The shifting language of business

The past year and half exposed certain traits among us all that refuse to change. Come a crisis and an outmoded lexis adds on some waffles. New words become mainstream and float about like milkweed fluff. 

Take the 2008 Lehman crisis for instance. It popularized the oxymoronic word ‘degrowth’ for pundits to spout. COVID-19 has made ‘bio-bubble’ and ‘furlough’ the norm. It has also legitimized a whole new set of acronyms – PPE, CAB, WFH – for formal use. 

Vocabulary has swiftly adapted, and so have the channels of business communication. From government meetings to quality control in manufacturing, everything is rapidly moving online. In fact, in India, the pandemic is often credited for being a catalyst for rapid digitalization. Silently, we seem to have saddled our traditional offline lexicon onto the digital medium we use for one-on-ones. 

However, online dialogue and parlays are not the same as those in person. 

At the beginning, this was perceived as a blip. Everyone steeled themselves for a week or two; thought we would go back to meeting in person soon enough. Any angst caused due to sentiments getting lost in the digital medium would be smoothed over and forgotten when we were back in office.

But as the seventh month of chain-call work days blurred into the twelfth and thirteenth – and now to the eighteenth – few people evolved and stepped up to the demands of a new normal, of developing or using a language and communication framework that was effective virtually.

And that matters for executive communication.

The headline of this article is an homage to linguist Gretchen McCulloch’s ‘Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language’. In the book, McCulloch explores the nature of internet communication. It captures the essence of the mismatch we are now experiencing in our day-to-day, virtual communication. 

From the all too stern period and to the variable interpretations of LOL, confusion reigns because people read digital media content differently, and depending on when they first went online. Similarly, variable degrees of familiarity with digital media impacts how we execute and perceive all aspects of today’s digital executive language, its hurdles included.

To be heard – and understood clearly – we must also be seen. When working from home, video can no longer be ‘always off’. Our private space has become our workspace. 

But some video diminishes crucial elements of non-verbal expression and facial cues perceptible in face-to-face communication. Unreliable networks also mean we reiterate essential takeaways, more often than we would in a traditional presentation. The plethora of ways in which participants misemploy video calls have warranted instructive modules – on LinkedIn and in executive MBA programs. 

That being so, to successfully overcome these challenging times, we/executives must also be willing to adapt to the new normal.

It augurs well for all of us to be intentional with our tone and language choices, and more aware of our surroundings. Ambience plays a crucial role in dissolving pandemic-induced discomfort and oddity. Checking the lighting in the room, the angle of the camera, and taking care of any background noise goes a long way in setting the stage appropriately. 

In the gamut of professionalism, we have put forth formal appearances at the office. How we carry ourselves must now adjust to a 14-inch screen or even smaller one. Language and its medium do not have to fall prey to it – because Covid. 


There is a flipside too, one with anthropological leanings: If people continue to be casual in their approach to digital communication, it has the potential to forever change how we use language. Typically, when we are casual, use less filters and edits, we swing into autopilot mode and are very likely to use the grammatical structure of our mother tongue.

And so, through chaos and amalgamation, language has the opportunity to steer away from the ongoing homogenization and once again become more vivid and complex. Nature, as always, tends towards greater entropy.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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