal, impersonal way to say you need everyone to agree or be on board with shared goals.
Working together is a good thing. But constantly talking about pursuing togetherness in the form of this lofty noun can lead to paranoia. The more “alignment” is uttered, the more you might wonder–how far apart are we? How many meetings would it take to bring us back together again?
“Disruptors” are companies, individuals, and inventions that change the status quo. They’ve got lofty goals and tend to disregard not only social norms and expectations, but also laws. Uber is the prime example of the decade. For a more technical definition of “disruptor,” check out its feature on this list of top 10 most hated tech buzzwords. Yes, we’ve researched that too!
Yet businesses viewing themselves as radical heroes can often feel overblown, and out of touch with reality. “This word is way overused and I’ve heard it used in absolutely ridiculous ways,” said one survey-taker. The same person had some good advice for anyone feeling presently annoyed by disruptors: “I’ve started thinking about Star Trek disruptors whenever I hear it, which makes me secretly laugh.”
“Wheelhouse” is one of those words that just feels unnecessary. “Why not just say it’s in our area of expertise, or we’d be good at this?” posited one respondent. A saltier respondent complained: “You’re not a sea captain. Nothing is in your wheelhouse, Diane. Just say you know how to do something instead.”
#21: Touch base
“Touch base” is super common in professional settings. It’s just another way to say “check in.” It conjures baseball metaphors, or maybe military ones. Perhaps it’s starting to feel a little physical, upon close reflection? Also hated is its relative, “touchpoint,” which manages to be too personal and too impersonal all at once.
#20: Reach out
To “reach out” is a euphemism for contacting someone–usually not by walking over to them, or being anywhere within arm’s reach. Typically, it means contacting someone via email, text, phone call, or instant message. “‘Reach out’ (AND TOUCH FAITH?!!),” joked one respondent.
The touchy-feely connotations may even be a bit sinister. They mask the fact that this will likely be a routine negative interaction. For example, one person complained about being asked “Can you reach out to…?” by saying, “Let’s face it, if you hear this phrase you’re about to have yourself a rather unpleasant conversation. Otherwise the person asking you to do this would have done it themselves.”
#19: Next level, up-level, and level up
This is a vague way to say improve by working harder and making something more intense. People are annoyed by the arbitrary, sensational drive for progress. It can feel inflated. And no one likes being pushed to do more without clear expectations. “We’re taking this to the next level (what does that mean exactly??)” griped one survey-taker.
But don’t mistake this attitude for laziness. Turns out, folks don’t like “level set” either. Though it didn’t make this list, and actually means the opposite of leveling up, plenty of respondents complained about that term for agreeing on (and usually lowering) expectations. It’s too bureaucratic and pessimistic.
#18: Moving forward, and its close cousin “going forward”
This one is trying a little too hard to propel things into the future, toward success on a grammatical level. “Just say ‘from now on,’” recommends one astute respondent. Another poses the question: “Which other way would you go?”
#17: Customer journey
Is buying something really so existential and moving an experience as to be worthy of being called “a journey”? Maybe it depends on the industry. But in B2C especially, calling it a customer journey might be overstating things. “There’s simply no journey on Amazon,” a survey-taker put it bluntly. No one is traversing mountains to buy a new phone case online.
Your “bandwidth” is your capacity to do certain tasks, or take on more work. It turns people off because it’s dehumanizing–“Just say workload! We’re not computers.”
It also means there’s too much work on the table, or that someone’s trying to rationalize the fact that they’ve just said “no.” “Bandwidth only applies to networking or the transferring of data… not how swamped you are at work and why you might not be able to take on another project. Stop using this term,” advises one fed-up survey-taker.
#15: Deep dive
To take a “deep dive” means to look at something in detail, and consider all the ins and outs. Sadly, it does not involve scuba gear or a vacation to Aruba. Aside from reminding people that they’re working (rather than enjoying the beauty of the seas), it’s annoying because the person saying it wants you to go back and do more work (i.e. “dive deeper”) to provide a more detailed explanation. Or else, they haven’t been listening until now, but they’re ready to pay attention. So please repeat everything you’ve ever said on this topic. Ready, set, go!
