Buzzword Bingo

Buzzword Bingo

Date Received: Mon, 8 Jun 1998

Unsuspecting Executives Become Fair Game in 'Buzzword Bingo'

By Elizabeth MacDonald and Asra Q. Nomani

Ray Mundt, chairman of Unisource Worldwide Inc., has just learned that some of his employees have been playing a popular game called "buzzword bingo," in which participants track the jargon their bosses utter during staff meetings.

"I don't know," Mr. Mundt muses, "how this is going to interface with the communications side. I think it will deter from it."


Word Play

The '90s are supposed to have given the world the transformed workplace -- employees who embrace liberating technology working in organizations themselves liberated of hierarchies and craving the team input of the working stiff.

Maybe so. But in cubicles and conference rooms at companies from annuity sellers to paper distributors, drones and peons are slyly mocking the new corporate culture -- and their cliche-spouting bosses. One of their weapons is an underground game called buzzword bingo, which works like a surreptitious form of regular bingo. Buzzwords -- "incent," "proactive, "impactfulness," for example -- are preselected and placed on a bingo-like card in random boxes. Players sit in meetings and conferences and silently check off buzzwords as their bosses spout them; the first to fill in a complete line wins. But, in deference to the setting, the winner typically coughs instead of shouting out "bingo."

"Buzzword bingo arose as a reaction against half-truth and responsibility-dodging" in the workplace, says former Silicon Graphics Inc. software engineer Chris Pirazzi. When Mr. Pirazzi, now a software engineer elsewhere, worked at the high-tech company, he wrote bingo cards featuring phrases like, "At Stanford, we ..." (In Silicon Valley, it's hip to let people know you attended Stanford University.)

The game, by all accounts, began at Silicon Graphics in Mountain View, Calif. Tom Davis, a scientist and one of the company's founders, says that one day in early 1993, he was sitting in the office of a friend who had scrawled corporate-speak on his blackboard. A light bulb went off, and Mr. Davis wrote a computer program to generate bingo cards filled with the jargon he had seen, plus motivational cliches like "Step up to it." He says he coined the name "buzzword bingo" and passed the cards along to colleagues with a note written in the spirit of the new game: "The ball's in your court."

His employees took the ball and ran with it. Since then, the game has spread up and down the corporate and governmental landscape like an out-of-control empowerment session.

High Speakers, Hijinks

Seniors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology played bingo at a graduation ceremony two years ago when Vice President Al Gore spoke, feverishly marking his buzzwords, including a Gore perennial: "information superhighway." Mr. Gore came prepared -- someone tipped him off before his appearance. When students cheered after he uttered the word "paradigm," the vice president then asked, "Did I hit a buzzword?" During a later speech by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Labour delegates played a decidedly U.K. version called "New Labour, New Bingo." Their handmade cards included some of Mr. Blair's notable platitudes: "stakeholder" and "greater say." Blair spokesman Godric Smith says of the bingo episode: "Real high-minded, big-picture stuff." Someone eventually sent a copy of the game to cartoonist Scott Adams, inspiring its appearance in a Dilbert comic strip. "It's subversive," says Mr. Adams, who admits to using the word "optimizing" in a recent conversation. "It's as naughty as you can get without getting fired." Indeed, as far as anyone knows, nobody has been fired over buzzword bingo, perhaps because it's usually played below the radar of corporate superiors. In some cases, peers use it to loosen up meetings: At First Colony Life Insurance Co., Lynchburg, Va., annuity salesman David Doran recently told eight co-workers that they couldn't leave his meeting until they used all the buzzwords he had printed on a flip chart -- company-handbook argot such as "voice of the customer" and "what's our deliverable on this?"

As the meeting dragged on to an hour, "they were all trying to steer the conversation to use all the buzzwords in one sentence," Mr. Doran says. "It was hysterical."

Even some bosses sympathize. At Unisource, a paper distributor, Mr. Mundt, the chairman whose own employees play the game, says, "I can understand why workers are playing because I have heard a lot of speakers who are basically boring or they're not saying anything."

Goring the Cliche-Speakers

Ridiculing double-speak, in fact, is the singular object of the game for many. Software engineer Spencer Sun says he got colleagues to play at a San Francisco firm owned by a corporation he identifies as "Big Evil Parent Company." The chief executive arrived to deliver "thinly sugar-coated bad news" about declining sales. To boost the troops' spirits, Mr. Sun distributed buzzword bingo cards before a meeting with the CEO "as a way of thumbing our noses at the whole thing."

One day last fall, Seattle paper saleswoman Joyce Boewe figured she was in for another dull meeting and decided to liven things up with a rousing bingo match. Before the meeting, and unbeknownst to her bosses at Websource Inc., a unit of Unisource, Ms. Boewe quietly handed out bingo cards filled with corporate-speak such as "core competency" "partnership" and "net net." During the meeting, the staff unobtrusively checked off target words as they were used by various speakers. Whispers and smiles shot through the room.

Then things abruptly turned cutthroat. Saleswoman Susan Rowe "started asking the speakers leading questions to draw out buzzwords that were on her own card," says salesman Hume Crawford. No matter -- Ms. Rowe says her efforts were in vain when too few buzzwords got used and the game ended in a stalemate. She thinks, though, that her questions might have won brownie points. There is, she observes, an apple-polishing aspect to buzzword bingo: You can excel at bingo while appearing to hang on to the boss's every word. Certainly, "it keeps you awake" during dull meetings, she says.

More than a dozen Web sites now sport game cards that Internet surfers can download, often free. Web-site designer Benjamin Yoskovitz says he is writing what he calls the "Official Buzz Word Bingo Rule Book." One modification he is devising assigns points to buzzwords; employees tally scores at the end of meetings if no one hits bingo.

It may, in fact, be time for some rule changes. The game can easily get out of hand. Four employees, of Inc., a St. Paul, Minn., Internet company, have been playing a covert marathon game at staff meetings for nearly three months. The employees rigged their Palm Pilot hand-held computers to churn out new cards whenever they have a meeting. When a player wins, the computer will make a melodic beeping noise. To date, the beep has yet to sound, indicating a need to reprogram the computers "to create more winning opportunity," says Eric Miller, one of the players, letting fly with a buzzterm of his own.

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