Why you should cool it with the corporate jargon

September 28, 2011, 2:24 PM UTC

Could this conversation happen in your office?

“The CST is writing an LOP by EOD.”

“We don’t have the bandwidth for that now.”

“Yeah, but think about the ROI!”

For many white-collar types, the answer is a grimace-inducing yes. Life in corporate America is riddled with jargon, acronyms and other crimes against language. We make fun of them — filling white boards with the worst examples — then go right back to talking about “onboarding” someone, as if we’re starring in our very own Dilbert cartoon.

Why do we do it?

“There’s an internal pride of having your own little language,” says Michael Crom, executive vice president and chief learning officer at Dale Carnegie Training, which runs training sessions for companies to help employees communicate and perform better. People like to think, “I know something the outsiders don’t know,” he says. Especially in a harsh economy, it’s nice to feel like you’re part of a tribe of people who’ve got your back; people who speak in the same tongue as you.

But while ripping off a string of acronyms at a weekly staff meeting seems harmless enough, communication experts warn against giving into the temptation, even with co-workers. Here’s why:

1. You probably hired someone in the last six months.

Unless your new hires go through a hazing ritual where you explain all your company’s acronyms and phrasing quirks, they can be in the dark for a while, even if they use the acronyms themselves. Think about it — you use the “cc” function on email every day, and yet how many people under age 30 know what it means? (Carbon copy, ask your parents). The biggest problem for a manager is that there’s a chance that your new hires will be too embarrassed to ask you to explain.

“If I’m sitting in a meeting, and someone uses some jargon, and I don’t understand what it is, am I going to put up a hand and say ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying?’” asks Sandra Folk, Toronto-based founder and director of The Language Lab, which provides online writing training. Probably not, which can lead to subpar results.

2. Jargon is imprecise.

What does it mean to be “out of pocket” for the day? Does that mean you will be out of the office and won’t be reachable by phone or email? Are you doing some serious thinking about company strategy and hence don’t want to schedule any meetings? All are reasonable statements and so there’s no need to be vague, and there are plenty of reasons not to be if you’d actually welcome an email response to an earlier question.

Rather than talking about “external stakeholders,” saying who these people are reminds you why you care about them. How can you “move forward” if your assistant doesn’t know what that means? Do you want a phone call or meeting scheduled? Do you want a contract in your inbox by Monday? “If it’s not clear, then you have to spend more time figuring it out, and time is money,” Folk says.

3. It becomes a habit… and then gets you in trouble.

Using acronyms and jargon mindlessly among “internal stakeholders” is one thing, but eventually, you’ll find yourself talking to someone else. And then it’s easy to forget that not everyone lives in your little universe, or wants to. Communication “is not about you, it’s about the listener,” says Jodi Glickman, author of Great on The Job. “It doesn’t matter what you say, it’s what the listener hears.”

Use office acronyms that make perfect sense to you with your mother-in-law and she may think you’re a jerk for talking in a way she can’t understand. Or a potential client may become angry enough about having to ask you what a “CST” is that — even though it means a client service team, and is about serving her — she decides to go with a different vendor who’s not so condescending.

Crom says his organization has come up with ways to stamp out the worst abuses internally. At a Dale Carnegie company gathering a few years ago, people staged a skit laden with jargon and acronyms. The company’s management wanted employees to “realize you could go for many minutes without ever using full words,” says Crom. “The point was to get them to use real words. Customers don’t really want to hear jargon, they don’t understand it.”

To root out office jargon, Crom suggests creating a lunch fund, where people fine themselves a dollar for every language offense. The more you catch each other, the bigger the lunchtime party you can throw.

And finally, managers need to set a good example. “The best attorney doesn’t explain a document to a client in legal terms. He explains it in a way a lay person understands,” says Glickman. “A really great doctor does the same thing.” The best business leaders, likewise, speak and write in ways that move people to do things, rather than ponder what exactly “onpassing” means (apparently, it’s short for “passing this on”).