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Chris Dyer

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Communicating company culture: understanding the role of unique language in business


What language does your company speak? The unique buzzwords and phrases that your employees use could actually be the key to communicating your organisation’s culture to a wider audience.

‘Uniqueness’ is one of the most important pillars of a company’s culture. That could be what makes your brand, your workplace and even your employees unique, but if you look at the language used within the company you may also start to see that you have your own unique ‘dialect’. I call this ‘tribal speak.’

If you have ever travelled and found yourself in a place where you don’t understand the language, what’s interesting is that when you do hear someone else speaking your language it seems to cut through all the indistinguishable chatter, and you are drawn to that speaker.

In this situation, total strangers easily ask each other all sorts of things – about where we live, our families, travel plans, suggestions for our next meal, etc.

Transferring this language experience to the realm of work can make a significant impact on your culture.

It can work both ways, to mark those who are part of it (‘insiders’), or to invite outsiders in by sharing the language with them. When someone comes from outside the company and does not understand your lingo, it reinforces the bond between you and your co-workers. You know something the other people don’t.

Company shorthand

These speech mannerisms arise all the time in businesses that, by their nature, use special terminology.

One example of a more mainstream ‘tribe’ is retail giant Walmart. With over 11,000 stores worldwide and 2.5 million employees, their workforce is huge, and this is reflected in their culture.

At the corporate level, Walmart employees have a very clear and intentional tribal speak. They use acronyms for everything. They use them with everyone connected with the company, from employees and vendors to contractors and distributors.

Striking a buzz through public use of your company’s shorthand will probably happen by accident – but you and your business operations can encourage this.

Some of the acronyms are so long I wondered whether they are worth using, but this part of their culture makes them unique and confers a sense of inclusion to those who understand and speak this letter-mash–filled language.

For instance, HEATKTE (Pronounced HET-Ka-Tee) means High Expectations Are The Key To Everything. Then there is EDLP, which stands for Every Day Low Price.

Given Walmart’s workforce size and market success, its 45-year journey from a single store to prominence holds lessons for culture seekers. Their internal language brings together individuals in the sprawling organisation, reflecting the growth of culture on a vast scale.

Did Walmart leaders consciously institute their company ‘shorthand’? Probably not – but once a common language begins to surface, it can be encouraged.

Public buzzwords

If speaking a ‘secret’ language buoys staff intimacy, what happens when company-generated language goes public?

Injecting your buzzwords into popular culture allows people who may not even be your customers to further your brand and your organisation’s unique culture. Wow. If ever there was free publicity, this is it.

Like Walmart, you can let your terminology seep into contacts with vendors and others connected to your business.

By broadcasting your unique language, front-line employees advance the company’s brand and solidify it in the minds of customers.

They do it by flinging around those hip acronyms that practically beg people to ask what they stand for. Then, they start using them, perhaps in environments removed from business transactions as well. Do you have any elements of tribal speak that you share with vendors and clients?

Striking a buzz through public use of your company’s shorthand will probably happen by accident – but you and your business operations can encourage this.

Consider the phrase ‘buy one, get one free’. Someone, somewhere, shortened that to BOGOF, and they told two friends, who then told two friends… now, people who were not even in on the original shorthand know what that term means if they see it in an ad or hear it from a sales assistant.

Employees as translators

Your front-line personnel are ideally situated to bring this lingo to the masses. Just using proprietary words and phrases among themselves, where they can be overheard on the floor or at the front desk, piques the interest of listeners.

You can also ask these employees to ‘translate’ for customers. By broadcasting your unique language, front-line employees advance the company’s brand and solidify it in the minds of customers.

One company that does this doggedly is the women’s clothing chain Chico’s. They have an ingenious method of engaging even the most casual of window shoppers: upon entering the store, sales assistants learn the name of customers and write it on a fitting-room chalkboard.

Whether they were planning to buy anything or not, the shoppers’ personalised changing rooms await. Now that the customer has been drawn in, they are made privy to the company’s secret language: clothing sizes.

Their sizing differs from the typical numeric or small–medium–large scale; it ranges from 000 to 4.5. Of course, the sizes correspond to conventional sizes – but that’s not immediately apparent. Customers must ask a salesperson to ‘translate’, or simply try clothes on to see which sizes fit.

The classic manner in which unique buzzwords or phrases are delivered to the public, however, is through advertising. I’ll leave it up to your marketing team and the creative minds at your advertising agency to devise the right slogan.

The upshot is, when the public hears those words, an image of your company comes to mind. If you have done your homework, that image will project your organisation’s unique culture.

Interested in reading more about cultivating a positive company culture? Check out the HRZone company culture hub, with all the latest thinking, advice and expert opinion on this topic. 

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