I once had a professor who enjoyed incorporating unnecessarily lengthy words in his lectures. At first he sounded brilliant and I hung on his every really long word. Alas, this was a class in accounting rather than rhetoric, so it wasn’t long before my classmates and I began to notice that his eloquence was a tactic to cover up the fact that he wasn’t really saying anything at all. Thank goodness for grading on a curve.
What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was he was unknowingly teaching us how to leverage and decode a time-honored business practice we’d be faced with our entire lives – vagueness.
As you wander the halls of just about any workplace (or classroom), listen closely and you will hear the sounds of brilliantly vague buzzwords and catch phrases leaving the mouths of highly intelligent people – present company included. The I’ll-circle-backs, mission-criticals and key-learnings used to convey confidence and authority are often the best means of conversation avoidance. We believe one nebulous phrase equals one satisfied colleague. “She said she’d keep me in the loop on next steps. That girl is on top of it.”
Ambiguity is our way of not appearing flaky, or lazy, or just plain dumb. Here are a few of my favorites:
It’s just a trial = I’m sorta kinda sure this idea could be slightly awesome. If I’m right then I intend to take full credit, but if not I prefer not to be held accountable.
I’ll keep you looped in = Don’t call me, I’ll call you.
Let’s start with some brainstorming = I’m not really sure where I’m going with this yet but I’ve got a flip chart and some smelly markers so let’s get cracking.
I’m still hashing out the details = I assumed you all forgot about this so I stopped working on it.
We’ve elected to adopt some new best practices = This is someone else’s idea.
I was multitasking = I have no idea what you just said.
This will be a working session = I forgot about this meeting, so together we can do all the work that I was supposed to do in the first place.
FAQ, ROI, HQ, FYI, ASAP: If I throw in enough acronyms nobody will ask questions.
It’s in the approval phase: This is the corporate equivalent of “check’s in the mail.” Don’t hold your breath.
Whether it’s answering a question with a question or having a meeting about a meeting, we’ve all developed our own song-and-dance methods of saying absolutely nothing. Being evasive is an art form to be mastered. In fact, being vague and noncommittal is also a great way to avoid some of life’s sticky situations like awkward party invites or second dates.
Of course, many of us don’t tolerate vagueness. We cut through the fluff and demand “next steps” and “action items” and “follow through” – assuming we aren’t too busy multitasking to notice we’ve been duped.
Have you ever been sort of slightly almost guilty of saying a little bit of nothing?