Just. Used to make a last minute and excessive demand seem reasonable: “could you just do this (massive presentation) by Monday”, always asked on Friday afternoon. It is also often a harbinger of doom from your boss: “could I see you for just a moment…” What follows is rarely good. Only can be used interchangeably with just. It can also be used to make the inexcusable seem excusable.
Policy. As in, “we were following company policy”. Routinely used by mindless jobsworths to justify abysmal customer service. Much favoured in security and health and safety situations. Policies allow people to disengage their brains and use no judgement whatsoever, often with catastrophic results.
From. Used as bait by advertisers, as in “Fly to Rome from £5” provided you book three years in advance, pay £300 in ancillary charges and think that Vladivostock is close enough to be called Rome.
Important, or occasionally urgent, which is important with bells on. This is used to puff up any document. It may be important to you, but buying the cat food is more important and urgent to me, and my cat. If you want to show it is important, prove it.
Strategic, which is important with bells and whistles. Normally used to justify some insane idea for which there is no financial case at all. Much favoured by IT. It can also be used to make the routine seem glamorous: strategic initiatives are superior to other initiatives, at least in the mind of the speaker.
Investment. Costs and losses are bad, but investment is good. Always convert the cost of training to an investment in human capital. Strategic investments are simply bigger costs, see IT again. Prick this balloon by asking what the expected return on the investment is: watch the fog and confusion descend.
Might, could and other conditional forms are used to give the speaker a get out clause. They know they can’t say “no”; but might sounds positive. In reality it means “no”. A regular cause of misunderstandings and conflict. When you say that you “might” or “could” do something, the other person hears “will”.
Interesting. When your lawyer says something is interesting, you are in trouble and can expect a large bill. When your doctor says your case is interesting, check your will. Exciting is an extreme form of interesting. Exciting times are always a curse.
Thank you is normally good, unless used by call centres: “Thank you for calling, we will now show our contempt for you and your time by putting you on hold indefinitely.” Closely related to the other classic platitude, “have a nice day”, which when said with a synthetic smile means “please drop dead”.
Offshore, downsize, right size, outsource, best shore, redeploy, optimise, downshift, delayer. How to mess with people’s lives but feel good about it. How many ways are there of not saying “fire”?
Opportunity. In the hyper-positive world of business, there are no problems. That means we quite often have opportunities we need to solve. When they are exciting, strategic and urgent opportunities, we can be sure that some right sizing is about to follow. Learn to fear opportunities.
But is simple and deadly. All you have to remember is that everything before the but is bull****. “That was a great presentation, but... You did a great job, but… This is a good article, but…” Everything that matters comes after the “but”.
To turn the list into a baker’s dozen we can add a 13th classic, profit, which used to have some meaning, but has come to mean anything from old fashioned profit after tax and interest, to “sales before costs” where sales are recognised on the basis of a half promise to buy something three
years hence. Used to justify outrageous pay, bonus and stock options.
Jo Owen is an author, a keynote speaker and the founder of eight NGOs. His latest book is Global Teams (FT Publishing/Pearson)