In the summer of 2009, 71-year-old journalist Chrisser Maher opened a letter from her bank. Titled Personal and Private Banking — Keeping You Informed, the mailer was designed to update Maher on some fairly routine changes to her account’s terms and conditions. But she struggled to understand any of it. Each line was packed with needlessly complex jargon, creating an impenetrable wall of text for anyone without a finance degree. Most people would have tossed the confusing letter in the recycling bin—but not Maher. For more than 30 years, she had been campaigning for simpler language in everyday life and her bank was about to feel the full force of an irritated linguist.
Maher redrafted the letter, replacing complex terms like maximum debit balance with simpler terms phrases like the most that can be owed. Alongside the redrafted letter, she included a withering redress to the bank’s customer communication team. "The leaflet needs much more thought if it is to be understood by your customers," wrote Maher. "As it stands, it should be renamed 'Keeping You Confused.'" A spokesman from the bank later acknowledged their customer communication was confusing and promised to simplify their language in future—but very little changed.
Maher believes that confusing language isn’t just annoying—it’s dangerous, too. "Families are losing their homes because of jargon-filled credit agreements," Maher told The Wall Street Journal in 2009. And she was right. When Maher received the mailer from her bank, it was the height of the Great Recession and hundreds of thousands of homes still lay empty after financial lenders foreclosed. Many evicted tenants had not understood the complex language used by their lender.
While most of us believe jargon is unavoidable, an increasing number of language experts like Maher think something else is going on. By scattering our language with indecipherable jargon, we create exclusive workplace languages understood only by those on the inside. And those incomprehensible workplace languages aren’t borne out of a desire for efficiency. They are a means to create an us and them, a powerful elite on the inside who understand the conversation, and a powerless group on the outside who merely nod along. From banking and finance to social work and software development, linguistic barriers exist in all industries—but they don’t need to.
A brief history of jargon
Idiosyncratic workplace language is nothing new. In 1825, Richard Roberts patented the first-ever automated spinning machine. It worked completely independently, spinning strands of cotton into long fibers suitable for textile work. It was a brand new device and the industry didn’t have a word for it so Roberts dubbed it the self-acting mule.
Roberts’ self-acting mule is one of the earliest documented examples of workplace jargon—but it was far from the last. The Great Depression brought new jargon associated with workers’ rights. There were wild-cat strikes, absenteeism, and alienation. In the 1950s, management science birthed phrases like organizational culture and run it up the flagpole. The financiers of the ‘70s and ‘80s brought language dripping with aggression. Financiers ditched big uglies, performed dawn raids, and swallowed poison pills. When the nerds took over in the 1990s, terms like bandwidth, hack, and download slipped out of Silicon Valley and into the average office.
While we’ve gently needled jargon-laced language for decades, we’ve rarely treated it as a serious problem. In fact, we’ve usually dismissed it as a byproduct of efficiency. After all, why would you waste time saying spinning machine that can operate without a human when you can say self-acting mule? But recently, linguists have begun pushing back on the historic justification.
Efficiency or tribalism
In the early-1990s, business psychologist, Jan P. de Jonge, worked with the Amsterdam Police as a police officer. He recalls that much of his and his colleagues language was punctuated by jargon. Whenever there was a serious incident, police dispatchers would call de Jonge to the police central control room using the codeword Kamer 14. “In some cases, it made it easier to talk to colleagues, whilst the public was around, many of whom wouldn’t understand the conversation because of all the jargon,” de Jonge says in an interview with Dropbox. For de Jonge, jargon was an efficient and safe way of communicating in crowded places—but it’s rarely that straightforward.
“On the surface jargon looks like an easier way for a subgroup to communicate. But in reality it's often a way to differentiate between insiders and outsiders,” says anthropologist and cultural communication expert, Andrea C. Hummel, in an interview with Dropbox. “In many industries, the amount of study, dedication, work, and networking it takes to land a coveted position results in a perceived need to keep non-members out of the loop.” For example, many managers use a system called Objectives and Key Results—or OKRs—for goal setting. Yet, both Objectives and Key Results and OKR are significantly longer than a plain English alternative like goals. “It can be compared to a secret society having its own language, through which members are instantly recognizable to each other,” says Hummel.
