We’re all guilty of using business jargon from time to time. Going forward we’ll focus on squaring the circle, brainstorming, and cross-departmental synergies. It’s mission critical for us to be game changers and killer apps.
Ahhhh!! What does it all mean?
There’s (understandably) plenty of criticism of business jargon. Often people use insider lingo to avoid thinking. It can easily lead to miscommunication too. On the other hand, corporate language is useful as a shortcut and to increase belonging. Knowing those occasional right times to use it makes all the difference.
Criticisms of Jargon
Dan Pallotta, president of Advertising for Humanity, is firmly in the anti-jargon camp. He told Harvard Business Review:
“I think it’s become a habit for us. I find myself doing it from time to time, and it takes a lot of discipline for me to speak in plain English and not to lapse into that myself. I think at a deeper level, people feel like they have to talk that way.”
Most of us feel the need to speak the lingo so others don’t perceive us as ignorant. We want to sound like we fit in and we know what we’re talking about. We might not like jargon, or we might even find it silly, but we use it anyway.
But corporate jargon often makes communication more difficult. It creates obstacles to talking about serious issues. And jargon is always changing, making a bigger gap between employees.
Here’s a passage from Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, in which an old-school business leader is trying to make sense of what a younger colleague is saying: “Most of the Wiz’s lingo he could put up with, even a ‘sunk cost.’ But this word ‘paradigm’ absolutely drove him up the wall. . . . The damn word meant nothing at all, near as he could make out, and yet it was always ‘shifting,’ whatever it was.” In the Wiz's attempt to impress, he (perhaps intentionally?) obscures his meaning.
Benefits of Jargon
At the same time, jargon developed for a reason. For one, it helps create a sense of community. It’s unavoidable that different fields will have their own lingo. Musicians play “gigs.” Reporters work “beats.” Teachers have “preps.” This language develops a sense of camaraderie among those in the same profession.
This lingo helps us condense big ideas too. Think about the function of acronyms in public policy. If you had to refer to every organization or law by its full title, government professionals would probably never stop typing! Sometimes lingo is a shortcut that makes things easier to understand.
Maybe it’s best if we stop and think every time we’ve used a phrase that we’ve heard too often. Are you accurately conveying what you intend? Will your audience understand the reference or be alienated by it? There are certain times where insider talk makes sense, but resisting overuse is, well, mission critical.