Monday, June 24, 2024

‘You’re emptying my emotional bank account’: why is business jargon seeping into our relationships?

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The language of relationships seems to have donned a blazer recently – or at least a fleece vest.

If you’re single and looking to meet someone, you might want to diversify your life portfolio and develop “robust relational code”. If you have a partner, don’t forget to make enough love deposits into your emotional bank account, ensure your relationship contracts are overt instead of covert and feel free to use agile scrum as you go.

This last term – agile scrum – popped up last month in a New York Times story about a 20-person polycule – a connected network of non-monogamous people – in Massachusetts. One member of the polycule, Ann, said that she had heard the term, which was “adapted from business-meeting models”, on a relationship advice podcast called Multiamory. Traditionally, it is a management strategy that emphasizes flexibility and regular check-ins. Ann and her husband used it to process their polyamorous evolution together.

The businessification of relationship language can offer new ways of thinking about dynamics and communication. “We thought that was such a cool idea,” says Jase Lindgren, one of the co-hosts of Multiamory. He and his co-hosts discussed the agile scrum concept on the podcast after they read a blog post by a software developer who used it in her marriage.

The practice seemed promising given that it was developed by “people who have spent a lot of time trying to figure out something that works reliably in a lot of different situations”, Lindgren explains.

Not everyone was equally enamored. Lindgren and his fellow podcast hosts later released their own relationship framework called Radar – a monthly relationship check-in format – because “some people, especially ones that worked in software, were like, ‘I do not want agile scrum anywhere near me because I’m so sick of it at work.’”

‘The businessification of relationship language can offer new ways of thinking about dynamics and communication.’ Photograph: Jase Lindgren

Understandably, other people also have mixed feelings about the incursions of professional language into relationships. On one hand, experts say it can help individuals better grasp emotional concepts that might otherwise feel abstract. On the other, concepts designed to help workplaces run more efficiently might not always be up to the task of tackling messy emotions.

Dr Carrie Cole, research director at the Gottman Institute, which researches relationships and trains couples therapists, says she’s noticed an uptick recently in corporate-speak being used to describe relationships. Part of the reason for this, she suggests, is that many workplaces are trying to encourage healthier communication.

“There’s been a lot of emphasis in the business community about how to communicate with one another,” she says. By contrast, “it’s been difficult for people to talk about their relationships for a very long time.”

As a result, she says, many people feel more comfortable talking about work than talking about their feelings.

For some, work jargon can also help frame relationships as a valid area for growth. Dr Jessica Gold, the founder of Bliss Science, is a relationship coach for men – specifically men in tech. She says that using language from the tech world to describe emotional or relational concepts can help her clients feel more open about developing those skills.

There is a sense in many of these circles, she says, that “it’s normal and commendable to work on our careers and on business, whereas it’s often considered uncouth or weak to work on our relationships or emotional life.”

Even if one is comfortable talking about their emotional life, metaphors are useful learning tools, says Dr Nicole Holliday, an assistant professor of linguistics at Pomona College. Images and stories lodge themselves in our brains more securely than theoretical concepts.

Consider the emotional bank account. According to the Gottman Institute, you can invest in your relationship the same way you would invest in a bank account. But instead of money, what you’re depositing and withdrawing are positive and negative interactions. Positive interactions grow your emotional bank account, while negative interactions shrink it.

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The idea that one should have more positive than negative interactions with their partner isn’t exactly rocket science. But the term is more likely to stick in your mind than simply telling yourself to mostly be nice to your partner, because when you think of the emotional bank account you think of a physical object, says Holliday.

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Before you start hurling office speak at your significant other, though, it’s important to gauge whether they know what you mean – and whether they’re okay with using these terms. While business jargon can be a helpful shorthand, it can be alienating if the person you’re talking to isn’t familiar or comfortable with it, says Cole.

Corporate speak, like its touchy-feelier cousin therapy speak, can allow one to “claim some authority, because you’ve used a language associated with authority”, says Holliday. To the receiver, this can feel like professional terms are being “weaponized against them”, she says. Not exactly a recipe for a constructive conversation.

Besides, businesses weren’t built to deal with feelings, Cole notes. Communicating in a way designed to increase efficiency and output is not necessarily the best way to deepen a relationship.

“Business speak is usually devoid of emotions, and personal relationships are built on emotions,” she says. So if couples are tossing around corporate terms without making a point of discussing their feelings, “they’re leaving out a very important piece of the conversation,” she says.

“We can’t really have loving, warm, connected, intimate relationships if we are trying to be devoid of emotion, positive or negative,” Cole adds.

So what does all of this mean? Is the businessification of relationships an HR-trained harbinger of emotional doom?

Probably not. The dating and relationship worlds may face a number of challenges right now, but the evolution of language is “not special”, Holliday says.

“When we come up with language that we feel articulates our opinions really well in one domain, we’ve always transferred it over to others,” she says.

She points to the word “boundary” as an example. Previously, it used to describe the limits of a geographic area, but people eventually realized it could describe emotional limits too. “This is a really common phenomenon,” she says.

But speaking of boundaries, Holliday says it’s reasonable to limit use of corporate terms at home: “We don’t necessarily want to be in the habit of having no boundary between our work life and the rest of our life.”

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