a note for the “language watch” file


It’s customary these days to hear people in meetings talk about “bucketing” things. As the board room conversation goes forward, participants start “bucketing” this and “bucketing” that. They are making order of the conversation, but it feels often as if the roof is merely leaking.

It is not a pretty metaphor, and it doesn’t particularly flatter the people in the room. If “buckets” is the best we can do, perhaps this is not the most adroit conceptual activity, and perhaps the corporation deserves better.

Indeed, just about everyone I know makes fun of the bucketing turn of phrase. But we all use it anyhow. It occurred to me the other day that this phrase might be a symptom of the nature of discourse in the corporate world. In the anthropological manner, I began to wonder whether the phrase did not reveal something more fundamental about the culture in place.

Let’s assume, and for anyone who has spent any time in a boardroom, this is an easy assumption, that corporate discourse is a newly complicated thing. Under the influence of complexity theory and other ideas designed to give us a leg up on the new dynamism of the marketplace, we are encouraged to contemplate many possibilities from many points of view. Even the simplest problem admits of several, radically different, treatments. The boardroom task is to think its way out of this complexity to a plausible action plan.

The bucket metaphor has two advantages. The first is to let us honor the first rule of complexity theory: that we must work with heterogeneous problem sets. We must honor the complexity of the world by being very careful not to oversimplify it. “Buckets” is a good metaphor because it says, in effect, “we believe all these things go together, but we are not insisted how. We leave that for later.”

Furthermore, buckets allows us to proceed even when we don’t have full consensus. I am not talking about the political tensions that have always haunted corporate discourse. I’m talking about the multiplicity of points of view that a complex approach to things inevitably encourages, indeed demands. The “buckets” approach says, “we are not saying which point of view is privileged by this categorization. We are not insisting on one approach. By bucketing these considerations, we are agreeing to disagree at a later time.”

It’s not a pretty phrase, and it’s not an elegant one, but “buckets” does suggest that something might be happening to the conceptual architecture with which we address the problems of the corporate world as it takes on the new dynamism of the marketplace. “Buckets” are, by metaphoric implication, messy, uncertain categories. But there are within these limits stable ones. They allow us to say “We the people believe these considerations are somehow related and belong together.”

It’s possible that this slightly risible metaphor is in fact a harbinger of the new intellectual order and difficulty of discourse in a complicated and dynamic world.

6 thoughts on “a note for the “language watch” file

  1. Steve Portigal

    In my early days on USENET I was pleased to discover that there are two types of people in the world: those that believe there are two types of people in the world; and those that don’t.

  2. Anonymous

    Some jargon I hear in business and do not like:

    “ownership” – means taking responsibility. My sense of it is that it must be the result of some sort of management fad involving getting workers to feel like company owners (i.e., capitalists) through word magic.

    “my plate” – some one who is busy has things on his plate. In my company, this is a tremendously overused metaphor.

    “going forward” – means “in the future” but it usually pointless since it is obvious from context – e.g., when giving someone instructions obviously one wants them to carry out those instructions in the future as opposed to in the past, since it is too late to do that. My guess is that “next time” and “in the future” have a hard edge to them, an edge of rebuke, and that “going forward” is used to blunt that edge.

    “breakout” – not sure what it means, but seems to refer to cross-departmental meetings, possibly refers to the organization breaking out of a rut through reorganization, but that’s just etymological speculation on my part. Jargon that is never explained is especially annoying.

    “pig in a python” – used by one person high up, made fun of by everyone else. Refers to bottlenecks in the workflow, I think. Browsing a jargon glossary online I noticed it’s established business jargon. Did not know that. (“bottleneck” I like, “workflow” I like)

    “take it offline” – means that a topic should not be discussed at a meeting as it would waste everyone’s time. What’s annoying is that the meeting is not “online”, it’s people sitting in a room, so what the heck?

    “opportunity” – someone left to pursue “other opportunities”. Means someone found a better job. Possibly means they were fired.

    “proactive” – I’ve been exposed to this one so much it almost doesn’t bother me any more, which now that I think about it, bothers me. It’s often used as a veiled criticism. Has the obvious meaning of anticipating events and preparing for them ahead of time. Sounds like the word must come from some old management fad.

    “take leadership” – I really hate this one because it is used on the most powerless people in the company. Seems to be used to praise every twitch of initiative.

    “push back” – hearing this one a lot lately, it’s used in my office to describe it when we refuse requests.

    acronyms and other abbreviations – so many of these, talking to my coworkers is sometimes like talking a foreign language, and there are constantly new ones, and my company has gotten to changing the names of the same things.

    “productive” – I’ve noticed this recently. Occasionally someone says a meeting has been “productive” – implicitly acknowledging that most meetings are not. But “productive” seems to mean “I got to say my bit”.

  3. Grant

    Steve: you’ve lost me. I didn’t meet to imply that we could divide these speakers into two groups (or that we couldn’t). What am I missing? Thanks, Grant

    Anonymous: Great dictionary! I believe Leora K. has a friend who, when at Microsoft, documented the lingo there. In 100 years, linguists and other social scientists will by crying for this sort of thing. I wonder if someone is on top of this thing. Any pointers to web resources would be gratefully received. Thanks, Grant

  4. Steve Portigal

    It was just my riff on buckets – sorry for being too flip – or at least so flip that I was misleading.

    My particular irritation with corporate jargon is the new flavors of it that I encounter (as a consultant) from client to client. It’s the way in which phrases and buzzwords are used as internal shorthand that I am struck by as I try to integrate into or at least understand the scope of the culture I will be dealing with. I recently had a group of people suggest they conduct a “what do you know” session with someone internally, and the sheer local nature of that – even though I could understand what they meant I still felt excluded – kinda irritated me.

    Of course, that irritation is data, and it’s often something I can make use of…

  5. Grant

    Steve, but there can be more than two buckets. That’s interesting to think that there are lots of local variations on the the buzzwords. I thought that the thing about buzzwords is that they tended to flood the corporate world and establish currency everyone at once. Until everyone moves on. This is another piece of the involuntary improv forced upon the consultant: having to figure out what the new client means even as you take instruction. Interesting. Thanks! Grant

  6. Kevin

    Ze Frank, the web monologist has what i think is the essential survivors guide to the endless prattle of corporate communications in meetings, and email. Through a little substitution of meaning in the punctuation I believe that you can bring a whole new meaning to the communications you receive each and every day by the terabyte.

    colon = “bite me” (it wouldn’t take the symbol)
    – = “or not”
    ) = “jackass”
    . = “your vocabulary sucks pussbag”
    ? = “idiot boy”
    ! = “piece of crap”

    Since I myself work in a multi-national congolmerate I’m beset with an overwhelming amount of corporate idiot speak, i’m with Ze Frank on this one.

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