The Three Social Functions of Business Jargon


(Image: aga7ta/Shutterstock)

(Image: aga7ta/Shutterstock)

Please imagine that you have been called to your manager's office. You have heard rumors of lay-offs. Fear and uncertainty fill the air and now you have been called in without warning. If you had to choose among being told that: (1) the company needs to rebalance its human capital, (2) the company is shifting to an off-boarding growth strategy, or (3) the company needs to streamline operations, then which expression would be most palatable to you?

Rebalancing, off-boarding, and streamlining are examples of business jargon. Jargon refers to professional, trade, or industry expressions. Typically these expressions are unintelligible to people outside of the community of practice. As it relates to the business community, here are five examples of jargon from Scott Adams' Dilbert strip.

So why do we use business jargon? We use it because, sociologically, language is a function of the human group experience. And to that extent, business jargon has three primary social functions. First, it serves as a boundary maintenance mechanism. Being cognizant of the latest and greatest phrase distinguishes the professionals from the non-professionals. Part of the human experience is that we feel affirmed and valued when we think that we have special knowledge. Making access to knowledge parochial can make one feel superior. It suggests that only members of the 'in-group' understand what is being said; everyone else is part of the 'out-group'.

Second, we use business jargon as a method of truncated but efficient communication. Instead of using elaborate sentences, often a short phrase is sufficient to share an idea in a manner that is easily understood by the listener. The implied assumption is that one should be smart enough to decode the metaphors and atypical grammatical constructions.

Third, business jargon serves as a weapon of mass distraction. There is an old expression that says in substance that 'If you cannot dazzle your audience with your brilliance, then you must baffle them with your bovine fecal matter.' Here is where the true value of business jargon comes into play. Part of the human experience is to be reticent about asking questions in a didactic setting for fear of being labeled as dumb for asking what obvious to everyone else. Hence, when one needs to create the perception of expertise (William Isaac Thomas, an American sociologist, said that "things perceived as real are real in their consequences") you simply pepper the audience with jargon. The fear of being labeled unintelligent is often greater than the need to know what one is saying. Hence, the majority of listeners will simply nod in affirmation that whatever you are saying is right to avoid admitting ignorance of the terminology. Thus business jargon fluency creates the illusion of having a brilliant mind and minimizes questions.

Status, efficiency, and the power -- these are the social functions of business jargon. By the way, which of the three expressions for being laid off did you pick? Here is a fourth option.

Well excuse me, but I must resume optimizing the web scraping application, removing the ash and trash from the data, anonymizing the respondents, and then surfacing the visual analytic results set to the stakeholders. You understand what that means, don't you? (SMILE) Please share your thoughts about business jargon.

Bryan Beverly, Statistician, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Bryan K. Beverly is from Baltimore. He has a BA in sociology from Morgan State University and an MAS degree in IT management from Johns Hopkins University. His continuing education consists of project management training through the ESI International/George Washington University programs. He began his career in 1984, the same year he was introduced to SAS software. Over the course of nearly 30 years, he has used SAS for data processing, analytics, report generation, and application development on mainframes, mini-computers, and PCs. Bryan has worked in the private sector, public sector, and academia in the Baltimore/Washington region. His work initially focused on programming, but over the years has expanded into project management and business development. Bryan has participated in in-house SAS user groups and SAS user group conferences, and has published in SAS newsletters, as well as company-based newsletters. Over time, his publications have expanded from providing SAS technical tips to examining the sociological, philosophical, financial, and political contexts in which IT is deployed. He believes that the key to a successful IT career is to maintain your skills and think like the person who signs your paycheck.

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Re: Joining the club
  • 5/25/2017 9:51:00 PM
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Jargon is all about fitting in. I can remember when I first went to grad school, and they even had their own jargon there. This was a history graduate program with jargon like dichotomy, historiography and other 50-cent words, but it was all still jargon to show you belonged.

Re: Joining the club
  • 5/25/2017 4:45:15 PM
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Then new people latch onto another term for a while, and the cycle repeats itself! We are destined to repeat our mistakes...

