A column that pays attention to what is not said

/business talk/

A column in the Sunday Business section of The New York Times examining the hidden meaning of business jargon.

Reading LinkedIn doesn’t seem like the typical way to spend your downtime. But for Lora Kelley, a New York Times economics reporter who is interested in how companies shape culture, the platform is a gold mine for reporting ideas.

One night last fall, Ms. Kelley came across a term that made her scratch her head: dogfooding. She had found gold. It was exactly the sort of business jargon that Shop Talk, a column in the Times’ Sunday Business column, was created to define last year. Ms. Kelley explored the meaning of the term and learned that it was used by executives at high-power tech companies like Meta and Asana to refer to the mundane practice of product testing.

“Business jargon has always existed,” said Veronica Majerol, editor of Shop Talk. Journalists, she added, typically edit articles to avoid jargon that doesn’t elicit meaning from readers. In conceiving the column, Ms. Majerol said she along with other editors, reporters and designers asked herself, “What if the jargon could become the story itself?”

Since October, Shop Talk has been examining the use of terms like dogfooding, “friendshoring” and “trendjacked” and why they’re gaining traction. By showing how business people talk about business, the team hopes to help readers understand the cultural forces that shape great companies.

The biweekly column is open to any reporter who comes across unusual words and phrases on their beats. For example, last month Niraj Chokshi, who is responsible for the aviation industry, defined “completion factor” as an industry term for the percentage of flights an airline operates not cancel. In the latest Shop Talk column, culture reporter Brooks Barnes took readers through a “four quadrant,” a film that appeals to young and old, men and women alike.

Jordyn Holman, who reports on retail for The Times, said she constantly translates jargon in her head while reporting. Last fall, Ms. Holman noticed the trend for retailers to label their customers anything But Customers. At Target, they were called “guests.” At Sephora, they were “customers.” And at Dick’s Sporting Goods, they were “athletes.”

Why go through so much effort to find a new label for a customer? To inspire loyalty, Ms. Holman found. By giving customers something personal, retailers thought shoppers would feel special. “As reporters, we want to say, ‘That’s what they’re actually saying,'” she said.

When deciphering phrases, reporters also read between the lines to find out what executives are trying to do not say. For example, a high “completion factor” sounds nice, but doesn’t account for flight delays. Ms Kelley’s jargon radar went off as she read a LinkedIn post written by an executive announcing layoffs at her company. The executive used the term “carry on” to describe a specific pool of employees. Ms Kelley got the euphemism: the employees who “go forward” were spared layoffs.

“Language can be a tool to keep things opaque to outsiders,” Ms Kelley said. “This column is a way of showing people what’s going on in a closed world.”

Business idioms are often invented and coded within a specific industry, and it’s challenging to come up with a definition of a term that can’t be found in the dictionary. To reach consensus, journalists scour the web, press releases, and company reports for mentions of the word or phrase, and interview employees, experts, and academic authorities across industries.

“We want to find people using the term in the wild,” Ms Kelley said.

However, decoding the jargon is not just a writing effort. Ms. Majerol and Minh Uong, Art Director of Shop Talk, work with illustrators to bring each concept to life visually. The column’s illustrations “not only describe the word, but put it in context through a visual situation,” said Mr. Uong.

To illustrate the ‘completion factor’, Mr. Uong and Ms. Majerol chose to illustrate a contrail in the shape of a smiley face. After all, every traveler can feel the joy of a flight that went well, said Mr. Uong.

And when you’re stuck with a frustrating delay, you know the airline is still expecting completion.

Readers can nominate a word or phrase by writing to shoptalk@nytimes.com.

https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/12/insider/a-column-that-listens-for-whats-not-being-said.html A column that pays attention to what is not said


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