Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

 

We're sheep.

We hear certain phrases being used by others. We think those others are more au fait than we are. So we assume their phrases are the modern way to say things and we adopt them without thinking.

Because those we say them to are likely sheep as well, they don't tell us how much they loathe certain of our new phrases.

Before we know it, we're all going around saying things to each other that really aren't welcome.

And you wonder why there's so much strife in the world? And you wonder why so many corporate organizations need psychologists?

One psychologist would like to de-strife your vocabulary.

Adam Galinksy, the Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business and Chair of Management Division at Columbia Business School, believes there's one phrase that shivers human timbers more than any other.

No, it isn't "I love you." Nor is it "I believe we're related."

Instead, it's the terribly common: "We need to talk."

For some years now, whole marriages have been destroyed by this phrase. However, Galinsky believes it's just as destructive in a business context.

In a video posted to Business Insider, he explained that "We need to talk" (or "I need to talk to you") consists of frightening words.

He said it's "fraught with ambiguity."

He added: "It's particularly fraught when we have a situation with someone with more power and someone with less power."

Just as in a marriage the person who says "I need to talk to you" is surely exercising their power by making that declaration.

The person who's heard these words immediately believes they've done something wrong. They wrack their brains wondering what it could have been.

Was it the joke about the Jack Welch, the kitten and the poker game? Could it be something to do with the way you dress, your body odor or getting kale stuck in your teeth too often? Have you offended a client by suggesting that no, they don't actually know what they're talking about?

Galinsky, being an academic, has remedies.

If you have power, avoid the "We need to talk" type of formulation by either immediately explaining that the needed talk is not a big deal or telling them that it is a big deal and why.

I worry.

Since when has direct communication helped anyone -- especially in a corporate setting?

For all that the business world wants you to believe it's gung-ho, survival of the fittest, it's often more hum-ho, survival of the most political.

Hasn't "We need to talk" always been regarded as a PC way of saying: "I'm totally pissed at you, but I want to tell you just how totally pissed I am at you in a private setting, rather than here in this restroom/restaurant/rest home"?

Or a PC way of saying: "I've got some really bad news for you and I want to come across as vaguely sensitive, so I'm going to say 'We need to talk' in my calm little voice and let you know that it's going to be really bad news without my having to tell you it's really bad news straight out"?

Isn't this common phrase on the very same level as "We've decided to restructure" and "There's going to be some downsizing."

(Why does no-one ever talk of an upsizing?)

Galinsky is likely right that "We need to talk" has been stretched by careless managers and spouses to simply work as a cudgel for gentle torture, rather than to swing some deeply painful ax.

But in a world that claims to believe in open communication, while at the same time banning any speech on college campuses that might offend someone, anyone, how can we hope to lose such supposedly subtle, but ultimately fear-laden phrases?

Of course, we could always simply place "We need to talk" on the list of verboten vocabulary.

That's a list that should include: "You're my star employee," "I fought for you really hard" and "This company is like a family."

Published on: Nov 30, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.