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March, 2018:

Execsplaining the McSweeny’s “Business Words”

Wendi Aarons over at McSweeny’s has been getting a great deal of attention to this cringe-inducing true-to-life parody of a business bro yelling into his phone at the airport: https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/im-going-to-close-this-deal-using-business-words-ive-heard-men-yell-in-airports

It’s quite funny but it also strikes me that after 15 years or so straddling between the wild-west of pre-anything startups and the mainstream corporate/business world, I too have fallen into using some of these phrases or tropes.  Why? I wonder.  And the truth is because these stylized phrases are useful shorthand for repeated patterns — they are, inelegant as they may be, the pattern language of business (here, being the practical craft of persuading and making deals among organizations, as practiced primarily by managerial executives).

(So I decided to “Exec-splain” them.  It won’t make a ton of sense if you don’t read the thing first.)

Who just joined? Did someone just join?

Conference calls are a standard way in which more than two people collaborate in real time; other ways include meetings (face to face) and, more recently, chats / Slack channels. Conference calls are audio-only and generally therefore lack the visual cues of who else is present. Socially it’s very important to know who’s present, especially because the real time collaboration methods often are implicitly the informal deal-making that reflect social capital being accumulated or spent (in contrast to formal methods of setting agendas, circulating memoranda, signing contracts or purchase orders, etc.). Most conference calls have a distinctive “chime” signifying the entry of a new party to the call, which prompts curiosity among the participants as to who has joined. Additionally, many business people re-use conference call “bridges” (phone numbers) and therefore might have unknown or unscheduled folks joining. A strong social norm requires new callers to identify themselves, and this norm becomes almost inviolable if they are asked explicitly.

rally the troops; circle our wagons

Business organizations generally have groups of diversely-motivated agents who pursue their own interests (be they individual or sub-group interests, such as salespersons pursuing their commissions or departments protecting their budgets). Organizational goals will, over time, tend to suffer if these sub-goals take priority. Therefore, periodic exhortations must be made to inspire, cajole, bribe, or threaten subordinates if the organizational goals are to be served. An overly militaristic phraseology is an unfortunate commonplace in this world and is reflected here, but it also serves to indicate the speaker’s desire to evoke an esprit de corps and/or a cohesion-inducing in-group/out-group mentality among the larger organization.

circle back; moving forward; main takeaway

Business conversations often descend into details, the overmuch contemplation of which can delay more important decisions and information exchange. Deferring or avoiding this contemplation can be both a necessary practical matter in many cases (avoiding a “rabbit hole”), as well as a rhetorical judo move meant to move the counterparty away from some unfavorable topic (“glossing over” a defect or sticking point). Circling back might signal a willingness to revisit a topic. (Alternatively, circling back might mean a follow-up communication at some point in the future.)

low-hanging fruit

The desirability of business outcomes often follows a Pareto / power-law / diminishing returns distribution function, and some such outcomes will be relatively obvious or non-controversial. It can often therefore speed up the pace of a negotiation or contemplation to have parties agree to exploit the easier, more lucrative, or more efficient parts of that distribution.


A lot of business deals are mired in inertia; the various pre-existing relationships and obligations seem to “weigh” on the ability of parties to move forward. This term is a shorthand for imagining an ahistoric, unconstrained environment, meant to inspire parties to think beyond a local maximum or a short-term equilibrium point.

white papers

In particular, technological business dealings often require an intermediate level of understanding between a merely verbal or largely graphical/visual presentation and a technical implementation. The use of a prose description of perhaps two to ten pages, often augmented by schematic diagrams, is a crucial tool to communicate these intermediate forms and to persuade audiences who have already “qualified” their interest in the matter, yet who may not be worth the time for a deeper and costlier engagement to inform.

drinking from the fire hose

Modern businesses (though frankly even old timey businesses) typically reach far beyond human scale, meaning that at some managerial level it becomes impossible to intake and understand all of the relevant facts and details about some operation in a reasonable time. This might mean it is never feasible, such as for the manager of a large conglomerate, or it might be relative to a time frame, such as for a newly-appointed technical expert expected to opine on some complex system in a few days.


Business executives generally have broad leeway as to how they spend their time, but are accountable for results. It is socially inappropriate in many spheres to indicate that someone is not worth additional time (which is what this means, if you think about it). A face-saving practical measure is to appeal to the interlocutor as a peer and to plead some external force majeur; surely your peer would also yield to the FAA’s phone mandates, so he or she can be shed with minimal insult.


Most negotiated business deals are conducted in a “multi-coup” game-theoretic environment; that is, one expects to play the same or similar game again, eventually, with the counterparty. Therefore, even when driving a hard bargain, it is not acceptable to drive toward an outcome that potentially destroys, bankrupts, or irreconcilably alienates the counterparty.

So.  The McSweeny’s piece is really funny.  And it makes well deserved mockery of business-bro yelling at his phone.

But are business folks buffoons if we keep saying all those things?  (Assuming we actually mean to say all the puffed-up concepts from my exegesis above; of course you’re a buffoon if you’re just saying the words without trying to mean something useful to your work.)  What else do you say?

I sure won’t yell ’em out in an airport though…