Op-Ed:

Lost in Translation

Every organization communicates in its own language. From the tech speak of Silicon Valley to the hushed murmurings of academese in the ivory tower, we all use jargon. What does your jargon say about you?

Think of your favorite made-for-streaming program set in a hospital. A patient lies in bed, unconscious and hooked to an alarming array of machines. Suddenly, the machines begin to flash and beep. Nurses rush inside the patient’s room. Over the loudspeaker we hear someone call frantically for a doctor ‘stat.’ This is jargon, an abbreviation of the Latin word statim which meant then and still means now – without delay, immediately. We’ve been using this bit of jargon since 1875.

When the two-way radio was invented, jubilation was quickly followed by confusion. Apparently, hearing each other was not enough in order to communicate. Names and addresses were misunderstood. When we tried to radio across borders into other linguistic territories, the problem got worse. We needed a spelling alphabet. The International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet is jargon used by air controllers, amateur ham radio enthusiasts and the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). We’ve been speaking in one version or another of Alfa Bravo Charlie since 1927.

Those were the good old days when jargon facilitated quick and efficient communication across multiple languages.

Now, there are online tools to define, index and generate jargon, also known as bullshit. Do you understand the words ‘synergistically leveraging strategic competitive advantages’? How about ‘disintermediating retail channels with bleeding-edge technologies’ 1? If you’re clueless, that might be the point.

Find My Tribe

From the neighborhood kids hanging out in the local treehouse to the jet-setters sipping cocktails in Davos, every tribe uses language to identify one of its own. Like the kids in the local treehouse who won’t drop the rope ladder until you say the secret password, corporate jargon is how we distinguish insiders from outsiders.

For insiders, jargon facilitates social bonding and strengthens a shared identity. When former and current members of the U.S military meet, they refer to a pen as an ‘ink stick.’ It’s their secret handshake that says, you’re one of us.A common jargon can reflect shared values. In its onboarding process, Google initiates its new employees (Nooglers) in the engineering values that underlie Google’s success. Nooglers also need to learn how to speak ‘Googly,’ as outlined in the company-wide jargon glossary and lectures on Google practices and culture 2.

Jargon in a job description can be used to decode the corporate culture. Apparently, if it contains lots of exclamation points, it must be a fun place to work!!! 3

Give Me the Rolex

If learning the jargon is a rite of initiation, then mastering it is a way to close ranks. The Bible gives us the word shibboleth. It’s a password – a phrase or a single word – to distinguish between friend (those who could pronounce the shibboleth correctly) from foe (those who could not). During World War II, Dutch soldiers used the word Scheveningen, a seaside resort, to ferret out German spies 4.

As a young lawyer, I was taught to draft my contracts so tightly that neither water nor air could permeate its iron-clad clauses. This contract drafting style had the added benefit of rendering my documents unintelligible to mere mortals. Only lawyers, speaking in tongues among themselves, are allowed to interpret legalese.

While legal jargon seems to ensure full employment for lawyers, you would think that legalese would form a barrier, say, to acquiring new clients. In fact, jargon is a highly successful marketing tool. In the 1980s, when Microsoft and Apple were first trying to sell personal computers to a tech-averse public, they described their products respectively as a ‘solution’ and an ‘experience.’ Today, we are awash in solutions and user experiences. It seems that jargon is king when communicating with customers.

Lucy Kellaway is a UK journalist for The Financial Times. For 25 years, she railed in her columns against corporate jargon. She griped when Toyota rebranded its cars as a ‘sustainable mobility solution.’ She groaned when Nestlé transformed a bottle of water into an ‘affordable, portable lifestyle beverage.’ Howard Schulz, then CEO of Starbucks, was a regular target of her columns. He once famously described the Starbucks Roasteries as ‘delivering an immersive, ultra-premium, coffee-forward experience.’ According to Kellaway, ‘in this ultra-premium, jargon-forward twaddle, the only acceptable word is “an”’ 5.

A young ambitious person in today’s job market might be fooled into thinking that jargon is the language of success. Take a glance at a random corporate annual report and you’ll find it chock-a-block full of jargon. Listen to a CEO use jargon to deflect a reporter’s inconvenient question. When global professional firm EY had to dismiss a group of its partners, it announced that ‘we look forward to strengthening our alumni network’ 5.

If successful businessmen and women can use jargon and get away with it, why can’t I? In fact, the more often we hear our business leaders, employers and colleagues speak jargon, the firmer we believe that this is the path to success.

Plain-spoken Folks

In a study conducted by the Columbia University Business School and the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, researchers compared jargon use among MBA students. These subjects were asked to imagine themselves competing for venture capital funding for a new business venture. The subjects were offered a choice between two proposals describing that venture: a plain vanilla text or a version heavily larded with jargon.

Subjects who thought they were at a competitive disadvantage preferred the jargon. They were preoccupied by how they would be judged and thought that jargon would increase their perceived value. By contrast, subjects who believed themselves to hold a competitive advantage preferred to communicate in a clear and effective style 1.

Warren Buffet is widely believed to be one of the most successful investors in the world. The Oracle of Omaha favors plain speech. In his annual letter to shareholders – a must-read among investors – Buffet keeps his language accessible, informative and jargon-free. He writes letters that his sisters, neither of whom are in business, would understand 6.

Speaking clearly and simply is easier said than done. It took me many years to untie my sentences so that anyone could understand what I had written. To my surprise, the simpler my language became, the more clients believed in and relied on what I said. It seems that plain, jargon-free speech demonstrates expertise.

LOL

Adam Gopnik writes for The New Yorker. I’ve always thought of him as a savvy journalist with an acute mind until I heard him speak on The Moth 7. Gopnik told a tale of his son Luke who, at the age of twelve, taught Gopnik how to instant message. Gopnik quickly adapted to the medium. He also got into the jargon. His personal favorite was LOL, which he understood to mean Lots of Love. After all, that was the way Luke signed all of his IMs to his dad, even when dad was being stern with him.

So Gopnik followed Luke’s lead. Every IM Gopnik wrote, he closed with LOL: to his sister in California going through a divorce, to his dad up in Canada struggling with his health and to countless other friends, acquaintances and business contacts. Imagine his dismay upon learning he’d gotten the jargon all wrong.

Gopnik and his son managed to work out their LOL differences. This is not always the case in the corporate environment. To an employee who feels overworked or underappreciated, jargon functions as a red flag to a bull. The boss might say, we need to move the needle. The employee hears, you need to fix this. Multi-tasking means work harder and faster. Downsizing, rightsizing, paradigm shift and core competencies all add up to the same thing: someone’s going to get fired 8.

If MBA students are perceived as ‘conniving, manipulative, or less likable’ when they use jargon in a pitch to imaginary venture capitalists 1, you can guess what an employee will think of a supervisor who speaks only in jargon. Insincere, untrustworthy, not a true leader.

A true leader demonstrates expertise by using plain language. Leaders communicate corporate goals in an unambiguous fashion. They use words that mean something and they mean what they say. No more claptrap, guff, twaddle or bullshit. No more jargon.

Picture of Karen Kao

Karen Kao

Karen Kao once specialized in international mergers and acquisitions. She is now a published author, among others, of the novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. “The Long View” is her first feature article.

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