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.

An A-Z of Office Jargon

Apparently – ‘Touch Base” is the most-hated office phrase for a second year in a row.

Certainly – it’s a mainstay of contact requests I get from Linkedin. And if I fail to touch base I usually get someone ‘circling back’ to remind me.

But surely the most in vogue phrase is ‘we’re on a journey’. I was recently at an event where it was used five times – in the first 30 minutes.

None of us are immune to jargon. Defenders of jargon say it acts as necessary professional shorthand – it conveys complicated ideas succinctly. Used well, it does.

The danger comes from using it out of place, especially when dealing with the wider public. It can often distort or confuse.

I’m often guilty of this – words around innovation and design can be especially arcane – often dressing up a simple idea.

And it winds people up. A survey by the Institute of Leadership & Management, revealed that management speak is used in almost two thirds (64%) of offices, with nearly a quarter (23%) considering it to be a pointless irritation.

So I’ve refreshed my A-Z for 2019, here they are:


Agile

Was once the ‘collaborative effort of self-organising and cross-functional teams’ but now best used in meetings to make yourself sound down with the kids e.g “is this really agile enough?”

Bandwidth

As in “I don’t have the bandwidth for this” – meaning “I don’t have the time for you today sorry”

Circle back

As in “I’m just heading to a very important meeting but we’ll circle-back later”

Deep Dive

As in “We’re going for a deep dive to make sure we utilise all the functionality”

Engage (or Consult/Involve)

See also co-creation, co-design, co-production or co-anything else

Future-proof

An assertion that your latest idea is immune to obsolescence

Going Forward

Meaning “from now on”.  Bonus points for “Go forward together”

Hackathon

Usually a meeting. Just with pizza and t-shirts 

Ideation

A word that “has come under informal criticism as being a term of meaningless jargon” according to Wikipedia

Joined Up

Taking a ‘holistic, helicopter view of the business’

KPI

Key Performance Indicator. Easier if everyone just said ‘target’

Low Hanging Fruit

An open goal. The fruit is hanging right there in front of you – grab it

Mission Statement

A written, but very rarely demonstrated,  ‘reason for being’ in respect of a company and its activities

No ‘I’ in team

Meaning – in case you were in any doubt – that there is no letter I in the word TEAM. Entirely reasonable to hit anyone who says this

Offline (Let’s Take This)

Or even better “let’s ‘touch base’ about that offline”

Pivot

To change your mind after realising that your project is doomed. A useful euphemism for failure

Quick Win

Small steps or initiatives that produce immediate, positive results without any actual evidence

Radical

Use this when you want to make something that’s not remotely exciting sound like it really is 

Singing from the same hymn sheet

Widely used by managers with no idea of how to get everyone in agreement

Touch base

The LinkedIn translation of ‘let’s talk’

User Centricity

Placing your customer at the ‘centre of the service experience and prioritising their needs’ without actually meaning it 

Value Add

Managerial speak for “to make something better”

We’re on a journey

Highlighting that a company, team, project or person will never reach the final mission or objective

Your take

As in I’m keen to hear your take on this as I haven’t got a clue what to say or do

Zero Sum Game

As in “we should never, ever, have started this project in the first place”


You might agree or disagree or want to add more (anyone got an X?)

Let me know!

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