28 June 2014

Why Jargon Makes You Sound Ridiculous

Think Soldiers who use jargon to excess sound like tools? Well, it turns out you have research on your side. Yep, scientists have discovered that people who try to sound technical probably shouldn't be talking.

Okay, that's the Soldier in me trying to break it down Barney style. It's really called the "Schutz Test of Comprehension," and it says that real understanding is arrived at through three phases: simplicity, complexity, and profound simplicity.

So when a brilliant scientist understands something really well, she can explain it in simple terms. When she doesn't understand it well, she uses jargon to mask the deficiency.

At this point everyone is thinking of a person who uses jargon to sound smart. But what does he sound like?

That's right. An idiot.

My assignment here in Afghanistan requires me to browse operational reports that might read something like:
Now, these acronyms make things read more efficiently if you understand them. If you don't, then it's a bit like wearing a pair of wool briefs on a 10-kilometer ruck march-- irritating.

What's more irritating than that? Sorry, I'm out of Jonah Goldberg-style similes (a web-page full of which I was going to link to, but alas, none exists as far as I can tell. Someone should really work on that.)*

But the point is one that we all know, and it is irritating, which is that there are three circumstance under which people lace their declarations with jargon:

  1. When they want or need to communicate more efficiently, as when a soldier calls in for a medevac or close air support. Often, success hinges on seconds saved in those circumstances, and reliability sometimes requires highly routinized communication.
  2. When they want to impress people.
  3. When they don't quite know what they are talking about

Perhaps people acting in 2 and 3 think they are acting in 1, but the fact is that it is more than annoying, it can be counter productive. For one, most circumstances aren't life or death, and to make proper judgments about them others need context and description. Templated talk generalizes and tends to fill in missing information. It also omits pertinent stuff that doesn't fit into the template.

Templates inherently proscribe description. They prevent people from explaining things in new ways. Sometimes that's fine, but what if the thing is new, and doesn't neatly fit the ways that people talk about the stuff with which they are more familiar?

That's getting a little off topic. Sometimes jargon is useful. Think a police dispatcher or the general in the melodramatic and campy military movie preparing to launch a nuclear strike.

The guys who uses jargon is really saying that he fantasizes about being that campy guy. Take it from Schutz, you don't want that guy anywhere near nukes. And as I said, he probably shouldn't be talking anyway.

*Example: "Though some things, like gas station burritos, only emerge as mistakes after you try them."

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