Buzzwords, management speak, legalese. Whatever you call it, jargon is everywhere in the modern workplace. And most workers agree that it’s bad for business.
Jargon is the specialized terminology used by particular groups of people. It’s meaningless or difficult for people outside the group to understand it.
Have you ever had to look up a word your co-workers often use? Were you afraid to ask what it meant because you didn’t want to seem ignorant? You’re in good company. Nearly two-thirds of workers around the world say they’ve had the same experience.
The trouble with jargon
Clear communication is one of 9 essential skills for success in the modern workplace. Too much jargon results in failure to communicate. We should all aim to use words that clarify rather than confuse.
Jargon complicates communication
Some jargon terms are overly wordy. Saying leverage instead of use—or synergize instead of work together—might make you feel part of the in-crowd. But the trade-off is clarity.
Sometimes jargon is confusing as well as wordy. For example, what does thinking outside the box really mean? Is it a call for creativity? Or for cost-saving measures?
Sometimes jargon is a disguise for what you’re really thinking. For example, when people say let’s take this offline, they might mean “let’s talk about this later.” Or they might really mean “we’re never talking about this again.” The jargon might seem gentler, but the message is confusing. Why not just be honest?
Jargon can make people feel left out
At a time when most workplaces are striving to become more diverse and inclusive, jargon has the opposite effect.
Jargon creates in-groups of people who know the lingo. It excludes people who don’t understand it. Exclusion can have serious effects, and it can limit people’s opportunities for advancement.
The generation gap
Jargon can create barriers between generations.
Among younger workers, about half of Generation Z and Millennials say they feel left out at work. To try to fit in, they often use words they don’t understand. That makes communication frustrating for everyone.
On the flip side, older workers sometimes don’t understand the new terms their younger colleagues bring to the workplace. While language is always evolving, social media and online communities have increased the pace of change. As a result, some people may not be familiar with terms like these:
- Tl;dr: Too long; didn’t read.
- Slay or kill it: Do something impressive, or do a great job.
- Be the CEO of [something]: Be the best at something (not the actual CEO).
And then there are emojis, which are a whole different (type of) conversation!
Hybrid and remote workers
The language barrier created by jargon is particularly frustrating for people who work offsite some or all of the time. 71% of remote and hybrid workers say that jargon makes them feel left out. By comparison, just 54% of onsite workers feel that way.
Jargon is stressful for offsite workers because communication is more than words. Gestures, tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions don’t come across in online communication. They’re also hard to read on video calls—or when communication isn’t one-to-one or face-to-face.
When words are all you have, and the words are jargon you don’t understand, it’s no wonder you feel left out.
A double language barrier
In an increasingly multicultural and globalized workplace, many workers have learned English as an additional language. These workers may have a tough time deciphering corporate buzzwords that originated in English.
Workers from different cultures may also find North American cultural references and expressions unclear. For example, knock it out of the park comes from baseball. Slam dunk comes from basketball. Both expressions mean “to do something exceptionally well.” But this would not be clear to someone unfamiliar with North American sports.
Jargon can decrease productivity
In a 2023 survey by LinkedIn and Duolingo, 58% of workers said that jargon is overused. They also said that misunderstanding jargon can lead to mistakes.
Trying to figure out jargon:
- Wastes a lot of time
- Creates a lot of stress
- Makes it harder for newcomers to learn their jobs
- Makes workers feel less involved
Productivity suffers when people waste time figuring out terms they don’t understand—and struggling with tasks that weren’t communicated clearly.
Jargon can make people look bad
Jargon can make people feel like they belong. But it can also reflect badly on people who use it.
Jargon can make people seem annoying, dishonest, or full of themselves. It can also make them seem desperate to fit in.
Jargon can be offensive
Jargon can come across as culturally insensitive or sexist. That’s unprofessional. It hurts people’s feelings, and it makes the speaker look especially bad—even when no insult was intended.
Here are some examples of inappropriate jargon:
- The casual use of powwow to mean a quick meeting disrespects Indigenous culture.
- Saying low on the totem pole to mean someone or something with lower status is both disrespectful and inaccurate. In some First Nations communities, carvings that are low on the totem pole are in a position of honour.
- The expression open the kimono (meaning to reveal a plan or share insider information) is both racist and sexist.
- Drink the Kool-Aid (meaning to buy into or believe in something without critical thought) is insensitive. You can make the same point without bringing up the horrific Jonestown massacre.
So why is jargon so common?
Specialized language often serves to create a sense of belonging. Once enough people adopt an expression, others start using it—consciously or unconsciously—to mark their identity as part of the group.
Some people use jargon because they feel it makes them look more intelligent, experienced, professional, or up on the latest business trends. Others see jargon as a more efficient way of communicating. For example, it’s quicker to say EOD than end of day and KPI instead of key performance indicator.
Sometimes people rely on jargon out of habit. More than 1 in 4 people who use jargon in the workplace say they don’t even notice they’re doing it!
Jargon you should avoid
Want to cut back on your own jargon habit? Need to decode what your co-workers are saying?
Here’s a cheat sheet of terms that people find most confusing and annoying:
- Boiling the ocean: Trying to do something impossible
- Herding cats: Trying to organize an uncontrollable group
- Ducks in a row: Having things well organized
- Move the needle: Make a noticeable difference
- Run it up the flagpole: Test something out to see how people react
- Blue sky thinking: Open and innovative thinking
- Keep me in the loop: Inform me about ongoing decisions or actions
- Low-hanging fruit: An easy task or target
- Throw spaghetti at the wall: Test a number of ideas and see what works
- Circle back: Return to discuss an issue later
Learn to say what you mean
Ultimately, using jargon makes it difficult to communicate authentically.
The best communicators consider their purpose, respect their audience, and choose words that everyone understands.
So don’t hide behind jargon. Learn to say what you mean. And say it simply, clearly, directly, and respectfully.
Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.