How might you describe your favourite board game? Mine is Chinatown, and if I was trying to explain what it was I might say something like:
‘Chinatown, right… it’s like… well, imagine… no, wait. Hang on. It’s like… a pure negotiation game with economic set collection and tile-based area control, except area control is something you can trade along with your sets because your sets are your tiles and your tiles are also your income’
And to a certain person, they’ll nod and say ‘Hrm, sounds interesting’. And they’d be right. Chinatown is great. Five stars of great.
To the average person, they’ll nod and say ‘Hrm, sounds interesting’ and then they’ll try to change the subject because you just burbled a whole pile of gibberish at them and they didn’t know what to do with it.
Every space occupied by people will develop jargon. It’s the way we communicate dense packets of information in a way that won’t take up the whole day. Computing is full of jargon. Medicine is full of jargon. Insurance, business strategy, academia – it doesn’t matter. We all have our own magical shibboleths that show we are members of a particular community and that we can communicate specialist data, at speed, with other members of that community.
- How many reffable four stars are you likely to be submitting as part of REF 2021? Don’t know? Well, you probably don’t need to – don’t worry about it.
- Does your i7 come with virtualisation enabled in the BIOS by default, and if not are you finding your sandboxed VMs are a little choppy? Don’t know? Probably not your concern, don’t worry about it.
For those that understood the first question, they’ve probably already gone a little quiet as they reflect upon the Research Excellence Framework documents they’ll be submitting for the 2021 cycle. They’re probably feeling a bit anxious right about now. That’s because the REF puts everyone in a pepertual state of anxiety. Sorry about that. A four-star publication represents something that is ‘world leading’, although increasingly the REF will value work that is ‘impactful’ on society as opposed to merely being published in a high quality venue. Research active academics will typically submit between two and four of their best publications over the assessment period as part of a package of submissions from a particular subject specialist unit within a university. A good result means higher standing on league tables and more research funding. It’s a big deal.
For those that understood the second, they’re probably not even sure why I’m asking – I mean, if you’re not regularly working with certain kinds of software it doesn’t even matter and most of us won’t be. But still – they understand the question and can appreciate it enough to know it doesn’t matter. Those working with virtual machines will already have formulated their view on the value of virtualisation, the relative benefits of an AMD versus Intel technology stack, and the resource offsets that go along with one approach versus another.
See how the explanations of the statements are much longer than the statements themselves? They don’t even cover the half of what the jargon does – there are all kinds of whorls and eddies of implication contained in these. Jargon is incredibly important. It’s high-grade, refined information delivered directly into the specialist centres of our understanding. It’s a vital part of communication in data-rich environments where specificity is important.
But those of you that didn’t – did you feel a little bit alienated there? A little bit like this wasn’t an editorial for you? Some of you won’t have felt that way, but a lot of you will have. That’s because Jargon has an unfortunate secondary effect – it separates us from them. Those that are ‘in the know’ and those that aren’t. It says ‘I’m talking to a particular audience, and you’re not part of it’. It’s rarely intentional, but it’s still something that presents a barrier to people starting in a hobby. When I describe Chinatown using the jargon of a board-gamer I am effectively talking newcomers out of playing. It all sounds so complicated even though I can teach the game in about five minutes.
To a fellow gamer, that’s an information dense description. Negotiation means it’s a discussion heavy game. Set collection means we’re trying to get as many of a particular kind of thing as we can, and if it’s economic set collection it means the money we get during the game depends on how well we’re doing with set collection. Area control implies there’s a shared board, and it being tile-based shows that we control the area with our set – the more we control the board, the better. But we can also trade those away so clearly sets are only part of the final game score because otherwise why would we trade them?
That’s a lot of information to convey in a couple of sentences and again – it doesn’t capture the implications. Sometimes jargon has an expontential information payload – a kind of nuclear fission reaction that occurs when sufficiently dense terms are banged into each other.
It’s natural when we are enthusiastic about something that we tend to rely on our most convenient tools and jargon is one of those. Otherwise we talk too long and say too little.
(Yes, I saw some of you roll your eyes at that. I am aware of my reputation, thank you. If you don’t like reading, there’s always Buzzfeed. This isn’t the blog for you – it’s a blog for people that like to read.)
Jargon is powerful, but it’s unwelcoming. It’s intimidating. It requires a common vocabulary which increases the chance of being misunderstood at approximately the rate it increases the information density. When there’s a mismatch between levels of experience with jargon, it breaks the flow of discussions as we have to explain the words we’re using as well as their content. Perhaps most critically, it’s also very ephemeral – jargon lacks memorability because it doesn’t have the ‘stickiness’ of natural speech. It’s something to be used carefully and sparingly, and always for the right audiences.
But the problem there is… what even is jargon?
When I did my PhD, the first study I did was on a kind of ‘electronic post it note’. It was a test piece of software for a larger software framework I was developing. When you changed your application, the contents of the post-it note would change. The idea was that I could have suggestions for using Microsoft Word that changed to instructions for Internet Explorer when the user changed the active application. I thought it would be useful for lowering the cogntive burden associated with following instructions for older users that had not grown up around computers. You can read about it in my dissertation if you’re interested.