#14: Digital transformation
It’s the next generation of “business transformation,” an older, also annoying, business cliche. In today’s world, “digital” is the (very vague) means by which most businesses aspire to transform.
“Digital transformation: an empty term, actually doesn’t involve any true approach for improvement,” complained one survey-taker. “It means everything–and nothing, really,” another respondent summed up sagely. It should come as no surprise that “digital transformation” made our list of top 10 most hated tech buzzwords, too.
#13: Best practice
A best practice is the recommended way to do something. Typically, a business will define “best practices” in its own area of expertise, and rely on experts, skilled employees, or other businesses for “best practices” in other areas. It’s harmless enough, in theory. But on the ground, “best practices” can feel canned, and get way too basic to be helpful.
Especially in complex business arenas where you might actually want help from someone who knows what they’re doing, “best practices” can be an empty promise. As one respondent defined it: “Best practice – we are going to apply a one size fits all model because we don’t understand your business.”
Agile is a software development and project management methodology that evolved in contrast to the waterfall style of working. It’s heralded as the solution for projects taking too long, being unsatisfying to work on, or even total failure.
Of course, the reality is a lot more complicated than that. This is why people are annoyed by this word. Like with “cloud,” respondents complained “most do not understand how to use it or where.” They also resent its overuse, and the amount of excitement it generates as a fix for everything. That’s because it’s hard to truly switch to agile, and doesn’t always make sense. As one person put it, “Working more Agile-like is not an overnight terminology shift. It’s a buzzword without much meaning oftentimes.” For more on the buzz around “agile” in the tech industry, check out this article and see why it’s one of the most hated tech buzzwords as well.
As a verb, “leverage” means to use or provide in order to gain extra power. Think simple machines, like the mechanics of a lever. So why is that annoying? This survey-taker summed up the general complaint nicely: “‘Use’ is a perfectly good word!” But in the logic of business jargon, why leverage a 3-letter word when an 8-letter word will do?
#10: Move the needle
To “move the needle” simply means to make measurable progress. The problem is: what’s the goal, and how much exactly do you need to move the needle to succeed at “moving the needle?” These loopholes frustrate people, especially because bosses often say “move the needle” when they’re putting pressure on teams to do better, faster.
It’s annoying because it’s arbitrary. “Move the needle – it’s a vague goal when it really should be a SMART goal,” said one survey taker. Another made a similar point: “It’s unclear how large the needle is & what one tick mark on the scale equates to. ’Moving the needle,’ if it’s considered successful, is something that had value. If not, it’s someone’s personal opinion.”
#9: Big data
This one made the list of top 10 most hated technology buzzwords this year, too. The big problem with big data? “Most people don’t really know what this is,” explained one respondent. It’s essentially a set of data that is so large and complex it can’t be processed using traditional data management tools and procedures. Learn more about what big data really means here.
#8: You don’t know what you don’t know
This one’s pretty straightforward. It’s the status of being so in the dark or unfamiliar with a domain that you have no idea what you need to learn, what questions to ask, or what problems to anticipate. Humility and transparency are useful (and perhaps not that common) in business. But often the phrase “we don’t know what we don’t know” stands in as an excuse for not making progress, or not involving people who do know what you don’t.
Another one of the top 10 most hated technology buzzwords of 2019. There are two main beefs with “cloud.”
First, it isn’t specific enough to be a technical term on its own (because it has multiple meanings). According to one respondent, “it can mean cloud-based, in the cloud, or cloud native. People just throw it out there not knowing the context.”
Also, everyone is using the to describe their technology product, so it doesn’t denote a difference from the status quo. In 2019, “cloud” IS the status quo–or at least, it’s coming out of everyone’s mouths. “First off… know what this means before you say ‘The Cloud.’ It’s not just a word you use when you don’t know what you’re talking about. Secondly…. everyone is “In the Cloud” so you’re not that special,” complained another respondent.
#6: At the end of the day
This one’s proverbial. It means “in the end,” or looking back when all is said and done. It has a special meaning in business contexts, where there is, typically, an end to business hours. Employees go home, and leave their work at work.
But it’s getting murkier, with the rise of the gig economy, flexible work schedules, and venture capital-funded entrepreneurship at an all-time high. As one survey-taker put it: “There is no end of day.” So when is the right time to reflect? What marks the “end of the day” in 2019? What stress or lessons we should we take home to our personal lives, or carry forward into the next day? At the end of the day, no one has a great answer to that.
