Workplace or internal jargon can be problematic. It’s not clear to everyone what certain phrases mean. Think of “looping someone in” or “low-hanging fruit” as examples of overused corporate jargon. But what about “frequent flyer” in a healthcare context – would you know what this means?
Jargon isn’t all bad. It’s an effective way of saving time (while communicating meaning) within a community that shares common characteristics. Whether that’s Underwriters, Operations teams, or customer experience experts. These “insiders” communicate meaning efficiently with jargon. Everyone speaks a common institutionalized jargon-filled form of English. Think of the medical profession. That’s perfectly ok, as long as the parties in the conversation belong to that club.
As Mark Morgioni, Director of Research & Data at Slate writes:
“Every profession and workplace has its own vernacular. “Stakeholders”’ is shorter than ‘the people who will be most affected by this work and therefore should be included in any decisions’”.
If you’re in the community, you’re likely to be fluent in the insider language. Back to our earlier example. If you are an insider in the healthcare industry, you will know that a “frequent flyer” is a patient who comes into hospital often. It is meaningful. To you and your peers, that is.
Jargon is a time-saver, but only if you’re “in the club”.
When jargon jars
Issues with jargon arise when it’s used to communicate with people “outside the club”. For example, Investment Advisers know what they mean by “hurdle rate”. It’s the minimum return a business needs before deciding to launch a project or product. However, use it in an email to customers (perhaps small business owners), and it’s likely to cause confusion. If the reader doesn’t know the term, they will feel excluded. They’re likely to trust you less. Nobody wants to feel confused or excluded. And this is what happens when you use language that is abstract, or insider speak and unclear. We all know the feeling of being excluded, and nobody likes that. Think about the effect on your brand.
Maddie Crum details this in her article “Why Workplace Jargon Is A Big Problem” in the HuffPost:
“In addition to preventing clarity, vague language generates less trust. A not-so-shocking study conducted by psychology professors at New York University in 2011 concluded that abstract language leads listeners to believe a speaker is lying more often than concrete language does”.
Jargon in times of crisis
There’s an even bigger risk of using jargon now, due to COVID-19. The crisis comes with its own breed of terms that have slipped into our language almost without us realizing.
Let’s take some examples:
The popularity of this online video conferencing provider has soared during lockdown. The word “zoom” has taken on new meaning. It’s now regularly used as a verb – “can we zoom?” The Mexican food chain Chipotle has been hosting virtual gatherings on Zoom throughout the lockdown. This tweet invites its community to “hang on zoom”, offering no explanation as to what “zoom” actually is.