Have you ever been in a conversation where you felt completely lost? Maybe it’s your first meeting at a new company and everyone is using corporate acronyms. You sit quietly trying to figure out the difference between an SGA and a CBIT and why PACER really is the best tool on the market to complete the yearly CWE. You can’t google these terms because they only exist internally. But you’re also not going to ask what they mean lest you draw attention to your ignorance. And so you sit there nodding your head and faking it, praying that no one asks you anything. Eventually you leave more confused than when you entered.
In this week’s episode of Persuasion, we’re continuing our deep dive into all things conversation-related by looking at how we use insider language to define the boundaries of community.
This “tech talk” comes in many forms. Sometimes, it’s jargon that only those within a certain profession or company can understand. Other times, it’s speech or terminology that’s deemed politically correct or reflects social consciousness. Still another kind of “tech talk” is slang, time-sensitive words that situate the speaker in a particular generation. (You know, those phrases that are already outdated by the time you google them. Thanks for nothing, Urban Dictionary.) And sometimes, “tech talk” can even come in the form of insider religious lanuage and “Christianese.” While words like sanctification and Trinity have meaning for those within the church, they don’t have much relevance to those outside it.
And this is the unifying thread of “tech talk”: Tech talk is language that has a particular meaning within a defined community but doesn’t have meaning outside it.
Of course, sometimes technical language is necessary to operate within a field of knowledge. A linguist needs to know the difference between a phoneme and a morpheme and a pastor really should be able to parse the doctrine of the Trinity at a certain level. Companies and systems often need their language to operate well, too. Insofar as tech talk facilitates our understanding and equips us to work together, it’s a good thing.
But tech talk can just as often become a barrier to flourishing, espeically when we use it to establish boundaries and designate who’s “in” and who’s “out.” Our use of jargon, technical language, slang, and even Christianese can become literal shibboleths—passwords that grant access to the group. And when we use tech talk this way, it fails to do the one thing that communication is designed to do: Draw people together in communion.
So why are we tempted to use jargon and technical lanugage?
Author Jason Freid says that “jargon is insecurity.” We use it to mask what we don’t know and insulate ourselves in safe spaces. In other words, technical language can be self-serving and policing other people’s language a way to dominate them. We use it because it gives us an edge over someone by signalling that they know less than we do. But communication should be about creating community and connecting with others. If our words create hurdles instead of bridges, it’s time to rethink them.
For me, this means figuring out how to translate the core of an idea to another person. But this requires truly understanding the idea in the first place. You may have a Ph.D. in physics, but the real test of your knowledge comes when you have to explain how an airplane flies to a five-year-old. Unlike adults who are often cowed by jargon, the five-year-old won’t give you a pass.
Building community also means prioritizing the person with whom I’m communicating. Instead of operating in my comfort zone, I must consider what makes sense to them. What categories, words, phrases, illustrations, and examples have meaning and significance in their context? How do they make sense of the world? And how can I translate this idea from my context to theirs? So whether I’m teaching Christian doctrine to women or explaining the latest social media platform to a senior citizen, effective communication begins with me.
And always, always, our words—technical or otherwise—must edify and draw us together in communion.