But what does “office solutions” actually mean?

I happened to walk along a street I don’t often walk along the other evening, and I saw a van parked at the side of the road. It had one of those all-over paint jobs which left it completely emblazoned with company contact details, in a way that made it obvious that the owners had put careful thought into it functioning as a sort of mobile billboard. I’m not going to give the name of the company concerned, mainly because I can’t remember it. What I do recall is the slogan that was featured under the name of the company, and indicated that the firm concerned supplied “office solutions”. So here’s my question: what does the phrase “office solutions” actually mean?

I know what it ought to mean, if normal rules of language applied. Solution has two meanings: it can either be the means of solving a problem, or it can be a liquid mixture in which one substance is dissolved in another. But the first of those meanings only makes sense if it relates to a problem – by definition, you can only have a solution to something that needs solving. So an equation can have a solution (in this problem-solving sense), or a sudoku puzzle, or that thing where the printer flashes all its LEDs simultaneously and goes beep. But, equally, something that doesn’t need solving can’t have a solution. So you can’t have a dog solution (again, in the problem-solving sense), or a turnip solution, or an Italianate marquetry solution.

Now, the obvious upshot of this is that, when you do see the word solution used in connection with something that isn’t a problem, it can only refer to the other kind of solution – a liquid mixture. So, if you were to see a “turnip solution” mentioned somewhere, it could only be a solution of dissolved turnip (mmmn, tasty), or a solution that was designed to be used by or on turnips. And, since it’s obvious that an office is not a problem that requires solving, “office solutions” can only be liquid mixtures containing dissolved offices, or alternatively liquid mixtures that are designed to be used in offices. The first of those is patently ridiculous, which means it must be the second. So “office solutions” ought to mean liquid mixtures that are consumed in offices.

I’m being excessively literal and pedantic, of course. In reality, any reasonable person encountering the phrase “office solutions” would construe it to mean “solutions to office-related problems”. So here’s my next, slightly more serious question: which office-related problems, precisely?

An office-related problem could be running out of stationery. That would make an “office solutions” company an office supplies company with a serious job-title-inflation problem, and would mean the van was filled with boxes of paper and toner cartridges. But an office-related problem could also mean having nowhere to sit, which would make the “office solutions” on offer the supply and delivery of furniture. The office-related problems could be technical, and the van therefore used to ferry around someone who will accomplish her “office solutions” by means of fixing the photocopier, or swapping out a dodgy telephone.

Potentially, the office-related problem could be that you need new offices but haven’t got the time to hunt them out, or supervise the move. In that case, the “office solutions” would be a combination of real-estate consultancy and office removals. The office-related problem could even be not having an office in the first place (if, say, you’ve been running a small business from a desk right next to a pile of dirty socks in your bedroom, and you suddenly need to impress a major potential customer). In that case, the “office solutions” on offer would be the leasing of serviced office suites.

All of these are perfectly plausible things for an “office solutions” company to do. That’s because the phrase is incredibly vague. Maybe it’s been designed, consciously or unconsciously, to mimic the descriptions of other service providers that companies might use for outsourcing. I’ve certainly seen “IT solutions” and “marketing solutions” mentioned in the context of business-to-business advertising, but those are both phrases that are more obviously meaningful. Saying that you “do IT” or “do marketing” gives a much clearer idea of what responsibilities you will actually take over for your clients. In the case of “office solutions”, it’s hard not to detect an over-emphasis on business jargon – that highly specialised form of language which sees sales staff focussed on “up-selling” opportunities “going forward.

Of course, business jargon is always a form of language which assumes prior knowledge. It presumes that everyone in the market for an “office solution” will already know what an office solution is, and that they should interface with an office solutions provider when they need some more paperclips (or whatever it is that the company actually does). Business-speak is in this way similar to all forms of specialised language, in that – contrary to mainstream language – it does not so much exist to communicate information as it does to identify and solidify an “in group”, who are defined by their ability to understand the specialised language. Legal terminology, the ever-evolving language spoken by young people, the hyper-theoretical discussions in leftwing splinter groups, business jargon: these are all examples of language which serve more to define who’s “in” and who’s “out” than they do to transmit information.

Now, there are legitimate reasons why a company might want to associate themselves with the business “in group”, especially if their main focus is in business-to-business activities. Being thought of as “one of us” may well make it easier for them to make a sale, and even companies that sell to the general public usually make an effort to pretend that they speak the same language as their customers. But here’s the bottom line: the “office solutions” company whose van I saw has by some means ended up with an advertising slogan that is pretty much undecipherable to the general public.

So, in that case, why put the slogan where an ordinary member of the public like me will see it, on the side of a van parked overnight on a residential street? It’s all very well wanting to impress business peers with a display of arcane and specialised terminology, buy why put it out in the wild, where all it can do is annoy people? Why spend money putting in front of the eyes of the public an advert that they won’t be able to understand? Because what that actually means is spending money to alienate people and – given that everyone who doesn’t already know who you are and what you do is a potential future customer – that’s really not smart.

I really don’t know why I posted this, other than that it annoyed me.  Language is a wonderful thing, and it allows us to say whatever we want, often with very great precision.  So why not take advantage of that, and say what we actually mean?

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