The impotence of jargon

The impotence of jargon

Read that again, it says impotence not importance.

We are inundated by it; it permeates our business lives, invades our personal time, confuses our legal agreements, destroys our confidence and leaves us bewildered. “It” is jargon. The use of jargon has ballooned out of all proportion to any possible shorthand or illustrative advantage it could provide. And yet we wallow in it, lap it up, spit it out. It has become the most serious barrier to communication that we have – and that at a time when clarity is a top requirement if we are to comprehend the technological age.

What is jargon? It is catch phrases that mean nothing but have become popular as a substitute for thought. There are millions of examples. Let’s take a few. “Hit the ground running.” For those throwing themselves out of aircraft and gliding to earth with the aid of a parachute it may be a good thing to do. Mostly I think it is intended to mean “start work as soon as we get there”. Can we then say that?

One of my favourite hates is “empower”. I am sure it is meant well but the idea that one human being has the god-like ability to empower another is frankly insulting. We can teach, train, advise, help, support, encourage but “empower”? I think not. As a mentor and coach I steer very clear from thinking I can “empower” anyone. I also get nauseous over “Corporate Values”. Companies do have values, of course – they are human standards applied to how people in the organisation behave. I have yet to see a corporation love.

“Best practice” comes in for derision, too. Beloved of the consulting industry it has become many a manager’s excuse for poorly defined process. Rather like “thinking outside the box” when we mean being creative or “drilling down” when me mean studying or “synergise” when we want to suggest cooperation. As for “low hanging fruit” as a substitute for “the easiest”, the less said the better.

Many jargon phrases have infiltrated into the day to day language of business. Even though they are imprecise people often get the gist of what they mean. But often what they mean to one person is very different from what they mean to another. And that is the danger of jargon. It allows sloppy language to confuse expectations between speaker and listener.

Jargon has another damaging impact on those who use it. Their stature is seriously reduced in the minds of their audience. And loss of stature means a loss of power and authority.

You do not have to be an English scholar, nor one of any other language, to speak plainly. The vocabulary of simplicity is saying what you think clearly and as briefly as possible. A good test of your ability to do this is when you are dealing with people whose first language is not the one you are talking to them in. They understand when you avoid using jargon.

If simple language can sometimes seem blunt to the point of being offensive it can be softened with “please” and “thank you” two social emoluments that have somehow been forgotten in our busy world. Too busy to be polite but not too busy to use confusing jargon.

Simple words, carefully thought about and clearly spoken would bring about the largest productivity improvement we have seen for a very long time.

They might even revive our stagnating commercial world.