The Secret Language of Business

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Young girlies sitting outside of a building in Mauritius. Mauritius (1989) by Ferdinando Scianna.

“If scientific language is about longer individual life in exchange for an ethical one; if political agenda is the xenophobic protection of a few families against the catastrophic others; if religious language is discredited as contempt for the nonreligious; if secular language bridles in fear of the sacred; if market language is merely an excuse for exciting greed…where might we look for humanity’s own future?” Toni Morrison, “The War on Error”: Amnesty International Lecture, Edinburgh, Scotland, August 29, 2004.

The process is of looking for a job is similar to a self-flagellation by existential crisis. In its noblest of pursuits, the job seeker must regularly and with brutal honesty confront their strengths, weakness, and abilities. They must pragmatically detail their contributions at service jobs and unpaid internships, quantifiably explain the impact of their accomplishments in school, studies and life abroad, and ultimately market, package, and brand these abilities for potential employers. Employers who will then, dependent on a suite of arbitrary and asymmetric criteria, make a hiring decision based on that information.

The result for most job seekers is a disheartening period of profound discouragement, made worse by constant rejection and self-doubt which, cruelly, grows with each rejection. Because, in America, our very survival is dependent on maintaining a job, the desperation to find one becomes, in a word, maddening. There is the pressure to find any work, combined with the very human desire to enjoy said work. There is the depression of not finding a job making the process of finding one all the more difficult. There is keeping up the appearance of not being desperate for a job, when you are, in fact, fucking desperate for a job. And then, all of this is made more complex by the layered language of corporate America where “(optional)” really means “required”, “casual” is “not a suit, but decidedly not casual” and “Do you have time for a chat?” could be anything from a fifteen-minute information screen to a forty-five minute guerilla phone interview. While usually a time-consuming but low-risk methodology of learning any new thing, trial-and-error delivers a limited return in a competitive, oversaturated job market. The job seeker might view each error as a lost job, a lost opportunity, or another rejection, slowly chipping away at one’s self-esteem.

If you or someone you know (lol), have ever been discouraged, duped, blindsided or down-right confused about the job-market language, I wrote this essay to tell you that you’re not alone. In fact, not only are you not alone but in good and bountiful company as this obscurity is by unique design. In addition to the depression, the pressure, and the appearances, there is an unwritten rule of law — relayed orally, maintained systematically — that defines the rules and regulations of seeking, procuring, and maintaining a job within a capitalist system. It is made up of a set of norms, conditions, and colloquialisms that are neither intuitive nor implied but taught and told… and designed to obfuscate the profit-maximizing firm’s objectives.

Though I’ve since left that role, at my previous job, disillusionment with my day-to-day responsibilities was counteracted by opportunities in the firm’s robust volunteering network. One series of mentoring events I volunteered to participate in was called “Cool Women, Hot Jobs,” hosted by a network of NYC girls’ schools, the Young Women’s Leadership Network (YWLN). While at the time, I believed myself neither to have a hot job nor be a cool woman, I hoped that one day I would be a hot woman with a cool a job in the same way the girls did — so thought we could, if not mutually benefit, at the very least, relate to one another on the basis of that fact. Additionally, having attended an all-girls’ high school myself (and since grappled with the traumas one absorbed at one), I finally developed a healthy affinity for them, their alumnae (alumnus/a, properly conjugated which we, of course, learned in mandatory Latin), and their unique ability of benchmarking growing girls’ achievements entirely independently of growing boys’. So, when I heard about the chance to visit various locations of the YWLN schools (first in Jackson Heights, Queens, later in Harlem), I jumped at the chance.

The format of the event was round-robin “mentoring” sessions that consisted of a brief introduction to the various volunteers’ jobs, a description of their educational/career path up to that point, and then use of the remaining time for an open Q&A. The events’ goal was simple: to expose the girls, aged six (first grade) to seventeen (high school seniors), to the various career paths available to them and to those taken by other, older women.

