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
  • 5/31/2017 11:58:33 AM
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Seth I make the distinction between technical language and jargon. Technical language such as used in medicine or technology are part of the science. Jargon I consider more of the fad like terms that we have all seen over the years that come and go.

Re: Joining the club
  • 5/30/2017 4:15:12 PM
NO RATINGS

Jargon does serve many functions.   Walk into a hospital or tech department and it's like they are speaking another language.

I once attended a conference in a field I had no experience in and I could hear all these phone conversations that I could tell were in English but I had no clue to what they meant.

Jargon also can be used to take the emotion out of a sentence and be ambigious. i.E. "We've decided to move in a different dirrection." 

Re: Joining the club
  • 5/30/2017 2:05:46 PM
NO RATINGS

Data doctor you are right in some ways we all never graduated from the high school clubs--now we just use business jargon to determine who will belong and who is an outsider. Thankfully the internet makes it easier to join and saves everyone the "what does that mean?", question that many are too afraid to ask!

Re: Joining the club
  • 5/28/2017 5:22:03 PM
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Yes, and interesting how we take another group's catch phrases and slang to give a new meaning to for "our" group.  Kind of a "one upsmanship" to outdo the outsider group and continue to make our group unique and in our own mind's "superior."

Re: Joining the club
  • 5/27/2017 7:58:06 PM
NO RATINGS

Good point about jargon use in social circles Maryam, come to think of it that is where most first meet this method of communication.

Re: Joining the club
  • 5/27/2017 7:53:21 PM
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Isn't jargon also known as "buzz words" ?   I see this alot when someone is trying to act like they understand a topic when they really only understand it from a surface perspective.

Re: Joining the club
  • 5/27/2017 6:21:57 PM
NO RATINGS

Impactnow, good point. Back in the old days, there was no jargon dictionaries on the internet, and you had to sit and listen to the jargon for a while to catch the lingo. Or not. Depending on what type of person you are.

Re: Joining the club
  • 5/26/2017 11:29:04 PM
NO RATINGS

Very true whether in school or in business and even in some social circles. It's all about fitting into a certain club. Thankfully the internet makes the process easier for those wanting to join!

Re: Joining the club
  • 5/25/2017 9:51:00 PM
NO RATINGS

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
NO RATINGS

Then new people latch onto another term for a while, and the cycle repeats itself! We are destined to repeat our mistakes...

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