Hummel explains that this trend may be driven by tribalism, a natural process for humans. “Tribalism is the natural human instinct to band together for safety and support,” Hummel explains. “Earlier in the history of our species, it was literally a matter of life and death to know who was part of your tribe and who was the enemy.” But now, we are less dependent on each other for survival. And the instincts that once protected us now act to undermine our organizations.
Exclusive workplace languages create arbitrary walls, excluding people simply because they aren’t inside the tribe. “The dynamics of tribalism in society may give rise to exclusion, inequality, domination, discrimination, discord and segregation, even in the world of work,” explains de Jonge.
But public opinion is starting to change. “In more recent times, people have been less comfortable with jargon or language they could not understand,” Hummel says. “That can be partly attributed to the fact that Western countries, especially the US, place a premium on equality and homogeneity. Any perceived barrier, including jargon, becomes something to fight against and break down.”
For organizations that do dismantle their linguistic barriers, the potential benefits are huge: improved communication, increased collaboration, and, ultimately, higher productivity.
How do we fix workplace language?
Linguists have lamented the decline of language for centuries. On June 17, 1946, The New Republic published an article from George Orwell, who blasted the apathy around language usage. “Our civilization is decadent, and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse,” wrote Orwell. “It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to airplanes.”
While reversing significant cultural and linguistic changes seems daunting—and to Orwell a borderline impossible feat—some organizations are fighting back—and they’re succeeding.
In some cases, all it takes is clarity. On July 16, 2015, UK Prime Minister David Cameron took aim at governmental jargon, issuing an internal memo to the UK Civil Service. He explained the problem: civil servants may understand their fields but the politicians they were briefing may not. And he provided a solution: use “brief, simple, human and jargon-free” language. At the end of his memo, Cameron charged civil servants to do better. “We rely on you to cut through the complexity and cut out the jargon,” he wrote. “Please be brief and use straightforward language.” And it seemed to work. Over the next few years, governmental language became noticeably simpler.
However, simply asking politely won’t always work. On January 28, 2000, straight-talking, old-school executive, Greg Dyke, took control of the BBC, the UK’s public service broadcaster. And he didn’t like what he saw. Innovation and enthusiasm were at an all-time low and staff seemed content to reel off buzzwords rather than get anything done.
After enduring two years of widespread nonsense and jargon, Dyke resolved to fix the problem. During an all hands meeting, he held up a yellow card, similar to the sort soccer referees use in matches to signal fouls. On the card, Dyke had written “Cut the crap and make it happen” and he promised to brandish the card at anyone who stymied progress through copious workplace jargon. Dyke started handing out the cards to his colleagues and encouraged them to do the same.
While brandishing bright yellow cards may have worked for Dyke, it’s probably not the best idea for most organizations. At best, it’ll generate some light laughter. At worst, it’ll antagonize the culprit. But Dyke’s core idea is a good one. We need some way to warn people when they stray into jargon and snap them out of their linguistic slump.
Baking language reviews into retrospectives is an effective option. During reviews, have people think about their language during key meetings. Ask them whether they ensured their language was understandable to everyone present and whether they used jargon only when it was necessary. “Most people aren’t actually aware that they’re using needlessly complex language,” says de Jonge. “Forcing them to be more mindful of what they are saying and, in hindsight, critically review what they have said provides an opportunity for them to self-correct and be more effective.”
Inclusive workplace language
Some level of jargon in the workplace is inevitable—after all, Richard Roberts needed to call his automated mill something. But we must avoid the slippery slope of workplace nonsense. Although it’s tempting to use buzzwords, we must ask ourselves whether our language serves a purpose or is simply there to solidify our position within the tribe. And if our language is merely a means to mark ourselves as insiders, we must acknowledge that we’re building meaningless and disruptive walls in our organizations.
Unlike many organizational challenges, obtuse workplace language has a simple solution: talk like a human. When we pick apart our workplace jargon, remove the meaningless terms, and get back to basic language, we can build inclusive environments that embrace our colleagues instead of excluding them.