Buzzword of the Week: Open Kimono

Buzzword of the Week: Open Kimono
Buzzword of the Week: Open Kimono

With political correctness working its way into contemporary language, business jargon is one of the last bastions of old-fashioned, rough and tumble crudity. This, after all, is the language of intense competitors, who often pride themselves on their unvarnished, brutal worldview. Little surprise, then, that boardroom buzzwords sometimes veer into racism, sexism or -- in the case of a current favorite "open kimono" -- a combination of the two.

In terms of business usage, "open kimono" dates back to the 1970s but seems to be gaining fresh traction. Earlier this year, public relations exec Aaron Kwittken told CNBC that Goldman Sachs (GS) needed to "open the kimono a little bit" if it wanted to improve its public image. A few months later, marketing agency Velocity began "Project Open Kimono," a case study in which it promised to reveal every detail of a marketing campaign. And in Research Policy, an academic journal for business educators, author Robert Perrins tried to drag the term into respectability with his article The Open Kimono: How Intel Balances Trust and Power to Maintain Platform Leadership.

But what does open kimono mean -- and why does it tend to make businessmen giggle nervously?

According to DailyFinance's financial glossary, opening a kimono indicates a willingness "To reveal what is being planned or to share important information freely [with] an outside party." Beyond this basic definition, however, the term has another, racier connotation. After all, kimonos are traditional Japanese garments, most often worn by women, and "opening the kimono" suggests the shy timidity of a woman disrobing publicly.

An Explanation from the Land of the Samurai

While the open kimono has a long and glorious history, the phrase came into common usage within the past 15 years. In 1998, New York Times reporter Stephen Greenhouse became one of the first to draw broad attention to it when he noted that marketers at Microsoft (MSFT) had embraced it. At the time, he suggested that it may have evolved during the 1980s "rash of Japanese acquisitions." In this regard, the use of open kimono may have originally indicated a slightly disrespectful attitude toward the Japanese businessmen who were snatching up American companies.

Last year, Salon writer Danny Bloom offered a different explanation, suggesting that the phrase may trace its roots to a Japanese saying, "kamishimo o nugu." According to Bloom, the Japanese term refers to Samurai clothing and suggests the more informal wardrobe -- and behavior -- that a warrior might adopt when relaxing in his own home. In this interpretation, "open kimono" might be comparable to "let's take off our neckties," in that it indicates a business situation in which prospective partners are honest and direct with each other.

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While Bloom's interpretation is interesting, it's clear that contemporary audiences tend to see open kimono as a rather coarse allusion to a disrobing Japanese woman. For example, when Kwittken announced that Goldman Sachs needed to open the kimono, social media strategist Jason Chupick quickly responded that the phrase was "an unfortunate expression leftover from the dot-com VC days."

Venture capitalist Fred Wilson extends this giggling interpretation, warning that, while one must sometimes open the kimono, "There are companies out there. . .who love to get you to open your kimono but also have reputations for one-night stands."

Japanese allusions have a somewhat 1980s' retro feel, but the term's growing popularity suggests that open kimono is not a flash in the pan -- or the boardroom. Still, as the slightly racy phrase catches on, users should be careful: Open kimonos work both ways, and dropping them into casual conversation may reveal some things that should probably remain under wraps.

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