Our Words Can Build Bridges or Barriers
I’m a humanist and rational optimist who loves life and challenge. I believe the right words can change the world.
Jargon is a tremendously useful tool for professionals when they need to quickly and concisely communicate with their peers. The police use codes such as 10-8 meaning an officer is “ready to take a call”. Fire fighters use words like “jammer” to identify a heart attack victim. Techies bandy acronyms about when describing technology and equipment with their peers.
When a client hires me to write for them, I’m faced with two responsibilities. The first is to acquire a working comfort with my client’s industry and the jargon they use so I can understand what they’re talking about. The second is to translate that industry jargon into a layman’s language my client’s customers will easily understand. Bridging that gap of knowledge between my client and their customers engenders the trust their clients need to invest their time and money with my client.
My Introduction to Jargon
I learned something about jargon at a very young age from my paternal grandmother, Dorothy Powell. She was an accomplished writer of children and teen books, and she sparked my early inspirations to write.
She had a lifelong habit of studying people and their behaviors. She found people endlessly interesting and she invented a variety of descriptive words and expressions – homemade idioms – to describe them. When someone’s behavior perplexed her, she would label them as an “iya-dot”. She excelled at creating new profanities that delighted my evil, six-year-old soul! Words like “gnush” escaped her lips when she cut her finger on a piece of paper. My absolute favorite was “shigimidit” – a word that wasn’t abusive, abrasive or offensive, but that still did the trick of leaving someone feeling confused and mildly insulted.
We created new words together every time I came to visit her, then she’d launch me back home like a guided missile where I’d explode expressively in front of my parents with complete impunity. After all, what could they do about it? Looking back, I’m sure she was using me to pay back her son. Not that I mind. We had a blast.
These nonsense words my grandmother and I shared had meaning for the two of us, but they meant nothing to anyone outside of our small communion. Indeed, our words were deliberately designed to close my parents out of our conversations.
The Darker Side of Jargon
Some forms of jargon resist every effort to be translated because they are designed to confuse. It consists of pretentious vocabulary and convoluted syntax that is vague in meaning. Take the politician who is obfuscating in order to preserve his career, or a marketing specialist who is using big words to impress and maybe intimidate her client. This kind of jargon has a dangerous allure, but it is anathema to professional communicators and needs to be shunned.
The more common form of jargon within professions and groups of specialists can have a dangerous allure. Learning and using a specialist’s “code of language” will actually alter your perception in certain situations, constraining and directing your thinking towards a group consensus. Using the specialist’s jargon has a reinforcing effect; strengthening the connections between peers while shutting outsiders out.
In her fascinating paper “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defence Intellectuals”, Carol Cohn provides a compelling and chilling example about how the use of jargon can dramatically shift the way we view the world.
In 1984, Cohn and her colleagues attended a summer camp at a university’s Center of Defence Technology and Arms Control, or simply, The Center. Throughout her summer there, she listened to men describe nuclear warfare as casually as last Sunday’s dinner and recount nuclear strategy with a language heavily imbued with sexualized metaphor. She recounts:
“Lectures were filled with discussion of vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft laydowns, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted verses spasm attacks – or as one military advisor to the National Security Council has called ‘releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump.’”
These men contemplated scenarios of destruction every day, then went home to their families after work just like everyone else. They were not monsters, they were moral, charming people that she liked. She didn’t know how they could be so disconnected from the horrific realities of actual nuclear war. Her curiosity was aroused, so when offered the chance to stay on for a year, she took it.
Her first task was to immerse herself in the industry’s specialized language; it’s jargon. She soon noticed terms like “counter value attacks” to sanitarily describe the incineration of cities. “Collateral damage” was a sleek way to address murdering civilians. Slick, sanitized words such as thermonuclear, layered BMD system, Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs) were actually fun to use. Domestic imagery such as silos (nuclear, not wheat), Minuteman missile RVs (re-entry, not recreational vehicles) and Christmas trees (the section of a Trident submarine where the missiles are lined up) used domestic metaphors to tame the horrific. What could be more pastoral than silos and Christmas trees?
She discovered the process of mastering the industry jargon conveyed a feeling of power and mastery over forces undeniably far beyond human control. She and her colleagues experienced the thrill of throwing around acronyms among the few “in the know”. The process of learning the jargon so disconnected her from the realities of nuclear holocaust she found herself becoming less afraid of it. She coined the word “technostrategic” to describe her new language.
To advance her research, she needed to ask questions that, quite frankly, were difficult to frame in the specialized language she had learned. She found it too narrow and confining because it was completely removed from social, psychological or moral considerations. She reverted to regular English to speak plainly about the unimaginable human suffering that would result should a nuclear war occur.
That’s when she learned firsthand the most important function of professional jargon is exclusion. Jargon denies entrance to those outside of a community and strips them of their voice. She found no matter how well she framed her questions in regular English, the men responded to her as though she was ignorant, simpleminded, or both. With no way to bridge the chasm between worlds of thought, her questions remained unanswered. Worse, a mindset borne out of the technostrategic language designed by and for defence intellectuals remained unchallenged and unperturbed by considerations of the potential for human suffering.
Examining Jargon as a Writer
Jargon that causes me the most difficulties are usually big words born of a writer’s hubris. When I started out as a marketer, I used marketing jargon to mask my lack of confidence. I used jargon as my word crutch. Fortunately, humility and respect for my audience help me to correct the problem.
Are you using jargon in your business communication? It happens more often than you think. Words we think are self-explanatory sometimes just aren’t, and you do your customers a disservice when they are left unexamined.
Jargon, even words we think are easy to understand can become mental roadblocks for our customers. A careful examination of the language we use will ensure we’re building bridges of understanding rather than barriers that exclude people from the conversation.