Why We Can’t Seem to Shake Jargon

May 24, 2021

Almost everyone claims to hate jargon, but it’s a perennial feature of most industries. Law firms are notorious for using their own special brand of jargon — legalese. As confusing and off-putting as jargon can be, it persists. Researchers Zachariah Brown, Eric Anicich and Adam Galinsky, who published their work in a recent Harvard Business Review article, set out to learn more about why professionals still lean on jargon. Here are some of the highlights from their study:

What do we mean by “jargon”?

Some may use the terms slang and jargon interchangeably. Although related, they are not the same. Slang is another kind of communication that signals membership in a group, but it is more often used in informal settings. A grandfather turns to his teenage grandson and says, “In my day, we never complained about working through lunch.” The grandson uses slang to dismiss his grandfather and pokes back with, “OK, boomer.” Jargon refers to language that is specific to a group of professionals or a particular industry. It signals not just membership but a special kind of status. For example, a partner might use the term stare decisis when talking with an associate about legal precedent. To someone outside the industry, the phrase might carry meaning, or it might just be intimidating.

Why do people use it, even though its meanings are not universally understood?

Even though people say that jargon is confusing, ineffective or pretentious, it’s still widely used. Workplace conversation abounds with acronyms and expressions that sound like Greek to outsiders. Although hard to understand and empty, jargon can serve a useful purpose. It can be a shorthand that makes work more efficient. It encourages social bonding and strengthens the shared identity of workers in a company. It can even bolster the egos of those of lesser status within an organization. Status brings influence, material benefits and psychological well-being to those who have it.

What are some of the downsides of using jargon?

Although jargon signals membership and helps improve group bonding, it does have drawbacks. Lacking this status may leave a group member vulnerable to exclusion from power. People often compensate for a lack of status by trying to signal that they have more of it than they actually do. Studies confirm that jargon can at times function as a luxury car; people use it as a status symbol to show off to others. Outsiders (which often includes clients) can feel disconnected when communication becomes laced with unfamiliar terms. There is a time and place for technical language, but peppering conversation or nontechnical writing with phrases such as force majeure and locus standi is a good way to alienate non-legalese speakers. Furthermore, audiences view speakers who use jargon as cunning and less personable.

How can professionals cut back on the amount of jargon they are using?

Aim for clarity. Focus on being understood, not on showing off. Before speaking, consider if there’s a simpler way to say what’s on your mind.

When presenting before an audience at an event, ask yourself if the listeners typically use the same jargon you do. If you’re a leader at your firm, encourage clear communication at the executive level. Doing so will demystify the jargon and may take away the incentive for lower-status employees to use jargon to elevate themselves.

Technical language serves a specific purpose. Just make sure you limit its use to those moments, and make actual communication your goal the rest of the time.