The mortifying reason we’ll never give up office lingo


Last weekend the BBC released an unexpected clarification.

“CHIS, if you are wondering, is a secret source of human intelligence,” said an advertiser at the end of the first episode of the short story Course of action detective drama series.

It was good to hear. Almost 10m people had watched the show and judging from Twitter, many were, like me, bewildered by the ruthless jargon its characters had thrown out, especially the many mentions of what sounded like “chizz” or maybe “spunk.”

“Sorry to ruin your party leader,” said a copper in 40 seconds, but he had just received “a call from a manager at CHIS submitting information”. “We can’t keep it on the DL,” said another, “only if we have a CHIS inside MIT.”

Even for the British, a nation of pub quiz trainpotters who gave the world the jigsaw, it was all a puzzle too far.

“Mother of God. So many acronyms! tweeted a viewer. “Like wading through cold alphabet soup,” sniffed a Television critic.

But here’s a prediction: if Course of action paws, it won’t be because of the jargon. Tedious plots and misinterpreted actors, perhaps. But now that we viewers know that a CHIS is a snitch and an MIT is a murder investigation team, we’ve crossed a crucial line as to why office lingo manages to get in the way. both unbearable and unstoppable. We have become initiates and frankly we love it.

University research has said it for years, point out this working jargon can make us feel closer to each other and easier to understand – eventually.

When I first joined the Financial Times, I was taken aback by the way people spoke. “It’s on the second front, but we could also put it in the cat flap,” one editor might say.

Translated, this means that a mini version of a story that is on the front page of the businesses section inside the newspaper can be placed at the bottom left of the front page, with an image, for readers know it exists.

The cat flap was not to be confused with the “birdcage,” another version of the same thing at the top right of the first page, above the list of “memoirs” – shortened mentions of stories to the interior. And both are different from the “skyline,” an information board at the top of the page that tells readers about other things in the newspaper to entice them to buy it, and the “splash,” the main story in first page.

Once you get the hang of it all, you can say something to someone faster and more accurately than if you try to do it without the internal shorthand. I’m sure the same sometimes applies inside the police force, the military, and other infamous repositories of jargon. The problem arises when crazy jargon is deliberately used to obscure the meaning. “We properly assess support roles” may sound better than “we fire office assistants”, but it does not inspire trust or respect.

Yet a recent study suggests that there’s another, more embarrassing reason why the lingo persists: we like to use it to show off, especially when we don’t feel safe. American researchers discovered this after asking a group of MBA students to imagine they were entrepreneurs competing with other start-up founders for venture capital funding.

The students received two descriptions of their business. Both documents contained the same basic information, but one was jam-packed with buzzwords like “disintermediation” and “leverage” and the other was not.

Can you guess which one the students chose when told they were arguing against successful MBA graduates, rather than modest undergraduates? Indeed, they were much more likely to choose the jargon-scrambled terrain when they felt they had less status than their rivals. Worse, when researchers analyzed 64,000 submissions, they found that authors from lower-ranked universities were more likely to insert acronyms and jargon into their titles than those from more sophisticated colleges.

The conclusion, I fear, is obvious. No matter what we say, we will never give up on the jargon. And anyone who thinks otherwise should immediately begin to capitalize on a deal for a paradigm shift around the thought leadership space.

pilita.clark@ft.com

Twitter: @pilitaclark





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