Anyway, this was one of the most illuminating things I did during the course of my PhD because it slammed my eyes wide open as to how many assumptions I was making of my participants. I had an hour with each, and I had a couple of pages of tasks I wanted them to do. Things like, ‘change the font’, and ‘copy and paste from Word to Internet Explorer’ . I thought ‘This won’t take anyone more than about ten minutes so I’ll use the rest of the time I have to chat about their experience with computers’
Not one made it to the end of the instructions – not because they were stupid, but because I had written them using terminology I honestly thought was transparent when it wasn’t. Seriously, when I look at it now my mind boggles that I thought it was readable. I was talking about opening files on the desktop, formatting a document with various styles, indentations, headers, footers, and graphics. It asked people to do a find and replace. All of it seemed reasonable to me until I saw what happens when you sit down with actual users. I guess my mother had always been the ‘older user’ I had in mind, but I had ignored the fact she raised a computer nerd and was married to one for a long time. She got into computers herself when my father died, but before that she’d always been vaguely indifferent. People learn things by osmosis though and she was not representative.
We’re not the best people to be deciding what terms are and are not tractable for others. I’ve made mention before about the idea that many of the people with which I work with fall into the category of being WEIRD: western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic.
And while that’s not actually a very useful way of thinking of people (it’s clever more than useful) it’s certainly true that the company we keep tends to skew our perspectives. If our friends are gamers, it’s easy to forget a phrase like ‘deck builder’ is utterly alien to the wider populace. One of the things I do every time I talk to students about user design is point out that every single one of them is abnormal when taken as a data point in a wider society – none of them can act as a ‘representative user’ and most of their friends and families can’t either. Our experience is a distortion in the averages, with the strength of our social networks carrying that distortion far beyond our own gravitational field.
The thing is, we’re all ambassadors for our passions. Whether we want to be or not, we’re what people think about when they think about our hobbies. We’re either the punchline or the through-line, and we don’t get to decide which we are. We’re the cliché or the cheerleader. We’re bringing people in or we’re pushing them away. The way we talk about our hobby with people is a big part of that. It’s easy to get so caught up in what we’re trying to communicate that we neglect to consider how it’s being received. Sometimes we’re unintentional gatekeepers because we’ve forgotten that not everyone can understand the magic we see in the games we play. The enchantments only work if everyone knows the magic words. Otherwise it just looks like a conjuring trick.
For all of this I’m not saying that we should stop using jargon, or even that we should stop using it with newcomers. Jargon can be something that turns us into gatekeepers, but that’s just because we often use it carelessly. We can use it more mindfully – as a way to help someone feel like they are members of a community. As you probably know, I work in education and there’s always a difficult road to walk. If it’s done properly, education is the opposite of gate-keeping. It’s making sure that the knowledge you have gets transmitted in the most frictionless way. It’s holding the door open by demonstrating how a community behaves. ‘This’, education says, ‘Is how you become what you want to be’. Telling someone the incantation that shows they belong to a community is powerful. It’s inspiring. It makes people feel special. Pay attention to it – look for how people will find opportunities to use the shibboleths you teach. Look at how they find ways to work it into conversations with their peers. Look at how they use them, on occasion, to show off. The names we give things are important – myths are born from less.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as explaining terms before we use them. Jargon is kind of like our entry ticket to the chocolate factory. Explaining jargon can be interpreted as querying whether there’s some kind of mistake that led to someone having it in their possession. The default assumption that people don’t know the magic words can be just as unwelcoming as not caring they don’t. It’s condescending. It’s patronising.
It’s not even as simple as asking in advance if someone knows the word – many people will just say ‘yes’ because they’re afraid of admitting anything that casts them in a position of intellectual vulnerability when they feel they might be judged as a result.
Why is everything in life so complicated?
We don’t want to use jargon to people that don’t know it. We don’t want people to have to ask for a definition of jargon but we also don’t want to assume that someone doesn’t know the jargon we use. The problem really is there isn’t a hard and fast rule as to how to do this properly because all communication is contextual. It’s mostly a case of making sure everything you say has a ‘receive’ as well as a ‘transmit’ frequency. If jargon is really important to what you’re saying you should be paying attention to when people start to glaze over. You should be prepared to circle back and explain things if the convesation has gotten off the rails.
What we need to get into the habit of doing then is mindful jargon use. To know the context, and then to react to that context appropriately. Jargon isn’t inherently harmful, it’s just a sharp tool that occasionally inflicts damage because we wield it too readily. The first trick is knowing when we need to use it, and that’s less often that we might think. The second is to make sure that everyone involved knows the jargon, and that we are prepared to step in to teach people when they give off signs that they don’t. We need to make sure jargon-laden conversations are teaching opportunities because nothing says ‘I think you are part of this community’ than telling them ‘I think you’ll need to know this later’.