Re: Joining the club
  • 5/23/2017 12:52:11 PM
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@Maryam - You raise a good point - jargon is often a fad. A few people start using it, it gets hot and then it dies out.

Re: Joining the club
  • 5/23/2017 11:35:58 AM
NO RATINGS

It's a good strategy if we adopt every new word we read everyone will need a dictionary to understand us! Even when jargon becomes mainstream it is often misused and burns out in favor of the next hot term!

Re: Joining the club
  • 5/23/2017 8:59:36 AM
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@Tomsg - This article may be of interest. I presented this at SUGI 23 (1998). It addresses how technical people need to modify their interpretive frames of references when communicating with managers regarding the aquisition of SAS products.  Just copy this URL into your browser:

www2.sas.com/proceedings/sugi23/Training/p269.pdf

 

The take away from the paper is the concept that since the managers control company resources, then the burden is on the technical person to become bilingual.

Re: Joining the club
  • 5/22/2017 4:15:51 PM
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I hadn't though about the two languages, but you are absolutely right. The right jargon goes a long way towards fitting into a group.

Re: Joining the club
  • 5/22/2017 11:40:41 AM
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@kq4ym - Yep!  That is the basic sociological concept of 'in-group/out-group'.  I like your usage of the term tribalism; that pretty well sums up the social organization of humans. And even a tribe can be stratified by age or stage of life. For my 20-something daughters, the term 'hot' is a compliment of attractiveness. But to my wife, it is a symptom of menpopause. All are members of the Beverly tribe, but deploy the same word in different ways; intra-tribal homonymism as a function of age stratification.

So yes, whether tribe, clan, Brady Bunch, whatever term of aggregation one choses to use, entry into, retention in and departure from those units of social relations are managed by the vocabulary. And for many of us, if we don't know the real jargon, then we just 'fake it until we make it'. Although faking it would be 'grody to the max' and would cause the hearer to say 'gag me with a spoon' (Valley-speak 1980's). Of course approval would be 'gnarly, awesome, stoked and rad'.

Re: Joining the club
  • 5/22/2017 10:01:48 AM
NO RATINGS

I would categoize jargon as our attempt to "tribalize" oiur group. Most of human existance we've organized socitiees into an us and them situation. Families, neighborhoods, political parties, professsions...all are part of our sense to belong to an exclusice tribe or group. Originally tribalism was a way to protect our group from attack and to organize for mutual benefit. Jarganism is just another remnent of dividing "us" from "Them" and believing oten in our own greater importance over "them."

Re: Joining the club
  • 5/18/2017 7:59:24 PM
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@Tomsg - Your response reminded me that sociologically, blacks and I am sure many other people-groups/ethnicities engage in 'code switching'. One of the lessons taught to me is that one must master at least two languages - the language of the marketplace and the language of the dinner table. I think the job of the English professor is to prepare one to read, write and speak effectively for the marketplace. But in informal situations, slang, buzzwords, jargon are used to reinforce a sense of belonging and community. The code switching comes in by one being able to compartmentalize those languages and using them when most appropriate.

And to the credit of the English professors, there is a need for analytic professionals to communicate effectively; can't do it all via PowerPoint slides or bubble charts. In fact, analytics professionals should be able to have one set of skills when communicating with managers, another set when communicating with their peers and another set when communicating with customers/end users. It is true that managers love the jargon but when it comes time to respond to an RFP (request for proposals), the jargon won't cut the mustard. You need the lessons of the English professor to state your company's management, technical and cost positions in clear and succinct statements.

So thanks for your feedback! The need to target formal and informal language based on the audience was not something mentioned in the post. To that extent, it makes sense to ensure that we keep the academic rigor around so that analytic professionals can communicate at every organizational level. In fact, there have been countless discussions on the A2 boards about quants needing liberal arts exposure for communicating and critical thinking. Yes, the linguistic demands of the classroom may not match those of the boardroom. But maybe they should always be different. Yes - upon expanded reflection on your comments, mega kudos to the English professor.

Re: Joining the club
  • 5/18/2017 5:07:50 PM
NO RATINGS

Absolutely. Two different expectations go with the jargon. I think the English teachers are closer to the mark. many times the jargon is just there to avoid communicating something directly.

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