There's More to Business Jargon than Meets the Eye

2021-03-31 ~1000 words

I suspect meetings at most American companies are full of jargon. There’s company- or industry-specific jargon: abbreviations or nicknames for common ideas (sometimes this is extended to the naming of internal teams as well). While frustrating to newcomers, these terms and phrases typically have a fair amount of value. Shorthands for industry-specific concepts are useful, both in time savings and added precision.

A good example is MAU, monthly active users. Investors care a lot about who is using a product regularly, so this probably comes up regularly in Silicon Valley communications – both with the investors and within a company, as leadership pushes MAU as a proxy goal. By giving an idea like this a concise name, many different parties can communicate quickly while still being fairly confident they’re discussing the same idea.

On the other hand, there is a whole other class of jargon, perjoratively termed “buzzwords”. It’s been empirically proven that on any given day in the US, at last nine corporate executives will speak the following sentence (without the slightest hint of irony): This quarter we’ve encountered some headwinds on our journey of driving value through superior user experience, but by leveraging our right-to-win and thinking tactically, we can still deliver against our objectives. The first thing newcomers typically notice about this lexicon is that, in contrast to the first type of jargon, it is more verbose and no more precise than a translation to plain English; in fact, for all but the buzzword-indoctrinated, it’s significantly more difficult to extract meaning from.

This kind of intentional obfuscation wouldn’t fly in one’s personal life. If you told your family you would “connect with them later” because you “don’t have bandwidth” “at this time”, they’d call you out for being obnoxious and weird. Hopefully, at least. So why talk this way in the workplace?

I’ve given it more consideration than it deserves, frankly. I think the two best theories are:

  1. Obfuscation of meaning makes it harder to hold someone accountable for their incorrect predictions, insensitive opinions, or legally-dubious statements. This is fundamentally about asymmetry in terms of costs/benefits when speaking publicly: saying something useful brings much less upside than saying something you regret brings downside, so the goal is to say as little as possible while still appearing to be saying something.
  2. Demonstrating an ability to speak skillfully in this language is a signaling mechanism – it proves you’re an insider in the industry. In certain fields, it’s fairly easy to measure competence in or before an interview: technical skills like programming can be tested, and a portfolio of artwork or writing samples can be perused. But in softer domains, like many in the business world, skill is very difficult to measure and hiring managers rely heavily on proxies instead. One easy proxy is the ability to “speak the language”. This theory is supported by the prevalence of buzzword jargon in a field like consulting but the relative lack of it in software development.1

I personally subscribe to a combination of theories 1 and 2, but the point is that there’s clearly some value that speakers think they get out of talking this way.

However, I want to suggest two reasons why avoiding jargon might be a better policy, beyond simply appealing to my own personal distaste:

  1. Many buzzword-users underestimate the extent to which this practice sends a negative signal to certain audiences (especially technical ones) and in informal settings.
  2. Canny listeners should – and probably do – add some sort of “discount” to their assessment of ideas put forth this way, as an adjustment for the way logical flaws can be hidden by the opacity of the speech.

To the first point: those furthest from the bureaucracy are likely to view buzzword-laden speech with suspicion, an indication that the speaker is out-of-touch with their field and dialect. In the same way it can demonstrate insiderness, jargon can also quickly alienate audiences that don’t generally participate in it.

The second, the “jargon discount”, is a little more nuanced. As a listener, if someone uses language like this, you can assume they don’t want you to fully understand their ideas – perhaps because those ideas are bad. Maybe it’s not the ideas per se, but the reasoning behind them, or the incorrect facts being hidden by those statements. Maybe the person actually hasn’t done the work they claim they have, or hasn’t researched the topic they’re offering expertise about. One way or another, their choice to disguise their thoughts should make you somewhat reluctant put your faith in them and their ideas. And thus, when the tables are turned and you are a speaker, you should state your ideas clearly if you think they’re good. (But if you know your ideas are bad – by all means, cover them in business-speak. Godspeed.)

Candidly, I’m not sure these downsides outweigh the upside of jargon. Evidence suggests that many (most?) participants in the corporate structure believe they don’t. But it’s worth remembering that we won’t find the best ideas until we let them shine through; by promoting a culture that values clear, concise communication, we can have a real impact on the innovativeness and effectiveness of our organizations.

  1. Buzzwords still get tossed around somewhat in software development – even though coding skill is fairly straightforward to assess – but one could make the case that they’re largely used to demonstrate managerial or strategic skills, which are quite difficult to test. ↩︎