What jargon really says about the speaker
New research demonstrates that high jargon use is driven by increased concern with audience evaluations over conversational clarity
“I would say that we have enough to digest in the near-term, and there’s nothing candidly in our sightline that would suggest that we’re involved in engaging anything that we’re going to acquire.”
— Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz (when asked if he was planning any new acquisitions)
The Oxford English Dictionary defines jargon as “special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand”. In business, every industry and company creates its own specialized glossary of terms. Learned and absorbed over time, these collections of words, phrases, and acronyms become the specialized language that signals identity and status to insiders and outsiders alike.
Though a part of everyday life, jargon is not often considered in the context of business research. This is a strange state of affairs given the ubiquitousness of specialized language in business. A new paper from Zachariah C. Brown (Columbia), Eric M. Anicich (USC), and Adam D. Galinskya (Columbia), however, provides a novel analysis of the jargon. The study provides insight into not just what jargon is but also the value it may provide in various settings.
The authors start by noting that jargon has three important features that set it apart from other types of everyday language:
It is used and understood by one group and not by others
The words or expressions can range from confusing to impenetrable to outsiders
It often replaces clearer and more easily understood terms
The third feature is of special interest to the researchers because they hypothesize that jargon is especially related to the status someone has within a group. Thus their study seeks to understand how the state of a member within a group impacts their use of specialized and arcane language, as well as how that use differs when speaking to insiders versus outsiders.
From the start, the authors make an important distinction between jargon and two other relevant constructs: slang and technical terms. First, slang is different from jargon, because it “emerges from social groups whereas jargon emerges from professional groups.” Moreover, “because jargon is associated with professions, it implies greater formality than slang does.” Second, technical terms are specific names given to things often for functional reasons:
For example, “in the context of solar system dynamics, the technical term “nutation” refers to short-period oscillations in the motion of the pole of rotation of a freely rotating body that is undergoing torque from external gravitational forces. Importantly, there is no reasonably succinct less formal, or broadly accessible alternative to using the word “nutation” for those wishing to communicate the technical definition of nutation.
In other words, a physicist using the term nutation for technical reasons is not the same as an executive bragging about their ability to “synergistically leverage strategic competitive advantages” or professors describing their research “as elucidating the antecedents of upright striding vertical bipedality on horizontal terrestrial substrates by non-human primates” — i.e., they study why primates walk on the ground. As shown in Figure 1 below, there is some overlap. Experts do sometimes need to use technical terms, but jargon is different in that it is used when clearer or less technical terms would suffice.
Figure 1. Relationship among technical terms, jargon and slang (Source: Authors)
Experiments and Results
For this research, the authors conducted nine different studies to understand what jargon is and how it works.
In one study, the researchers analyzed the level of jargon used in 64,000 dissertations and master’s theses. The search was not only to find the jargon but also to test any relationship between the frequency jargon and the status of the authors and their institutions.
In a separate study, the researchers asked 556 MBA students to join a start-up pitch competition with two classmates from their MBA program and to read a description of their start-up idea. They then had to pick between two pitches.
The high-jargon pitch read:
We plan to leverage the anticipated disruption in the retail furniture industry space and obtain a first-mover advantage by disintermediation existing physical retail channels and selling directly to customers online.
The low-jargon pitch read:
We plan to take advantage of the anticipated changes in the retail furniture industry and become one of the first companies to bypass existing physical retail channels by selling directly to customers online.
In a subsequent round of this test, a new MBA group was brought in, but this time status of participants in comparison to that of the audience was adjusted. Again, the goal was to determine whether and how status adjustments affected pitch selection.
In yet another study, participants took part in two-person conversations, in which one person played the role of an academic asked to describe her work to a layperson. In one version, the academic worked at a community college. In another version, the academic was a member of the faculty at an Ivy League university. Participants were shown the description below to help them prepare for their discussion:
My research focuses on non-human primates, commonly referred to as apes and monkeys. I currently have two research projects. The first focuses on upright, striding, vertical bipedality, commonly called walking on one’s hind legs. My work highlights that non-human primates exhibit bi-pedal locomotion, or two legged walking movements. They do this on both arboreal and terrestrial substrates (in trees and on the ground). I've learned that these primates ambulate (walk) differently on arboreal and terrestrial substrates and my research helps to elucidate (explain) the antecedents and consequences (causes and effects) of this behavior
My second project focuses on non-human primate metatarsals, commonly called the fingers of apes and monkeys. I specifically focus on metatarsal fractures, or broken fingers and toes. I’ve learned that primates without prehensile tails (tails that can grab things) will engage in pedal grasping (or grabbing things with their feet) when they have a metatarsal fracture.
