Jargon or Shared Vocabulary?

Jargon can be very helpful. At its best, jargon is shorthand for a complex idea. It allows humans to communicate about new topics, niche topics and sophisticated topics. That is jargon at its best though. Jargon is helpful when both people understand the vocabulary. In fact, we might just call that a shared vocabulary instead of jargon.

Once both people understand an idea, it can be efficient to use a concise word to reference it. Close friends do this all the time. They reference a keyword of an inside joke and then laugh without any more explanation needed. However, someone who doesn’t get the joke would sit their awkwardly while those in the know laughed. The is the common scenario of what happens when someone uses jargon. The speaker understands it and the listeners don’t. Or at least, they don’t fully understand it.

Data Science and yoga both offer ample opportunities for jargon. As a yoga beginner, I find it very frustrating when an the instructor uses a lot of sanskrit. If you call it “chair pose”, I’ll remember this much better because you sort of pose like a chair. If you tell me to move into “Utkatasana”, I will waste time trying to remember what that means. More than likely, I’ll wait until some of the experienced people move into the pose and then copy what they did. Even worse, it’s discouraging. It reminds me that I’m still not part of this community.

The best way to use jargon is when it is a shared vocabulary. If you use it to someone who doesn’t understand the word, it should be to teach them. First, teach the concept. After all, that was the benefit of jargon – it’s shorthand for a complicated or niche topic. Then induct people into the knowledge guild by teaching them a word that summarizes the concept.

In statistics, Nassim Taleb found a large audience by explaining complicated topics simply. Instead of spending lots of time deriving the moments of a power law distribution (see how confusing that was?), he used relatable examples. He talks about the distribution of wealth or severe earth quakes. There are no equations, but there are lots of easy to understand charts and examples.

Why do people use jargon? There are three common cases that I see. (1) The first is when the person forgets what it’s like to be a beginner in the topic. Highly technical fields often do this to their experts. (2) The second is when the person is trying to communicate they are in the know. They might be self conscious about recently learning the concept. So they use jargon a lot thinking it gives them credibility. Masters of a topic are secure enough to not rely on jargon to convey the depth of their knowledge. (3) The final category is people who just thoughtlessly use the term. They aren’t trying to be impressive. I wouldn’t even say they are being lazy. Once you learn a good summary word, it can be hard unlearn it.

Brad Feld does a fantastic job of introducing people to the concepts and vocabulary of startup finance through his blog and book. Another great example is the “Tech Tuesday” series that Albert Wegner did on his blog, Continuations.com. Both of them teach concepts to novices. After explaining the concepts, they offer a vocabulary. They are inducting people into the knowledge guild not showing off that they are already in it.

I try to only use technical terms when they are a shared vocabulary. If the other person doesn’t share the vocabulary, it’s just jargon. If they have the time and interest in learning then I try to teach the concept, how it impacts them and, only then, the word to summarize it. The most important thing is to never use jargon to build credibility. The best way to build credibility is to respect the current vocabulary of your audience. If you teach them a useful concept, they will respect you more than if you use words they don’t understand.


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