Luckily for me, one of the youngest volunteers, I was assigned first graders for my first presentation. Being six, they correctly assumed I could be any age between fifteen or forty-five, so any intimation of my inexperience with life or professional work was entirely lost on them. I decided to cling to one of the more fascinating dimensions of my then-job — trade finance — and describe that to the kiddies.

My example was simple: I asked each of my small groups of girlies to imagine their grown-up/s had a car (while careful not to assume that anyone /everyone did) that they bought in Queens. I continued on: What they didn’t know about their grown-ups’ car was that many parts of the world worked together to produce it. Using each group member as hypothetical representatives for China, Japan, DR of Congo, Nigeria, Venezuela, Germany, etc. I described that they all had some part in the production of the vehicle — whether it be the doors, fiberglass, windows, rubber, oil or assembly — before its delivery to Queens. In the diverse neighborhood of Jackson Heights (one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country), across ages, this was an easy thought experiment.

I explained that being different countries, many would have different currencies, but the desire to be paid accurately, on time, and in one’s respective currency was shared. To bridge those process gaps (and assure a reliable and unbiased intermediary), was where banks — and bankers — stepped in. And in short, that was my job: to win the business as the intermediary for the firms that needed it. I repeated and perfected this speech for delivery to several first, third, sixth and ninth grade groups and was met each time, if not with intrigue, at least with understanding.

While the questions at the end ranged from the intellectually curious (“Where do we get the money to change from?”) to the personal (“Did you get to bring your dog to college?”) to the absurd (“Did you know you wanted to be a banker at our age?”), the event made plain that our jobs, though at times high-stakes, high-risk, and high-(monetary) reward, were fundamentally simple enough that a six-year-old could understand it. This day at YWLN made plain that the chief social responsibility of banking — to be a steward of finances for the next generation and a reliable facilitator of international trade — was a simple, logical, and, arguably, necessary function. It made apparent that when processes and purposes become so complex that we can not simply relay them to children, it is often because we are being intentionally obtuse, lacking in understanding ourselves, or shrouding misbehavior with esoterism. Simply put, it’s very hard to describe something that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) exist.

When back on the clock, I raised the point that if historically racist/classist institutions were to authentically embrace diversity, and not only racial but economic diversity, we had to address the reality that there existed in business a set of vocabulary and colloquialisms and norms — a secret language — that was not a language learned by most people.

When I began university, I was required to take accounting, finance, calculus, and economics to learn its foundations…but it seemed even then that everyone had entered with a set of knowledge that to me was entirely foreign. By common sense, I had utilized ROI (return-on-investment), diminishing marginal returns or opportunity cost previously to make decisions, I had no language for those, or any, concepts. In classes, my peers asked questions that implied prior knowledge of taxation, investing, and general accounting principles. I had no inheritance, trusts or holdings, save for a twenty-five-dollar “savings bond” (which I later learned was a ten-year treasury note or “bond”) that would be worth fifty-dollars at maturity. I had no idea professors expected me to come to office hours to “chat” regardless of whether I had questions or not. I thought a c-suite was the room in which a CEO worked and slept. I didn’t know what a consultant did or was; and when I applied for the on-campus consulting club, was half-way through a case interview when I realized it was, in fact, a case interview.

In America, the secret language of business is a language that is learned, taught, and reinforced in practice. So to succeed, I discovered I had to learn it. I had to learn it the way you learned any tongue: in practice, observation, trial and error. Many people forget this now in my fluency — that there was a time not long ago when most these things were far away from me.

When we learn new language, just as many emigrants to a foreign land do, we pass it both forward to our children and backward to our parents. When equipped with knowledge, we understand it to be our responsibility to share it. This sharing rarely to the end of assimilation but to the end of fluency, because with fluency comes translation, and with translation participation and with participation, understanding. Because when we speak the language, when we understand well enough to ask questions, we begin to ask questions just like the girls in my small group did: “If that’s all they do, how do they make so much money?”

Written by

NY-born, LA-based writer. Allegedly writing an essay collection called Black Cowgirl. Allegedly. Twitter:@jazzyhuncho.

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