Bridging the Communication Gap: Jargon
Industry jargon is oftentimes meant to help with communication by creating a shared vocabulary to discuss complex subjects. It speeds up communication by using one or two words to express what would otherwise require ten, twenty, or even more than thirty words.
Jargon is also used by people in misplaced efforts to build a fun corporate culture or to generate enthusiasm via hype and excitement around a particular project or new way of doing things. This often leads to eye-rolling from lower-level staff. And it can lead to employees joking about “drinking the kool-aid” when hearing or using the jargon of a particular workplace.
The video below features a song from “Weird Al” Yankovic’s album, “Mandatory Fun.” The song is called “Mission Statement,” and is a comical look at corporate jargon.
Sometimes workplace or industry jargon is necessary and useful. It certainly has its place. And when used with awareness, jargon can help standardize and simplify communication.
However, jargon is also a way to maintain boundaries between those in-the-know and everyone else. This can have several negative results, such as: limiting collaboration across scientific or other fields; keeping the general public from understanding what doctors, scientists, and even politicians are saying; and creating barriers between people.
This can even happen within an industry, with people in certain job classes/functions using language that is unknown to people in other job classes/functions. The jargon-created barriers can make it so that an interpreter is required to interface between the two groups, such as between aerospace engineers and assemblers. I know someone whose full-time job is to facilitate communication between engineers and assemblers at a particular company because the two groups do not use the same language and they both have specialized knowledge not fully available to the other group.
Going back to the Interpersonal Gap Model introduced in Bridging the Communication Gap: Introduction, it is easy to see how jargon can lead to misunderstandings or even complete barriers in communication.
Sally asks, ‘what do you do?’
I say, ‘Organizational Development.’
Sally says, ‘Oh, I could really use some help developing organization for my craft materials! How much do you charge for that?’
I then have to go back and explain, ‘That’s not quite what I do. I help organizations, such as businesses, non-profits, and government agencies to be more effective by reviewing their processes and helping them with change management, strategic planning, leadership development, team building, coaching, and/or employee work-life balance.’
The difference is a two-word explanation using words that have different meanings to different people in different contexts versus a thirty-plus-word explanation that still might contain unclear language: what is change management? what is leadership development? what kind of coaching? And so on. In this case, there is a clear reason for using jargon: it significantly decreases the number of words used to explain what I do. And there is a clear reason for not using jargon: the words have a different meaning in everyday language for most people.
Kara asks, ‘I heard you recently graduated. Congratulations! What’s your degree in?’
I answer, ‘My degree is a Master of Arts in Organizational Systems: Leadership and Organizational Development.’
Kara only catches the Master of Arts in Organizational Systems part and says, ‘Oh, so you work with computer systems?’
I say, ‘I can see why you might think of computer systems, but I actually work with the human systems in a business, non-profit, or other organization.’
Jargon can get in the way if the goal is to reach a shared understanding and have clear communication. It is important to know your audience, give helpful context clues for words, check for understanding rather than assuming everyone shares the same definition of particular words or phrases, and ask questions if you think there may be more than one way to interpret what someone has said.
Click here for some amusing examples from an Industrial-Organizational Psychologist.
What words do you use in your profession that people outside the profession misinterpret? Does industry-specific jargon get in the way of people outside the industry understanding what they hear or read in the news about it? How can you make your communication clearer without completely sacrificing brevity or important nuances?