#5: Low-hanging fruit
You know the easiest, most obvious thing you could possibly do that might have an impact? That’s the “low-hanging fruit.”
People hate it because the phrase, and the concept, are frustratingly ubiquitous. Everyone’s boss wants to find a quick win. It’s much harder to think long-term, to convince your business to do things the “right way,” or to justify an investment in R&D. And even the easiest approach might lead down a bumpy road. This phrase undervalues that effort. “Low-hanging fruit – it’s so overused and 90% of the time isn’t as easy as the cliche makes it sound,” explained one respondent.
#4: Circle back
This means return to a topic, or to check in on the status of something later. “Circle back” or “circle back around” is often used when the speaker does not want to pay attention to the topic now. Sometimes the speaker wants the person they’re talking to to carry on thinking about it in the meantime, without them. Other times, the speaker wants everyone to stop until further notice.
Respondents find “circle back” annoying because it sounds unnatural, and they don’t always believe that the speaker will actually come back to the topic. In the words of one survey taker, “Circle back, AKA never talk about it again.” Another said,“Circle back – sounds so robotic & weird.”
Plus, like many other words on this list, they’re just plain tired of hearing it all the time: “Circle back – overused, and does anyone really ‘Circle’ back?”
#3: Take it offline
“Take it offline” is similar to “circle back,” but harsher. It means this isn’t the right time and place to discuss a particular topic. The speaker wishes to halt the conversation immediately.
“‘Let’s take it offline’ – this is an excuse not to deal with the situation. Most times it is never taken offline and never resolved,” as one respondent explained. It’s a computer metaphor intended to unplug the current (usually in-person) conversation.
Another respondent put it even more bluntly: “‘Take it offline’ is usually a nice way to tell someone to shut up.”
#2: Think outside the box (and other variations, like “step out of the box,” an “out of the box” idea, etc.)
This basically means to be more creative, to set the usual constraints aside and approach a problem from a new angle. It’s a departure from business as usual (or “BAU” – another hated buzzword.)
People hate the phrase because it’s trite and belittling. “Think Outside the Box – You shouldn’t have to say this,” explained one respondent. Another very aptly put it: “Who ever wants to be in the box?”
This one blew all other annoying buzzwords out of the water. “Synergy” is clearly the worst of the worst.
Its meaning is pretty simple, according to our survey takers: “Synergy – A made-up word that just means cooperation or teamwork.”
Does synergy really deserve to be 2019’s worst business buzzword?
I hate “synergy” just as much as anyone else. But what makes it our winner? In 2019, the act of calling out “synergy” for being cliché business jargon itself feels a bit cliché. It’s already universally recognized as meaningless, disingenuous corporate-speak.
So why did it win as most annoying business buzzword? Well, business buzzwords are a double-edged sword. We love to hate them. It’s easy to catch your coworker in the act, or complain about executives’ catch phrases. But it’s a lot harder to stop yourself from using business buzzwords. We’re all guilty in this act.
My hypothesis: “synergy” is a straw man. Respondents can safely poke fun at the word, because they can be sure they haven’t recently said it themselves.
This jargon is bad, but in all seriousness…
Don’t get me wrong, this was a fun topic. I received a lot of positive feedback from professionals who took the survey and were pumped about the research. For example, one person said it’s the only time in his entire career he’s ever been interested enough to weigh in on research like this! What made this survey connect with so many people? Language is a huge part of our lives. Plus, who doesn’t love a chance to complain?
But there’s also a more serious side. In an ever-connected world, we’re dealing with information overload. There are more ways than ever to communicate. Workplaces are more casual than they used to be. We’re busier than ever. Our attention spans are shorter. Things get confusing and feel impersonal. We don’t always stop to think about the impact of that on ourselves and the other humans around us. The flurry of business buzzwords all around us is just one symptom of our communication quandary.
I know the survey also led to introspection, and some self-consciousness about how each of us speak in the workplace. Another reply from a respondent: “I took this and realized that the same things that annoy me, I use frequently. Looks like it’s time for a change.”
And that’s not a bad thing, at all.