This Is How Business Made Me Bilingual

Two people discussing business over a table with documents
Nik MacMillan / Unsplash

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, I moved to Chicago to pursue comedy, using a carefully and brilliantly devised strategy. By day, I’d find my inspiration in hip and trendy coffee bistros and on El trains, gazing out at the quickly passing cityscape. By night, I’d play at open mics, only to catch the ear of George Wendt, sign a development deal and be thrust headlong into comedic superstardom. I soon discovered that telling well-crafted dick jokes to drunkards on Monday nights didn’t quite foot the astronomical bill for my one-room palace without air-conditioning. And, from what I could tell, George Wendt didn’t leave the house much.

To make ends meet, I accepted a position at one highly respected, billion-dollar media company, just gracious enough to pay me $24,000 a year. The company occupied the 16th floor of a glossy high-rise on Michigan Avenue, conveniently situated between a Starbucks and another Starbucks. During the hours before I was to arrive on my first day, I sat anxiously in the chair nestled between my futon and my refrigerator, wondering how I’d made such a catastrophic decision. From now on, I’d have to abide by corporate policies, regularly use PowerPoint, spend the majority of my day in a cubicle and wear pants with pleats in them.

Yes, this was going to be a special kind of hell.

As it turned out, my office wasn’t the cavernous warren of evil and gloom that I’d blueprinted so meticulously in my head. Sure, the walls were drab and dull, and the carpet patterns induced the subtle urge to vomit; but the people were like bright pops of color, radiating jocundity and warmth. I bonded with my boss, a middle-aged father of two who loved practical jokes and hated Oprah. Within weeks, I’d befriended my contemporaries, the other entry-level paper-pushers dreaming of a corner office and a less abysmal paycheck. I’d even infiltrated the sales department, confirming, to my delight, that they’d turned a lateral file cabinet into a fully stocked wet bar. But the more I settled in, the more I noticed something peculiar. Between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., these people communicated in a strange and unfamiliar dialect — a kind of corporate-speak, entirely confusing and positively ridiculous.

When my boss appeared at my desk and asked if I had any “capacity,” I paused contemplatively, and then proclaimed that I was all full from the chicken burrito I’d just eaten. When he rephrased the question using the word “bandwidth,” I suggested that we ask the IT department to check the bit-rate on my computer.

While I presumed these to be perfectly sufficient answers, they only provoked my boss to stare at me, as though I were a multi-colored space creature with three heads. Then, just before he sauntered away, my boss announced that he was going to “ping” me so he could examine my “low-hanging fruit.” I immediately wondered if this was the sort of comment I should report to Human Resources.

During meetings and in emails, I was given “action items,” ordered to “hammer it out” and asked to “circle back.”

I was told to take a “helicopter view” of “evergreen content” and “hit the ground running.” If I had ideas on how to “move the needle” I could request to “run them up the flagpole.”

I was expected to “think outside the box,” “do more with less” and keep my “ducks in a row.”

If I had any issues, I could “cascade the relevant information” or seek out the “one throat to choke.” And, surely, I could talk to my colleagues “offline.”

I’d always thought of myself as highly intelligent, with an inherent ability to participate in any conversation. But this interoffice vernacular frequently left me scratching my head, while asking myself a very basic question: What the fuck are these people talking about?

After two years in Chicago, I moved back to my hometown to focus on writing, using another carefully and brilliantly devised strategy. I’d lock myself in a small, smoky room, only to churn out a masterpiece, win the Thurber Prize and spend the rest of my days drinking daiquiris in the Caribbean. But, writing personal essays and facetiously responding to Craigslist ads didn’t quite foot the bill for my spacious, air-conditioned loft in the heart of downtown. So, I accepted a position at another highly respected media company, conveniently situated between a Chinese buffet and another Chinese buffet.

As I prepared for another jaunt through corporate America, I wondered if my new coworkers would communicate more sensibly, or if they’d use a language similar to the one I’d spent months in Chicago trying to decipher.

I wondered if my new boss would tell me she was going on vacation, instead of declaring that she’d be “out of pocket.”

I wondered if we’d be encouraged to work together, instead of “synergize.” I wondered if somebody might like me to brainstorm, instead of take part in an “idea shower.”

Not surprisingly, when I arrived on my first day, the company’s VP asked me about my career ambitions, and urged me to “open the kimono.”

Now, with over a decade of experience in a variety of roles, I am comprehensively fluent in office jargon.

Tell me not to “let the grass grow too long” and I’ll know just what you mean.

Want me to “look under the bonnet?” Understood.

Need someone who can “move the goalposts?” Loud and clear.

Most importantly, though, I am a highly skilled and efficient worker with a proven track record in content development, customer acquisition and strategic account management. The fact that I am bilingual is just a tremendous value-add. TC mark

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