“The enemy is noise. The goal is clarity.” – Jon Stewart in a 2020 New York Times interview
We create new terminology to shortcut, simplify, and abstract complex ideas. We find new ways to say things we’ve always said to feel efficient, look smart, and create shared culture. These words and phrases are what I call jargon. And while some of it can be benign or necessary for daily life and work, it can also be harmful. Like weeds in the garden, jargon disguises itself, grows quickly, and steals from the nutrients flowers and plants need to thrive. Left unkept, weeds will overtake the garden.
The Jargon is Pervasive
I started working in the consulting industry in October 2017 at a Long Island-based firm called Hedgehog. Firms like these have an affinity for obscure names, which is probably rooted in an aspiration to be like other tech companies – Google, Yahoo, and so on. Hedgehog primarily focused on implementing and managing Sitecore (a content management system) for a set of clients. Almost everyone in the firm was a software developer or supporting role. I was, however, one of two strategists focused on marketing and content.
Marketing is a subject that is especially rife with jargon. From the insider lingo to endless acronyms, a short conversation with a marketer will reveal that the majority of their vocabulary is jargon. “If we double-click into our funnel, we’ll see our inbound leads from niche PPC campaigns result in a higher LTV and lower CPA.” I’m not entirely sure many of them know what they’re saying anymore.
I left one weirdly named company for another – Skookum – in August of 2018. I was hired to be a product strategist, which sounds abstract enough to mean whatever you want it to. In my second role as a “strategist,” I decided to try to define what this is. The simplest explanation for strategy that I came to is the process of setting policy and making decisions with the best information available. This definition gave me personal clarity. I make decisions about products. What’s more accurate is that I inform the decision-making process for my clients regarding their existing or new products and services.
At Skookum, I learned more jargon in a short period of time than I would have ever imagined. There was all the internal jargon pulled from various speciality areas: design, user experience, product management, behavioral psychology, philosophy, economics, and computer science. Then, every client’s industry – healthcare, financial services, manufacturing – and their teams’ various backgrounds.
I lived every day of the first 6 months at Skookum in a jargon-dissecting bootcamp. I’d ask questions as much as possible. Write down others. Use context clues to fill in the blanks. Make too many assumptions. The title of this essay comes from the nickname I gave my boss’ office after a four-hour client conference call: The Jargon Garden. In a thicket of abstract concepts and cross-industry terminology, it’s no wonder we needed four hours to come to shared understanding.
Jargon Reinforces Culture
Vernacular and phrases signify culture – micro cultures even. The words you choose to use mean something more than their surface definitions. We do this with and without thinking about particular choices, especially once we are embedded in a specific culture.
In the digital strategy, customer experience, and design communities, there is power in knowing key ideas and the terminology backing those ideas. It means you belong to community. ‘Jobs to be Done’ is a popular concept to understand why customers/users use a company’s product or service. ‘Design Thinking’ is a methodology for solving customer challenges. The ‘Innovation Readiness Assessment’ is a tool that our team uses to determine if a client’s organization is set up to innovate. The list goes on.
It’s customary to use this kind of jargon in every day conversation without considering whether the people you’re speaking to understand. In fact, if they don’t understand, that’s their problem. If they want to be part of this culture, they’ll educate themselves. Every industry does this. In fact, every group of people with shared purpose does this. They create language around their culture to include some and exclude others.
Some weeds are actually quite beautiful and useful to nature: Black Nightshades, Creeping Charlie, Plantain, Queen Anne’s Lace, Milkweed. They provide support to their surrounding ecosystem, aiding organic matter growth, cover to birds, and food for insects. Without milkweed in the eastern United States, we would lose populations of Monarch and Queen butterflies. It is important for these weeds to have a home in our environment.
Though a weed may look beautiful, it can also be quite damaging and pervasive to its surrounding. Sometimes you have to pull weeds. They can overtake landscaped areas and garden beds. Weeds can both belong in our environment and be detrimental in certain contexts. This is true for the jargon in our every day working lives. They have their place. Yet, they can be pervasive and negatively impact the surrounding.
We should pull jargon out of the places where it does more harm than good. This isn’t always easy. The relentless pursuit of clarity demands it from us. Jargon can cause us to lose sight of the ideas, problems, and reality we’re facing. It doesn’t just exclude some, it excludes most. It becomes inhibiting noise, reducing our capacity for clear or quick thinking. Our goal should be clarity.