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Why Speaking in Jargon Doesn’t Make You Look Smarter

Updated Nov 01, 2023

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“I need to check that server’s IP host and verify its blacklist reputation,” you said maybe never. 

Whether you even understood what that sentence means depends on whether or not you’re a techie. Fortunately, we can leave such high-tech lingo to the information technology (IT) professionals in our businesses. The tech-savvy on your team should have no problem speaking to one another in what some might think is code. But when it comes to office jargon, it’s vital to use terminology everyone in your company can understand — and won’t be annoyed by.

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What is technical jargon?

Rather than using ordinary, easy-to-grasp words that can be understood quickly by everyone, jargon is a type of shorthand that is used to simplify communications among certain groups. Typically, it involves the use of words and phrases that are otherwise meaningless when taken out of context. Moreover, it is different from slang in that slang is an informal use of language while jargon is a collection of terms and phrases that can only be understood by certain groups of people.

Technical jargon is a term used to describe terminology that can only be comprehended by those with a technical background. It makes ideal sense for your IT team members to communicate with one another in technical jargon. Because of their technical knowledge, they should know what the words mean. 

For example, experts in the field of cybersecurity might use the phrase “penetration testing” to describe the activities of their co-workers during a “red team exercise” that is subject to the “traffic light protocol.” For them, that’s a much shorter way of saying that a designated team of cybersecurity professionals is intentionally trying to break into a client’s computer network as part of a risk assessment. They’re doing this to see how vulnerable to attack their client is, and they’ll then share the results of the test with an audience designated by one of four colors.

The risks of using technical jargon in nontech settings

As the above example shows, it’s logical for your tech-focused employees to use technical jargon as they go about their everyday work. However, every now and again, such terminology breaks out of its original user group and into the wider public. The problem is that it rarely keeps the same meaning once it’s been set free.

Take Bluetooth as an example. Bluetooth is a specific, patented form of technology that transmits data wirelessly over up to 100 meters using ultrahigh-frequency radio waves in the 2.402 GHz to 2.48 GHz spectrum. IT professionals speaking to one another would understand what is meant by the term. However, among those outside the tech world today, Bluetooth is often wrongly used to describe any technology that works similarly, such as near-field communication (NFC) or Zigbee. [See our guide to NFC mobile payments to learn more about this technology.]

When you use a term inaccurately, as many do with Bluetooth, it doesn’t make you look smarter. Although it may be tempting to appropriate a buzzy word and countless marketing campaigns have tried to capitalize on the popularity of “Bluetooth” in recent years, you risk showing your ignorance when you use jargon incorrectly. You also may confuse and alienate consumers and colleagues.

Did You Know?Did you know

Google campaigned for a long time to try to stop people from using “Google” as a slang term to describe searching the web, particularly when the Google search engine wasn’t being used. The company wasn’t successful, however, and it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006.

Why is office jargon problematic?

Each technical word or phrase that becomes jargon comes into existence because the object or concept being described was specifically important enough to deserve one.  The same can’t be said of office jargon, though.

Office culture has for decades been blighted by jargon that has replaced perfectly usable words and phrases in English. Phrases like “disrupt,” “leverage,” “paradigm shift,” “synergy,” “touch base,” “drill down,” “think outside the box,” “blue-sky thinking” and “best practices” are now part of the increasingly crowded workplace word map.

That’s despite the fact that “clear thinking” is more descriptive than “blue-sky thinking.” “Examine very closely” tells you far more about an action than “drill down.” But perhaps that’s the point of office jargon. It’s a way of saying we’re going to do something without really saying what in detail. To find out what someone thinks or is going to do, we have to question and question until we get an answer in plain English.

The risks of using office jargon

Even though jargon is often intended to be used as shorthand, it can be a more time-consuming method of communication due to the unclear meanings behind many of these terms. Furthermore, the more corporate buzzwords are used, the more they tend to turn employees off. 

What do office workers think about jargon? Not much, as the following data reveals:

  • A survey by communications company Enreach found that 90 percent of people believe business jargon is used by people who want to “cover up the fact that they have NO IDEA what they’re doing.” Nearly 50 percent find such language “annoying,” and over 20 percent would be turned off in a job interview if the employer repeatedly used jargon.
  • Communications app Slack commissioned a study by OnePoll that found that more than 60 percent of respondents “find it off-putting when colleagues use workplace jargon in messages.” [Learn how to use Slack for workplace communication.]
  • E-learning platform Preply Business found that “SMB,” which stands for small and medium-sized business, is among the “least well-recognized” corporate buzzwords. Only 12 percent of survey participants knew what it meant. That striking statistic should make small businesses think twice about using such specific terminology. 
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What are the dos and don’ts of using jargon?

The above insights into technical jargon and office jargon indicate that knowing your audience is one of the most critical aspects of determining when and when not to use jargon. It’s reasonable for IT professionals to use jargon with their colleagues―the language their fellow techies will understand. But due to the lack of clarity and off-putting nature of office jargon, using buzzwords company-wide can come at a price.

Follow these dos and don’ts for using language and jargon responsibly — and smartly:

  • Speak everyday language: Be plain and clear about how a project or task is progressing instead of relying on cliche phrases like “getting your ducks in a row.” This is also crucial when giving performance evaluations; instead of saying an employee’s project “moved the needle,” detail specifically and plainly what they accomplished.
  • Keep it short: Short sentences are easier to understand than long, convoluted ones. Similarly, short speeches are more memorable than lengthy, meandering ones. The classic example is United States President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It’s about 270 words long.
  • Use simple words: This doesn’t mean talking down to workers as if they’re children. It means using plain, direct language. Instead of telling your direct reports how to “execute a strategy,” explain “how to get something done.”
  • Avoid buzzwords with larger groups: The more people in a meeting, especially meetings involving multiple departments, the more likely it is that not everyone present will understand what you’re saying if you rely on team-specific jargon. To keep everyone on the same page (jargon alert!), use language everyone in attendance will grasp.
  • Edit yourself: When writing emails or messages to colleagues, look over the text before sending it. Replace any ambiguous words and make sure the meaning of any specific terminology used will be clear to the recipient. Similarly, it’s important to follow proper email etiquette when writing to customers.
  • Hold back on the emojis: Just like actual words can be subject to misinterpretation, so too can emojis. When using emojis in business communication, keep in mind they can have the same drawbacks as verbal jargon – emojis aren’t universal and may make you seem less competent. Knowing your audience is essential.
Mark Fairlie
Mark Fairlie
Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
Mark Fairlie has written extensively on business finance, business development, M&A, accounting, tax, cybersecurity, sales and marketing, SEO, investments, and more for clients across the world for the past five years. Prior to that, Mark owned one of the largest independent managed B2B email and telephone outsourcing companies in the UK prior to selling up in 2015.
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