Research shows we use buzzwords to impress our colleagues—but they often have the opposite effect. HBR explains.
Whether it’s synergistically leveraging strategic competitive advantages or disintermediating retail channels with bleeding-edge technologies, workplace jargon is a staple of the modern organization. Yet few things are more universally annoying. People love to complain about jargon, saying that it’s unnecessary, empty, pretentious, or hard to understand. Organizational researchers use it to measure employee perceptions of “bullshit” at their offices. Many industry and government leaders criticize it or have even tried to regulate against its use. Despite these complaints, however, jargon continues to thrive in most professions. Whether you’re a consultant, nurse, truck driver, or librarian, you probably hear and use a fair amount of jargon. But if jargon is so disliked, why is it so common?
To answer this question, we must first define what we mean by “jargon.” Jargon refers to terms, expressions, or acronyms that are specific to a particular industry or professional group. Each industry has its own jargon, and it’s used in place of more easily understood, less-professional alternatives. Like fashion, it’s often faddish, changing seasonally (“cutting edge” became “bleeding edge” after “think outside the box” became a cliche). It can include metaphors, figures of speech, acronyms, or repurposed terms (for example, “a 30,000-foot view,” “EOD,” or “disrupt”).
While people sometimes use the terms jargon and slang interchangeably, they’re not the same thing. Slang is informal and used in more social settings. They are related, however, as both slang and jargon convey information not only about what the speaker is saying, but also about the speaker themselves.
Jargon thrives in workplaces because it fulfils a number of fundamental needs. In some contexts, it produces efficient and accurate communication. For example, air traffic controllers speak with a phonetic alphabet instead of letters for this very reason (for example, reading a plane tail number as “Alpha Bravo12” instead of “AB12”). Jargon can also facilitate social bonding between speakers and audiences by reinforcing a shared identity. Google, for example, helps new recruits learn “googly” terms during their onboarding. Jargon is also a linguistic tool that people can use — consciously or unconsciously — to signal their membership in a professional community. For example, using the term “ink stick” instead of “pen” might signal current or former membership in the U.S. military.
In our research, we examined another motive for using jargon: Insecurity and the desire for status in one’s profession. Research has shown that status brings influence, material benefits, and psychological well-being to those who have it, whereas lacking status leaves one vulnerable to misfortune. People often compensate for a lack of status by trying to signal that they have more of it than they actually do. They may conspicuously advertise their accomplishments or highlight their memberships in prestigious groups. For example, lower-status academics are more likely to include “Dr.” or “PhD” in their email signatures than those with higher status. Experiments have also shown that people who feel insecure about their status are willing to spend more on visible high-status consumer products, but won’t spend more on products nobody will see.
Building on this work, we explored whether having lower professional status motivates people to use more jargon in the workplace. We focus specifically on professional status (and not general socioeconomic status), because each profession has high- and low-status members within it. Across a series of studies, we confirmed that jargon sometimes functions like a fancy title, a conspicuously displayed trophy, or an expensive, branded watch — people use it to signal status and show off to others.
By Zachariah C. Brown, Eric M. Anicich & Adam D. Galinsky
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