The Power of Words Part 2: Jargon

10 mins read

This article is written to debate the pros and cons of jargon in the workplace, helping you to determine when jargon is necessary and appropriate, and when it is not.

The Jargon Dragon

Many of us have been in a meeting or conversation with someone where they throw out all sorts of fancy jargon and ultimately confuse their audience. Maybe you yourself have been in that position, using jargon that doesn’t make sense for the person or people listening to you. Often, when in conversations where language is being used that a person does not understand, that person will feel foolish or left out, and may not ask for clarification due to these negative feelings. They may even shut down, rather than try to figure out what’s going on. This leads to major miscommunication, and a lack of activity following these meetings! If jargon can be so confusing and divisive, why does it remain prevalent in the business world today? The truth is that depending on the situation, jargon can be at times beneficial or harmful to an organization! It’s all about how you use it, when you use it, and to whom you are speaking.

What is Jargon?

Jargon refers to terms, expressions, or acronyms that are specific to a particular industry or professional group. Generally, jargon exists within the workplace to name or describe industry specifics, and is intended to produce efficient and accurate communication. Having a specific word for something that, outside of the industry, would take multiple words to express, is incredibly beneficial! Yet unfortunately, jargon has also become focused on signaling status and superiority within the workplace and outside environment. How can you know when jargon is appropriate and when it is detrimental to colleague interactions? Here we have compiled a list of 4 Pros and Cons to using jargon in the workplace:

1. Pro – Builds Community and Reinforces a Shared Identity1

As mentioned, jargon exists to name or describe industry specifics. In theory, everyone in that industry should know the same jargon and be able to communicate fluently using this industry-specific language. The use of jargon then can remind and reinforce a bond for colleagues, demonstrating that they have a shared experience and knowledge. By using jargon, you can show that you are able to connect to a specific community and are familiar with that particular location, industry, demographic, etc. Additionally, using jargon to associate yourself with a particular industry demonstrates that you are able to discuss complex ideas and can dig deeper into the industry’s issues than someone on the outside. In a way, using appropriate jargon signals that you belong in that industry, that you are integral, and that you are an asset due to your understanding. Using jargon in the right settings will make your communication more specific and efficient. With the right audience, you can spend less time and words on a particular subject, and often can speak more specifically to the subject at hand when using industry-specific jargon.

2. Con – Creates Exclusivity, Alienates “Outsiders”1

While jargon can create community when used properly within an industry, jargon can also make people feel excluded. Not only can jargon alienate those outside of an industry, but can alienate those within an industry if they aren’t as clear on the jargon being used. Unless you are certain that everyone in the conversation understands, you may be confusing them, annoying them, and even losing their trust! As soon as individuals are made to feel inferior by another’s jargon-implied status, they will lose interest in the conversation altogether. This is especially prevalent when industry specialists are engaging with the public or those outside of the industry, as jargon can make it difficult for group outsiders to communicate. At times when the understanding of those outside of a specific group is necessary, excessive jargon can drastically increase misunderstanding and alienation. Even within the industry, different people may have different understandings of jargon, which can lead to miscommunication and alienation.

3. Pro – Demonstrates Authority and Knowledge

A young male manager presenting a project, statistics, infographics, big data, millennials at work A young male manager presenting a project, statistics, infographics, big data, millennials at work Data stock vectorJargon can be alienating when used poorly, but when used properly it can demonstrate authority and knowledgeability! Research shows that jargon, when used appropriately and sparingly, can make you appear more credible to an audience. If your audience is a community of those with a strong grasp of the industry, you can set yourself up as an expert through the use of jargon. By using jargon effectively, you demonstrate credibility and formality, assuring your audience that you know what you are talking about and have the ability to back your words up with experience or information.

4. Con – Can Cause a Loss of Trust1

Research shows that using jargon and cliches can make you appear more credible at first, but that the more jargon used, the less likely people are to trust you. Using jargon in order to sound clever will often cause your listener to recognize the disingenuity of your words, and will cause them to seek information or help elsewhere. According to Harvard Business Review, organizational researchers use jargon to measure employee perceptions of “bullshit” at their offices, as the overuse of jargon can make speakers come across as conniving or manipulative.1 The more jargon unnecessarily used may make your audience suspect you are lying to them in some way, and they will trust you less and doubt your intentions. Additionally, an overuse of jargon can indicate an insecurity on behalf of the speaker, showing a desire for status in one’s profession without actual authority to back it up, and compensating for this by using jargon excessively.

Tell me, did this list come across as contradictory? That’s because the jargon debate does not have a one-size-fits-all conclusion! Often the use of jargon is dependent upon the situation at hand, the audience, and the message that is to be presented. While many argue for a plain-English only approach, sometimes the use of jargon is beneficial to your business. Jargon itself is not inherently problematic, the trouble comes from those who overuse it or fail to recognize its proper time and place. While jargon can be divisive, manipulative, confusing, etc., it also fulfills some fundamental needs of the workspace in order to keep businesses running efficiently!

So how do you begin to assess the jargon situation in your business and your own language? The most important takeaway is to approach your conversations with thought and consideration. Be open with the language you use, and be vocal that any jargon or terminology that is new or uncertain for others should be discussed and defined so that more of your employees and colleagues can reap the benefits of efficient, specific communication. To minimize any sense of superiority/inferiority established by jargon, break the association! Unless the communication is directly face-to-face or with someone you know has a full grasp of the jargon you are using, use clear and unambiguous language or even define some standard jargon to ensure that everyone involved understands and grows from the conversation.

1 Brown, Zachariah C., et al. “Does Your Office Have a Jargon Problem?” Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/03/do-you-have-a-jargon-problem

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