The purpose of this article is to take a look at the nature of how lexicons lead to jargon and why we use them, and some examples of what this means and how it can lead to more effective, genuine communication.
Each of us has a number of social identities. For instance, at this moment I’m a student, server, entrepreneur, blogger and so on. We need these identities to have a strong sense of self-esteem. But these identities are only valuable to our self-esteem if they’re exclusive, respectable and strong. I’m a fairly new blogger so I don’t think I’m that good at it. From my perspective, it feels like it’s a fairly easy social group to join and I don’t feel a flush of pride when I tell others I blog. For these reasons having the identity of a blogger doesn’t lend me much self-esteem. But because I’m a talented University student, skilled server and so on I create a complex, rich sense of self-esteem from these many sources.
Now let’s take a random, fictional Doctor — Dr. Burns. Burns has practiced medicine for 20 years. He’s married but he’s never home and his kids think of him as their father, but not “Dad”. He’s never had time for hobbies, always working. Burns only really has the one strong sense of identity as a Dr. His social identity as a father, husband, athlete, hobbyist carpenter etc. are all weak. For that reason Burns relies solely on being a Doctor for his self-esteem, he’s even a bit insecure about that since he has no other strong identifiers or skills.
Let’s shelf Dr. Burns for a minute and explore lexicons. A lexicon is a subject or domain specific dictionary which has specialized meaning within that field. For instance “march” has different meanings in relation to its two lexicons: one as a month and the other as a means of movement within the military. Lexicons are natural and evolve as topics grow deeper and more complex concepts require words to summarize them. Like how an elevator pitch in the startup lexicon means problem + solution within 1 minute. But we say elevator pitch to “signal” that concept.
Many lexicons grow so complex and deep that they go beyond the general lexicon we all share and start to become “jargon” to those not in the community. For instance, a Doctor would say suture while I might say stitch in regards to using thread and a needle to close a wound. The Doctor is more accurate in his use of terminology technically but for general communication, stitch is much more appropriate. Jargon can leak into everyday conversations and that’s understandable. Some VC’s may tell their kids to “pitch” them on why they should stay up late. It’s when jargon is used as a signaling agent as in Peacock theory (plumage shows value) that it becomes an issue.
Let’s bring Dr. Burns back. So he’s at the grocery store and someone asks him “Hey Burns… what are you doing this evening?” He says work as he always does, and people lose interest. He starts to get a bit insecure. So he starts intentionally introducing Doctor jargon into his everyday lexicon to signal that he’s an important person using big, impressive, impenetrable words that don’t actually communicate a thing to the listener. Sound common?
In business school, we have tools, frameworks, models and more to summarize things. A PESTEL is more accurate a concept than a market analysis but if I say I’m doing a PESTEL to my 10-year-old brother it’s gibberish. But if I’m insecure and want to seem important, and wise that’s what I want. Right? RIGHT?
It can be very tough to not feel appreciated — to “dumb” down our communication to the understanding of the average person. But the current paradigm of needing to spend an entire year of your education learning the “lexicon” of a new field in order to start understanding it is ridiculous. Do you remember memorizing page after page of “definitions” before you even start reading the textbook? Or trying to speak with someone from a different domain and having no idea how to communicate what you actually DO?
My friends from University and I were talking about doing a comedy video on business/startup jargon about this after a good rant about an IofT app with an IPO in three months without any coding, or management skills and the idea is it connects mentors and mentees in a two-sided marketplace: comment if that sounds like something you’d enjoy. and we’ll make it!
In summary: Cut the jargon by recognizing what’s from your fields lexicon and what terms people actually understand and we from all the fields you don’t understand agree to do the same!
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Andrew is a design graduate student in Toronto who writes about leadership, design, and startups. Visit his blog Lead Boldly for exclusive content. Or say hey on Quora | Instagram | FaceBook | Twitter | LinkedIn.