Do You Have A Jargon Problem?

We’ve experimentally demonstrated what you may have already suspected: People use jargon not just to communicate, but also to show off. 

Zachariah Brown, Eric Anicich, Adam Galinsky

Do you have a jargon problem?

Defenders of jargon say it acts as necessary professional shorthand – it conveys complicated ideas succinctly – and used well, it does. The danger comes from using it out of context, especially when dealing with the wider public. It can often distort or confuse.

Prime offender this week was the return of the BBC’s Line of Duty , which included dialogue such as ‘a chis handler’ receiving ‘intel graded A1 on the matrix’ and the need to have a ‘conflab with the SFC’. Is that language necessary to tell the story, or is this just a fairly standard cop show attempting to make out it’s more clever than it really is?

If jargon is so disliked, why do we put up with it and why is it so common?

A recent piece in the Harvard Business Review outlines that jargon thrives in workplaces because it fulfils a number of fundamental needs. In some contexts, it produces efficient and accurate communication. For example, air traffic controllers speak with a phonetic alphabet instead of letters for this very reason – reading a plane tail number as “Alpha Bravo12” instead of “AB12”.

However the researchers found another motive for using jargon: insecurity and the desire for status. People can compensate for a lack of status by trying to signal that they have more of it than they actually do. They may conspicuously advertise their accomplishments or highlight their memberships in prestigious groups for professional advantage. This is why jargon can be found to be more prevalent in hierarchical environments where titles are not just seen to be important, they actually are. Indeed, many of our structure charts seem to approximate the kind of language used in the military or law enforcement.

As the report outlines – there’s a clear way to call this out “If you want to reduce excessive jargon use in your company, start with communications from the top.”. Lower status workers use jargon precisely because they associate it with status, so breaking that association is key. Executive communications “that use clear and unambiguous language can help set the tone”.

There’s also a link between jargon and what has come to be termed workplace bullshit. As Ian P McCarthy and his fellow researchers note – the term “bullshit” has moved from being a relatively mild expletive to a term that is used to describe acts of communication that have little grounding in truth.

As they write in the aptly titled This Place Is Full Of It corporate jargon is one example of ‘organisational bullshit’ whereby words or expressions are used in an attempt to legitimise something,whilst at the same time confusing language and thinking. They refer to a number of bullshit expressions such as “blue-sky thinking” or “out-of-the-box thinking”, which are often used as vague buzzwords with minimal substance.

Both the papers are well worth reading but as someone who works in organisational design the most important aspect of the findings for me is about the effects of jargon and how excessive use can exclude people or even cause harm.

Language matters. Inertia is a big driver of all of our behaviour. People not understanding us means they don’t take action. As the paper states “it is possible that the excessive use of acronyms and jargon may occur to employees as an exclusionary mechanism in the workplace, whereby those unfamiliar with the terminology may not be able to meaningfully contribute to the conversation or voice their concerns.”

When it comes to health services, it can be worse as communication can be a matter of life or death. In this edition of Word of Mouth , they relate the story of how a patient is told their cancer results are positive. After the patient audibly breathes a sigh of relief the consultant corrects himself “Oh no, I mean the test is positive, the cancer has returned.” An example is also given of a patient receiving a visitor on an oncology ward and neither of them having any idea that oncology is in anyway connected with the treatment of cancer.

Technical “sublanguage” starts out as a shorthand way to speed processes and clarify complex situations. That becomes a problem when outsiders don’t understand it.

Back to Line of Duty. I was so irritated by the excessive acronym use that I almost turned it off (I didn’t). However the real world consequences of jargon can lead to the worst possible outcome – people stop listening to us

Society only thrives when everyone understands one another. And now more than ever we need to focus on what unites us, not on what divides us.

Author: Paul Taylor

I’m a facilitator, innovator and designer. I work with organisations to identify problems and solve them in ways that combine creativity with practical implementation. I established Bromford Lab as a new way for the organisation to embrace challenge and adopt a ‘fast fail’ approach to open innovation. Nearly everything the Lab works on is openly accessible at www.bromfordlab.com. I'm a regular contributor to forums , think-tanks , and research reports and a speaker or advisor at conferences and events.

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