Across all studies, the results were consistent.
In the first analysis, the authors found a positive relationship between lower status and higher use of jargon. Authors from lower-status schools “included more jargon in the titles of their dissertations/theses than authors from higher-status schools,” and this jargon “took the form of both complex language and acronyms.”
In the MBA test, the high-jargon selection rate varied by condition. Those in the lower-status condition chose the high-jargon pitch at a higher rate (40.8%) than those in the neutral or high-status condition. Indeed, the authors found that “lower-status participants selected entrepreneurial pitches that included higher levels of jargon compared to same and higher-status individuals.” Moreover, this link between low status and high use of jargon was consistent across the other experiments. For example, in another test where participants were placed in high-status and low-status law firms, the low-status lawyers showed a higher rate of jargon use than neutral or high-status peers.
In the academic discussion experiment, as expected, participants assigned to the low-status researcher role used more jargon terms than participants assigned to the high-status researcher role.
Indeed, across their nine studies, the authors found that the critical predictor of jargon use was the status level of the speaker.
Figure 2. Use of jargon by speaker status across six (of nine total) experiments. Error bars represent +/−1 standard error.
The authors’ analyses span multiple forms of jargon, including linguistic complexity, acronyms, and legalese. Digging deeper, the authors found that the primary force driving the use of jargon is the desire to increase their relative status, even at the expense of conversational clarity and effectiveness. Overall, note the researchers, “we found support for our core proposition that jargon use is a novel form of status compensation which we refer to as compensatory conspicuous communication.” Stated simply, for the low-status speakers, being taken seriously was more important than being understood.
As the lawyer and professor experiments noted, jargon is, on average, associated with higher-status professions. As the authors note: “many theories strongly imply that those who are higher in status, seniority, expertise, or tenure in a given professional organization are expected to and actually do use more jargon in general for communicative need and “linguistic inertia” reasons (they’re more used to hearing it so don’t even notice that it might not be normal for the audience).” Indeed, the authors note that jargon use may even increase when a high-status speaker feels their status is threatened or questioned in some way.
In reflecting on their findings, the authors suggest that it is possible that the relationship between status and jargon use is non-linear — e.g., an inverted U-shape. That is, “employees who possess extremely low levels of status and have not yet been fully socialized into the community (e.g., a new summer intern at a company) may be unfamiliar with the relevant jargon they could potentially use.” Those at the highest levels, on the other hand, “might address broader audiences and as such might avoid jargon in favor of more broadly accessible language.” High-status individuals might also use less jargon in order to show that by specifically not using jargon they possess higher status than those who do. Indeed, Warren Buffet is famous for his use of this strategy. Buffet not only avoids jargon, but he also informs his audiences that he is avoiding jargon in order to be better understood. (Of course, in Buffet’s case, his status is high enough that he has no need to signal it to anyone.)
Future research, notes the team, could look at how or when jargon use backfires and undermines a speaker’s message or broader communicative goal — something that could happen both inside and outside the group. Indeed, the authors note that “it is possible that in-group audience members may perceive jargon use by low-status members with a jaundiced eye.” That is, “jargon use may have the opposite of its intended effect and actually lower the status of the speaker.” After all, jargon, like other status signals, can have mixed effects on an audience’s social judgments. Indeed, in subsequent research to this study, the authors find that an audience might view a jargon-using speaker as more competent or want to associate with the speaker professionally (e.g., be a linked-in contact) but they may personally dislike the speaker more and find them more annoying, a status-signaling paradox noted by other researchers as well.
Jargon is an inescapable part of any organization, yet this study suggests that over-reliance on it may signal someone’s insecurity or lack of status within a group, company, or profession. Speaking from my own experience, the authors' findings ring true. I have the good fortune to connect with many researchers and senior leaders in preparing Thematiks posts, and the clarity that true experts demonstrate when explaining their work always strikes me.
For senior business leaders, the lessons of this study can serve as a useful coaching aid to help managers and colleagues who may have a tendency to overuse jargon in business settings. It is a clear reminder to them (and us) that status is best displayed through clear ideas and simple language rather than complex terms that may owe more to a speaker’s (or author’s) insecurities than to a lack of skill in effective communication.
Zachariah C. Brown, Eric M. Anicich, Adam D. Galinsky. Compensatory conspicuous communication: Low status increases jargon use. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Volume 161, 2020, Pages 274-290, ISSN 0749-5978, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2020.07.001. A free PDF is also available here.