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William is an Assistant Professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in the Department of Business Administration and Tourism and Hospitality Management. He is fascinated by research around how individuals construct and create their social realities, intrigued with the powers of creativity and innovation, and an avid proponent of outstanding service experiences. When not teaching, writing, or researching, he tries to spend time with his family and occasionally paint. He is currently completing his PhD in Management at Saint Mary’s University.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

When Sounding Smart is Pretty Dumb

Over the last few days, I’ve been struck by how often my jargon meter has gone off.

All right, I know what you’re thinking, so let me start off by calling out the elephant in the blog. Yes, I’m an academic by profession; with that comes a certain volume of jargon that crops up in our speaking and writing, especially when we are doing so for an audience of our peers. I have spent significant amounts of time discussing the differences between Derrida’s use différance and différence. I have argued about the correct hyphen placement between postpositivism and post-positivism, and yes, I can toss around statistical terms such as leptokurtosis.

I know jargon. So, let’s break this down. monkey404

Webster’s dictionary has three clear definitions for jargon. The first is that jargon is a characteristic language of a particular group. As a member of particular groups, I do not necessarily have a problem with jargon when it is language used by and within those specific trades or professions. Most professions have common language that only makes sense within context. Doctors and lawyers, carpenters and plumbers, they all use specific language within their chosen field. This particular use of language may not make sense to an outsider, but it’s not supposed to. So this type of jargon doesn’t set any alarm bells.

The bells do start to ring loudly in two different situations.

The first is what I’ll call ‘spill-over’: the language specific to one professional group spills over from the insider world to those of us out here in the regular world. Spill-over generally occurs when we fail to reset our language filters for context; put another way, we are just not paying attention to our audience. Say you are in a university course (I’ll pick on my people) and your professor starts referring to the curve on the board as leptokurtotic without ever having defined this term before. This would be a case of jargon spill-over and (hopefully!) just an honest error by the professor using a term without considering his or her audience very well. (By the way, a leptokurtotic curve is a bell curve that is kind of squished together with a tall middle peak. Take that to your next trivia game.)

The intention of the spill-over must always be assessed. Spill-overs can occur honestly, such as the example I tried to show above. It can also happen intentionally, a sin that needs to be challenged as often as possible. Some people choose to use jargon specific to their profession as a barrier of entry. It becomes their sword and shield of elitism that separates them from those who are not in ‘the know’, not part of ‘them’. When someone intentionally chooses to speak above their audience, the message is being intentionally masked. Here is Webster’s second definition coming out to play: to utter jargon is to talk unintelligibly.

As someone passionate about amazing customer service, there is absolutely no place in a service interaction for intentional jargon used to make others feel inferior. None, zip, zero.

If spill-over is happening in your business by accident, coach your way out of it. Learn to reframe and refocus with each interaction and think, really THINK about your audience. But if spill-over exists because of intent, this must be weeded out quickly. Customers will tolerate honest mistakes, but not arrogance.

Now, some of you are counting - I did mention three definitions of jargon. Webster’s simply calls this third form ‘gibberish’. This type of jargon often gets shuffled off as the evolution of language, but really, it’s just plain nonsense. Here are some examples: items that we can work on are now ‘actionable’, including an additional product or service item into the package now becomes ‘value-added’, playing to our strengths and opportunities is now considered ‘leveraging’, and copying the success of others is now referred to as ‘best-practicing’. So, you end up with people who appear to be reasonably intelligent coming out with phrases like:
“Our change agents will be actioning the identified best practices in order to create a value-added buzz which should level the competitive playing field.”
I heard most of this sentence the other day, not a word of a lie.

When you hear people talking like this, you need to stop them, if not for their sake, then for yours. Should you like them, you could have a private conversation and point out this little problem – remember, you want the best for them. If you don’t like them or are feeling devilish, you could ask them to immediately rephrase what they just said so that a Grade 3 student could understand it. Generally, this is met with uncomfortable silence. Me, I like to use a little bit from Lewis Black. When someone speaks gibberish, I tell them that they are using jargon. And if they still don’t understand, I toss my point just over their head.

In the comments section down below, feel free to share with me some of your favourite examples of jargon – I’d love to hear them! Because this is just my two cents.



  1. Personally, the fact that learning institutions who teach adults insist on calling their students "learners" has always made my skin crawl. The only explanation I've ever been given is that it separates them from students still in elementary or high school. Are they studying information? Are they learning new skills or bodies of knowledge? Sounds like a student to me. If the shoe fits, wear it.

  2. I love your point that "there is absolutely no place in a service interaction for intentional jargon used to make others feel inferior."

    Also, I'm curious as to your thoughts on the over-use of "buzz words" as illustrated in the painfully buzz-filled sentence you overheard starting with "Our change agents...."

  3. Mark

    I honestly think that we reached a point where style trumped substance. Buzz words are the Paris Hilton of our language; they are fashionable and popular but really lack underlying content or substance.

    Our environments have been changing so fast that people can often feel left behind; a quick fix is to pepper your speaking with the new 'cool' buzz words. But this seems to have come without any critical reflection, or the mirror check.

    I mentioned that some would call it the evolution of language, and you can see the slippery slope. For example, we moved from a task that required some action, to an action item, to something that became actionable, to an item that you were actioning.

    I think buzz words should be corrected or confronted wherever possible, starting with the critical self-reflection and self-awareness of our own language use.

  4. Most use of buzz-words is simply a form of status seeking or display. Rather than trying to communicate information, the speaker is seeking to display their position in the ranks of the "cool" (a buzz-word with "legs" - uh, I mean longevity). Because the main priority is more pecking-order display (is that a buzz-word?) than transmission of a thought, the language used tends to degenerate into a series of pre-fabricated phrases that are in current fashion but only loosely related to the idea supposedly being communicated. Your sample sentence is wonderful example of that process in action. The result is an impoverishment (I managed to avoid saying "dumbing down") of communication, and therefore, of thought itself. I believe this process is actually making us stupider.


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