Survey Says: More People Speak Text Than Jargon

It’s a universal pet peeve, yet we all do it. When we hear other people use it, we want to whack them with a thesaurus. Or a big book of words. I’m talking about jargon.

I’d love to claim that I’m above indulging in industry gobbledygook, but I’m embarrassed to say I have caught myself dropping a j-bomb on more than one occasion. And enjoying it (insert smug face here).

The Oxford English Dictionary states jargon is “special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand“. By its very definition it is a hindrance to understanding.

So why it is expected that we use this type of technical language? Why choose fancy words when regular ones do the job better?

In September 2015, Nationwide Building Society publicised results of their recent research survey (conducted with 2,000 UK participants in July and August 2015) revealing that text shorthand was more widely understood than everyday financial terms. High percentages of participants did not understand commonly used abbreviations such as APR (Annual Percentage Rate), NCD (No Claims Discount) and BACS (Bankers’ Automated Clearing Services), while almost all recognised text lingo such as OMG, LOL and WTF.

Finance is not the only jargonaut offender. The business world is rife with irritating management terms like ‘leveraging’ (using), ‘thought shower’ (an idea sharing session), and ‘blue-sky thinking’ (creative thinking). But jargon can actually be a nightmare for business growth. Companies get so used to using it, they forget other people don’t understand it. But what if those other people are their customers or even their own staff?

A friend of mine works for a well-known telecommunications company and recently changed roles there. He showed me his new job description and after reading it twice I had absolutely no idea what any of it said. It may as well have been written in hieroglyphics. I assumed this was intentional on the part of the company, aiming solely at internal staff who were in the technical know. But as it turns out it is typical of all their job descriptions both internal and external. After reading several more roles advertised on their public website, I am still non the wiser. They were so hard to read and littered with jargon, neither a professional writer nor a high level employee of the company, with a masters degree no less, could make head nor tail of them. Ironic, given that communication is the nature of their business.

Where there is a lack of understanding, there is a lack of consistency. That is bad for business. Jargon builds a wall between the company and the consumer. It puts up barriers between writing and the reader. As a company surely the aim is to build a rapport with your customers and employees, not exclude them from the club. Language should engage people and a writer’s job is to use language to reach an audience, not push them away.

Of course, there are times it can be necessary to actively cloud someone’s understanding of the bottom line and jargon is a great way to do that. The medical profession for example.

In her 1984 New York Times column, Perri Klass MD wrote how hospital jargon is vital for doctors to be able to discuss patients and their conditions without all and sundry cottoning on to what is being said and ending up in a blind panic as a result:

The resident was describing a man with devastating terminal pancreatic cancer. ‘Basically he’s CTD’, the resident concluded. I reminded myself that I had resolved not to be shy about asking when I didn’t understand things.’CTD?’ I asked timidly. The resident smirked at me.’Circling the drain‘”.

This is a fine example of ‘need to know’ and ‘less [information] is more’. But usually language is designed to enable communication, not impede it. We’re not all politicians trying to spin a story. Jargon can be unnecessary, and it’s the unnecessary jargon that irks us.

There is a time and a place for industry terminology. But for the most part jargon seems to alienate people and breed confusion. The survey is in. People don’t like what they don’t understand. And they don’t understand jargon.