Mastering the use of jargon increasingly seems to be a key to building strong, creative teams and collaborative environments. In the past, I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to stamp jargon out of the language of teams I’ve led. Improperly deployed jargon can often be confusing, obfuscating the real meanings under the word or creating more conversation about the jargony bit than the actual topic at hand. George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language convinced me that using jargon has an ethical and power relationship dimension. When you use words that only specialists know, you (potentially) (deliberately) leave non-specialists out of a conversation and disempower them.
Most importantly, my skepticism of jargon also stems from a belief that jargon tends to make things static and close off avenues of exploration. In an earlier post, I wrote:
What I noticed, though, was a rush to put labels on ideas and capture the dynamic within an existing, perhaps widely known concept (value chain, purchase cycle, influencer strategy). The words were all useful, but they seemed to dampen the energy of the conversation – they didn’t tell us who was doing what to whom (or, more importantly for marketers with whom) or offer theories of why.
I suggested that we should avoid putting conceptual labels on dynamics during a brainstorm. That we should stick to people dynamics — getting inside people’s heads would get us to better ideas. Being inside people’s heads would give us a better handle on whether the idea was good or not.
If you have a very specific, precise word for something, you’re pretty much gating it off from the critical, heretical scrutiny that leads to invention and creativity.
My reaction against jargon is not quite a reflex, but it is a going-in assumption that I operate under. Stephen Fry, however, has me moving towards more balanced and more explicitly proactive approach to jargon with teams I work with.
Fry’s influence comes by way of The Ode Less Travelled, a quirky, nifty volume in which Fry encourages people to join him in a long-held hobby of his: writing poetry (for purely personal purposes). I picked up the book at Keats House while visiting London, all intoxicated by words and speaking and always interested in Stephen Fry. In the book, Fry makes compelling arguments for re-engaging in poetry (“verse is one of our last stands against the instant and the infantile”) but insists that there is no royal road. In distinct contrast to Allen Ginsberg’s horse-shit comment that anyone can play jazz, you “just pick up your horn and blow”, Fry is quite adamant that you don’t just put pen to paper and anything goes. You need to learn some rules — rules which have funny names like scansion, spondee, and trochee — but they’re worth learning.
In the process of encouraging people to learn difficult things, Fry also makes some interesting statements about jargon. First, he starts by rather harshly dismissing the reflexive dismissal of jargon (which clearly I took a little personally):
Only an embarassed adolescent or deranged coward thinks jargon and reserved languages are pretentious and that detail and structure are boring. Sensible people are above simpering at references to colour in music, structure in wine or rhythm in architecture. When you learn to sail, you are literally shown the ropes and taught that they are called sheets or painters and that knots are hitches and forward is aft and right is starboard. That is not pseudery or exclusivity, it is precision, it is part of initiating the newcomer into the guild.
I still believe that jargon is often misused as a way of being showy or keeping people out of the guild. However, I have been on a long series of jags about the importance of getting seriously good at a discipline, getting down on serial neophytism posing as generalism, and in general, going deep. So the above passage stopped me cold. Later, Fry softens the line but hardens the thinking:
most activities worth pursuing come with their own jargon, their private language and technical vocabulary. In music you would be learning about fifths and relative majors . . . I could attempt to ‘translate’ words like iamb and caesura into everyday English, but frankly that would be patronising and silly. It would also be very confusing when, as may well happen, you turn to other books on poetry for further elucidation.
Even tighter, he later adds, “no art worth the striving after is without its complexities.”
So, now I’m expanding one of my rules as a meeting or team leader from stamping out jargon to creating the right level of jargon. Bad jargon obfuscates meanings, establishes bogus power structures within a group, and often stamps out the nuance and possibility of exploration that can lead to creative thinking. On the other hand, jargon can provide the common language that every group, especially those in which people are collaborating across, between and within disciplines, needs.
One place to find the balance is in Nabokov’s characterization of jargon as “convenient and innocuous nomenclaturial handles.” Convenience and innocuousness are key: does the jargon speed the conversation? is it innocuous or does it call undue attention to itself? Most important, does it function as a handle and not a thing unto itself?