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Sports: The Language of Business

5/6/2016

Have you seen the Chevrolet commercial where the boss tells a group of employees to "take a knee, team?" One young man drops into a quarterback kneel and the boss asks, "What's he doing?" With the rest of the group looking confused, the employee responds, "You said 'take a knee.'"

"I will remember that it's my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat."

-- Supreme Court Justice John Roberts comparing himself to an umpire at his confirmation hearing in 2005

The boss responds: "That's what that means?"

The advertisement illustrates the growing use of sports metaphors in business. It also illustrates how many employees have no idea what their bosses or colleagues mean when they utter sports phrases in the workplace. Or as the Chevrolet commercial indicates, the person using the sports phrase may not even understand what it really means.

To make matters even more perplexing, sports metaphors are often misused or mixed when making business points. Who hasn't chuckled to themselves when a co-worker or boss says something like, "Step up to the plate and get a touchdown."

In addition to being misused, sports phrases can seem trite, divisive -- or they may mean absolutely nothing to the audience.

Male managers are often advised to refrain from using sports terms to discuss business because they could seem exclusionary towards women. But you can't assume women don't follow sports. Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, is well known as a football fan. She once urged patience in referring to a plan to shut down North Korea's nuclear program, by saying: "This is still the first quarter. There is still a lot of time to go on the clock."

So if you know your colleagues and employees are sports fans, it can help to explain certain concepts using language they understand. Sports and business often seem compatible since they both involve teamwork, rules and competition.

However, business people should avoid sports metaphors when speaking with overseas customers, partners and colleagues. In today's diverse business world, many popular phrases do not translate well and may do more harm than good.

Take a look at some examples of common sports metaphors you may have heard around the office:

 

When it comes to using sports metaphors in the workplace, there's no easy answer as to whether it's appropriate or not.  Choose your words carefully and you might hit a home run. But if you use the wrong sports maxim or deliver it to the wrong audience, you can strike out.

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