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Jargon: The Covid of Email

There is an infection spreading at your workplace. It is making everyone sick (where no one dies or legitimately suffers from a physical disease, this is a metaphor). The infection makes Phil the sales guy need to stay home and watch Netflix and order groceries online. It’s a sneeze of confusion that sends droplets from George’s home office to Meg from HR. Confusion abounds because Meg has been coming to work with the sickness for years, but now it’s slowing her down. Meg, in turn, infects her director. Before everyone on the planet knows it, the disease is a pandemic. It spans from industry to industry of smart, hardworking, educated folks, in tech, trades, education, and religious institutions throughout the universe. It is out of control. Simply staying home will not keep Phil from being infected with the virus of JARGON.

Let’s look at what jargon is, why jargon is a problem, how to check for jargon, and appropriate uses for jargon.

What is Jargon

Jargon defined without jargon: jargon is a specialized term used by a group that is difficult for outsiders to understand.

Jargon defined using jargon: jargon is special sauce terminology actionized within a particular bandwidth baked into a profession, which is often incentivized by technical language and sweet spot content that may be difficult for outsiders to level up with.*

The first definition is clear, concise, and readable for everyone. If you can stop using jargon in your writing, you not only make reading what you write easier for your coworkers you make writing easier for yourself.

The Problem With Jargon

Besides exposing unclear thinking, there are a few problems with jargon. Some problems are obvious, and some are subtle. Jargon is a problem because it can confuse everyone, even if your reader is a specialist.

  • Jargon is confusing and convoluted.

  • It decreases speed and understanding.

  • You might use jargon inadvertently because it is so confusing.

  • Jargon is not inclusive.

  • It can exclude and intimidate both outsiders and insiders (everyone).

  • It often excludes 2nd language learners.

  • It leaves out the new team members.

  • Jargon is context-dependent.

  • It is trendy and goes out of style “Cutting Edge” is now “Bleeding Edge” (gross).

  • The time, place, and audience change what jargon means.

  • Jargon can expose your lack of understanding.

  • If you are having trouble writing without jargon, likely you do not understand your subject matter well enough.

Application: Think about reading a legal document, like a home loan form. Unless you are in the mortgage industry, the writing is comically unreadable. It would take a long time, even if you are a fabulous reader, to understand one of those forms.

You do not want to slow down to read what your coworker is saying when he could have said it simply. There are no gold stars for making folks you work with stop reading to Google what “bleeding edge” means. Take time to think about your audience. Your reader’s time is what you should consider first when you plan your writing.

How to Check for Jargon

You are not immune to your industry’s jargon. To check for jargon, think about your writing before beginning by using conversational language. Imagine the person you are writing to sitting across from you. You are talking to them, not writing. (I’m doing that right now, I am imagining you and telling you all this as if you are right here at my dining room table. Yes, I do use the word “inadvertently” in daily speech, sorry kids…) Your communication becomes about the reader, rather than about you. If your reader understands, you seem smarter, not dumber. There can be a false sense of job security when you use jargon.

The Fix for Jargon

The fix for jargon is brutally easy, it’s the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is treating others how you want to be treated. It is considering the needs of others as you would consider your own needs.

Write like you are explaining something to your mom or an outsider. If you have a technical job, the likelihood that marketing or your boss’s boss will not be able to understand what you are writing about is high, if you use jargon. You will seem like, and be, a better communicator. If you are having trouble writing without jargon, likely, you do not understand your subject matter well enough. Take some time to think about writing for your audience. Your reader’s time is what you should consider first when writing.

When Jargon is Appropriate

Finally, there are times when jargon is appropriate but use them sparingly. Telling you jargon can sometimes be useful is no "free pass" to use it, unless you are a lawyer.

  • Jargon is appropriate in formal legal documents.

  • Also known as “legalese” (which is jargon).

  • Jargon is appropriate when it increases the reader’s understanding.

  • When writing with jargon, include a definition the first time you use it.

  • When absolutely everyone who is reading, understands absolutely all the jargon.

Application: An example is a 3rd-grade teacher meeting, where everyone in the meeting is a 3rd-grade teacher. Everyone will know all the same terms and using them will save time without compromising understanding. If there are 3rd-grade parents in the room, then no jargon.

Hopefully knowing more about jargon, and how to avoid it, will help keep the spread of jargon to a minimum. It might even keep Phil from wasting away from TPS reports and ARD inclusions.

*Most jargon is highlighted in italics

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