You are bound to hear your fair share of jargon if you sit in any business meeting or walk down a head office corridor. No doubt, people will be talking about running things up flagpoles that are not flags, marinating something that is not meat and checking the optics when there is not a cable in sight.
Jargon seems to have become the default language in business, but this vague form of communication often confuses, disconnects and isolates people. While jargon is often used unconsciously, in some cases it is used deliberately.
I believe there are four reasons why we use jargon in the workplace. These include ignorance, acceptance, avoidance and importance.
Many of us use jargon because we’re so familiar with the term that we don’t even realise we’re using a buzzword. This is particularly common when using industry-specific terminology. It’s only when someone outside of the industry asks what it means that we realise how often the term is used, yet it can be a struggle to explain the definition.
One of our greatest desires as humans is to be connected to each other and be accepted, often at any cost. In order to fit in, we act, dress and talk in a certain way.
All it takes is a senior person or an external consultant to start using a particular phrase and then, in most cases, gradually everyone else starts using it. This is understandable because we feel like we are part of the team if we are speaking the same language.
Sometimes people default to jargon when they have something to hide. We often see this when companies refer to cutting jobs (that is, making people unemployed) as ‘downsizing’ or ‘rightsizing’. In December 2018, General Motors took this to a whole new level when they referred to the closure of five plants in the US and Canada, with a loss of up to 14,000 jobs, as “resources being unallocated”.
Unfortunately, we tend to use jargon when we want to avoid telling the truth. As a result, using lots of jargon often leads to both the messenger and message being perceived as less trustworthy. When we overuse jargon, people trust us less and doubt our intentions.
Individuals may purposely use jargon, knowing that it is confusing for others. The end result in business is that clients often feel overwhelmed by this unnecessary complexity. They may be more likely to engage these people because it just sounds too confusing to not have their help. However, deliberately using jargon in this way can ultimately lead to distrust and clients going elsewhere.
Using jargon and more sophisticated or unfamiliar language also comes from the desire to impress others. You will perhaps see no greater example than when you look at job titles. In 2017, Forbes listed ‘20 ridiculous job titles that make even the most boring jobs sound thrilling’. Roles included Dean of Pizza at Pizza Hut, which involved training employees to properly cut and place the pizza in the box, and Director of Sound Design at Facebook, responsible for creating all the ‘ding’ sounds for notifications.
While most jargon is confusing and misleading, it’s not all bad. When used correctly, jargon can be an efficient and accurate way of communicating – as long as everyone fully understands what it means.
If you are presenting a highly technical topic to a group of highly technical people (such as doctors presenting to doctors or lawyers to lawyers) who will understand your use of technical jargon, it may be acceptable. If you are presenting highly technical information to people who don’t understand the topic or the language commonly associated with it (such as doctors presenting to patients or lawyers to clients), you need to reduce the jargon or explain what it means.
Regardless of why we use jargon, we need to be aware of the consequences. If the audience doesn’t understand the meaning of the words used, it can often confuse, disconnect and isolate people.