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Watch Your Language: The Role of Workplace Jargon

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

“Do it” is a bit of a bland statement, isn’t it? Why not jazz it up a bit; let’s “action it” instead. That’s much more impactful. And just while we’re on the topic, “cutting-edge” isn’t trendy anymore – we say “bleeding edge” now. Whatever you can possibly turn into an acronym, too; go for it.

These are examples of workplace jargon; a language comprised of specialised terms, expressions, or acronyms that are specific to a particular industry or professional group. Virtually every industry possesses its own jargon, to be used in place of more easily understood, less-professional alternatives.

Jargon, however, has a function. It is employed to render communication more efficient, clear and accurate. Air traffic controllers, the military, the police, and healthcare professionals use the phonetic alphabet to convey letters in such a way that they’re unlikely to be heard incorrectly (think saying “B” and “P” over a grainy phone line versus “Bravo” and “Papa”). Even in e-gaming, jargon flows as condensed codes between team members to share important information and complex messages in an intense and competitive environment.

While the use of jargon is justified in some contexts, a lot still bleeds into situations where it really isn’t greatly useful. This is where people may become irritated, especially if we don’t understand the terminology yet. Once we’ve grasped the meaning of everyday jargon, however, we often jump on board and start using it automatically. This is when jargon becomes bolstering. We’ve established our own inaccessible and sophisticated language within our organisation, or even our team, that few outside will be able to follow. The concept isn’t foreign; much psychological research has indicated that this leads to feelings of increased ‘ingroup identity’, where we establish ourselves as a validated team member and reinforce our relationships in that team.

Another piece of research reviewed the frequency of jargon usage among employees when creating and delivering a presentation. The researchers first identified each employee’s level in their organisation before giving them the presentation brief for design. Interestingly, they found that jargon was much more prevalent among lower-status employees than those in higher-status positions (who used much more accessible and everyday language). On investigating why lower-status individuals tended to use more jargon, the researchers suggest that it may have served as a means of status compensation. In other words, lower-status employees may have ‘boosted’ their status by supposedly sounding more technical and complex.

Another potential reason is a simple one: people use jargon to show off. And when jargon is employed for this purpose, it can be quite obvious to the listener. Perhaps unsurprisingly, further research has shown that jargon, when used unnecessarily and superfluously, can lead people to perceive that jargon-user as more manipulative and less appealing to work with. On the other hand, using clear and understandable language well to explain complex concepts indicates a level of expertise and confidence.

What’s more, the overuse of jargon may have negative implications for the efforts we make in creating an inclusive work environment. Over the past few years, disparate teams have worked more closely together in many organisations. Some are even harnessing the power of interdisciplinary working – seeking outsider perspectives and innovating across previously untouched industries. And of course, we continue to connect and co-work with people based in different locations across the planet. Unnecessary jargon may work against these efforts, blocking accessibility and shutting out those who work in a different team or industry, not to mention individuals who may not be native speakers. Clear, understandable language likely presents as more inclusive by nature.

In work, jargon is almost inevitable. It plays a significant role in some industries, organisations and teams. Its basic function, to make communication more efficient, is most certainly a worthwhile endeavour. What we might watch out for, though, is unnecessary, superfluous jargon; after all, the research shows that people who can communicate (or convey complex information) in clear and accessible language are those in higher positions or with the real expertise in their subject. Jargon, then, is useful – but according to the research, the ideal might be to use it sparingly.


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