34. On corpospeak
'Speech as action' vs 'speech as proposition'
34. On corpospeak
The American professional world speaks a certain language.
You’re not a random Youtube account - you’re a “valued creator in our community”. Your survey answers aren’t another data point on a largely-automated info gathering process almost nobody will look at - “your input will help guide important decisions about the future of the company.”
You could call this dialect corpospeak.
Is corpospeak dishonest?
Setting aside outright and direct fabrications, much of the weirdness in examples like the above is in emphasis and intimation. While I value and depend on YouTube, I don’t feel like a particularly ‘valued member’ of a community. The vibe and reality don’t match; they are handholding me towards an advantageous-to-them interaction, not describe things the way I see them.
For most of my life, I’ve been rather averse to corpospeak, finding it distasteful to consume and frequently impossible to write. But while I like nursing my butthurt at not having my own piles of billions of dollars to make history films and classical education institutes with - I’m also afraid of being overly butthurt about it.
On being butthurt
In college a friend introduced me to Rich Dad, Poor Dad - a pop business book about Robert Kiyosaki’s ‘two fathers’ - his friend’s dad who ended up with money, and his birth father who ended up without it:
Both men were successful in their careers, working hard all their lives. Both earned substantial incomes. Yet one struggled financially all his life. The other would become one of the richest men in Hawaii. One died leaving tens of millions of dollars to his family, charities and his church. The other left bills to be paid.
The rich and poor dads taught different things:
Both were just starting out on their careers, and both were struggling with money and families. But they had very different points of view about the subject of money. For example, one dad would say, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” The other, “The lack of money is the root of all evil.”
The book, which became a mainstay of secular prosperity gospel, predictably expounds on how the poor dad’s attitude kept him poor, and the rich dad’s attitude helped make him rich.
As for my own attitude? Yeezy said it better:
For me, dopeness is what I like the most. People who wanna make things as dope as possible. And by default, make money from it. The thing that I like the least, are people who only wanna make money from things whether they're dope or not, and especially make money from making things [the] least dope as possible.
— Kanye West
<flips ‘days since posting Dopeness quote’ counter back to zero>
Money isn’t bad on its own. It’s not useful for everything, but if you can avoid idolatry, it can help you build wholesome and excellent things that generate value far beyond your own bank account.
In other words, I need to get things done in this life, and frankly don’t have time to be too morose about other people having money.
This led me to a certain puzzle with regard to corpospeak.
A positive ethos
My philosophy is largely teleological in character. All human motivations (and by derivation many cultural artifacts), in my view, ultimately seek the Good. This doesn’t mean we always act well, but that when we act badly this arises from ignorance and despair, taking circuitous and confused routes where direct ones were possible.
To use something in a good way, it helps to know what it’s good for. So what is the positive ethos of corpospeak? What is it for? It shows up all over the place - is this an accident, or does it fill some cultural-evolutionary niche?
I had some insight about this recently when a friend - let’s call her Dana - told me how she got accepted to a highly prestigious business program.
Forgive a brief interruption!
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Let’s get back to it…
Dana took five months to write and rewrite her application essay to Prestigious Institute, dissecting every aspect of her personal history to find a constellation of elements that academic gatekeepers would find compelling. One evening, buzzed while watching trashy TV, inspiration struck - not only a personal story, but a compelling ambition it seemed to suggest, in the form of a complete business plan which suited the zeitgeist.
She finished her essay, hit send, and was accepted a few weeks later.
Telling this story, Dana expressed some moral uncertainty about how it had all gone down. Was her deliberative, messaging-oriented approach deceptive? The story submitted to the Institute, like any good fabricated message, was ‘true’ - but it was also airbrushed, styled, and framed. The business-academic game is played in a certain way, so she designed the corpo/academespeak message that would nail the desired outcome.
Is the airbrushed answer less ‘honest’ than just blurting out the first thing that comes to mind when the Institute asks what you’re about? Maybe. On the other hand, the goal was to get into PI, not make a private moral point by getting rejected for admirable reasons.
Considering the case, I argued that something remarkably functional had happened: while Prestigious Institutes never tell you to try to perfectly nail their application process, is the sort of person who takes 4-5 months to write a perfect story not the perfect candidate for a program aimed at developing excellence in marketing, branding, product positioning, and corporate communication?
As far as I can tell, a great outcome happened from everyone’s perspective. Prestigious Institute pretends to ask for the naked truth, and candidates pretend to provide it. Unsophisticated applicants, unprepared to read between the lines, are dropped from the pool; among the remainder, good storytellers have an edge. Too much bullshit and spin feels smarmy, and probably won’t work; the appropriate amount recommends the applicant.
What corpospeak is for
So what is the purpose of corpospeak?
I have a few ideas:
In the business context, businesses are forced to publicly comment on their plans, status, and intentions in front of varied audiences with varied levels of alignment and stake. Good corpospeak threads many needles, sending desired messages to current and possible customers, the media, regulators, funders, and beyond.
Good corpospeak can help individuals inside a company advocate for desired outcomes. If hiring Company A will help Team X attain Desired Outcome Y for Company B, it’s helpful for Company A to outfit Team X with the language to advance Y among Company B superiors and stakeholders.
There are probably more things to list, but these are enough to persuade me that corpospeak is valuable to certain outcomes in certain contexts. It may not be fully beautiful, but it can elegantly fulfill a purpose.
The truth of wheels
Corpospeak is not always fully literal, nor does it announce its full purpose as it enacts that purpose through speech. It rarely provides every contextual fact every audience would want it to provide.
When this goes too far, the subtleties of corpospeak get businesses in trouble. When corpospeak is abused, the communication is dishonest overall. Used conservatively, corpospeak is a useful tool for communicating in a competitive environment.
But while corpospeak isn’t analytic philosophy, where we craft literal propositions like “Socrates is mortal” - it has a different sort of truth to it. Jordan Peterson contrasts propositional truth with the 'truth’ of a ‘true’ wheel - a wheel that rolls straight. Perhaps the text of corpospeak is better thought of as ‘action’ than ’proposition’ - fulfilling a purpose, be that purpose admirable or condemnable.
Intellectuals should take their time in understanding the dialects, logic, teleology, and morality of the business world.
Gaining the skill
Alas, I’ve just outed myself as an outsider to the business world by commenting too directly on its sociology - but I’ll always have a foot in some philosophical world, so I’d better make that work for me.
So upon needing cash and remembering that I have 10 years of experience applying 1-1 skills that a lot of individuals and businesses have found extremely useful, I thought I’d take a crack at the old corpospeak.
I don’t think I did too bad!
So if you’re facing a complex, intimidating, personal or business problem – or if you want to attain greater self-knowledge for the the clarification and attainment of your life’s purpose - consider hitting me up:
The advocacy bit is the key. The most important context is appears in my own situation is when I want to advocate for something that could be personally touchy for other stakeholders, in terms of ego, etc. By framing my suggestion in terms of corpospeak, the parties can discuss dispassionately, and avoid making it a "me vs you" game.
The actual mechanism of this trick is that corpospeak always refers to objective, external criteria. So, when I want to say something like "X developer is pissing me off, we should fire him", I must frame it as "X developer has missed key project timelines and requires extra managerial effort to ensure his work is up to par. In our continuing effort to minimize consts without compromising output, I recommend we start him on a PIP." Note how it requires me reframing my own awareness of why exactly he's pissing me off (or proxy measures for that) in terms of company goals. In other words, it's the modern day form of rhetoric.