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What's the Point of Business Jargon?

A new survey from American Express OPEN highlights why—and just how many—employees use jargon in their offices.
July 10, 2017

Business jargon. It may seem like BAU (that’s business as usual), but the widespread use of jargon may be causing a lot of confusion—not to mention eye rolls. But what kind of implications does that have for businesses?

The 2017 American Express OPEN ‘Get Business Done’ Survey sheds light on the state of business babble. A full 64 percent of American workers use jargon at least two to three times a week, according to the survey, and more than one in four (28 percent) American office workers say they use jargon every day.

In fact, 88 percent of respondents admit to pretending to understand office jargon—even when they really have no idea what it means. But that doesn’t stop them from throwing around business buzzwords: Nearly half (47 percent) of these in-the-dark workers say they use jargon words or phrases frequently or very frequently.

The Downsides of Business Jargon

Some business owners say that the unchecked use of jargon can create misunderstandings, erect barriers and hurt office morale. “What is that doing for the objective you have for your business of having everyone on the same page? You may be undermining yourself without even realizing it,” says Angela Barbash, co-founder of ReValue, a financial planning firm in Ypsilanti, Michigan. (Barbash, like the other business owners interviewed in this article, didn’t participate in the survey.)

Unchecked use of jargon and the miscommunications that result can lead to all sorts of problems, says Barbash, from clients having inaccurate expectations to team members feeling insecure or not fulfilling a task the way you want them to.

I try to build an environment of accountability so that we’re all working hard to help each other eliminate jargon.

—Angela Barbash, co-founder, ReValue

In finance, some jargon is unavoidable, especially terms that have a specific regulatory meaning, such as “asset allocation,” explains Barbash. Financial planners are required to create asset allocation plans for clients, detailing what portion is invested in stocks, bonds or other categories, so there is no avoiding the term. “But what we can do,” she says, “is explain to our clients that we’re talking about what percent of your money goes into what buckets. We try to use tangible examples and illustrations.”

In other cases, Barbash admits, the jargon is more voluntary—or automatic. To guard against that, she encourages clients to stop her if she lapses into financial-speak. “When I sit down with clients, as part of setting the stage, I tell them to stop me anytime I use a term they’re unfamiliar with. I’ve been at this stuff for so long that I forget some of it is jargon.”

She enlists her team in the effort as well. “I try to build an environment of accountability so that we’re all working hard to help each other eliminate jargon,” she says.

“Financial jargon serves to both isolate and confuse a lot of people,” agrees Catherine Berman, co-founder of CNote, a savings and investment tool targeted at women. “How many people get the word ‘yield?’ How about saying, plainly, here's how much you'll make—period."

Why Do People Use Business Jargon?

There are different kinds of jargon, of course. There’s useful jargon, such as highly industry-specific terms that help teams move efficiently. “If you’re in the medical profession, there’s jargon and you’re expected to know it,” says Amy Pearl, the founder of Hatch Innovation, a co-working space and incubator in Portland, Oregon. “It can be efficient, but it also creates outsiders and insiders.”

Then there’s the kind of jargon that has little use other than to impress or confuse. According to survey respondents, the top 10 most ridiculous business jargon terms included "synergize," "net-net" and "Let’s parking lot this."

So why do people use jargon? Some people believe that it makes them look in-the-know. Using jargon can make them feel professional or smart, or even cool, as nearly a quarter of workers (23 percent) aged 18 to 24 reported, according to the American Express OPEN survey. But others feel awkward or embarrassed, including about one in four male office workers (27 percent).

Others use jargon as an evasion technique: The #1 reason financial service workers use jargon is to dodge questions, with more than one in three (36 percent) financial workers saying that this is why they use jargon terms.

But jargon users beware: Your value-added vocabulary may be the butt of somebody’s joke. Some people use jargon to test their co-workers—more than a third (35 percent) of respondents and 43 percent of millennials use jargon to poke fun. At Hatch Innovation, says Pearl, the millennial employees even created a channel on the company communication tool to share jargon memes they find particularly amusing.

The trouble is, jargon is so pervasive it has a way of creeping into language, and many people aren’t even aware they are using it—40 percent of American office workers fall into this category, according to the survey.

“I’m guilty,” says Rod Loges, president and founder of One Degree Capital, a small-business lender in northern Virginia, and a self-described jargon junkie. “I have been trying to change that.” After some ribbing from colleagues and puzzled responses from clients, Loges says he came to the conclusion that he had to clean up his act—or at least his language.

“I finally realized that speaking plainly, clearly and concisely is the better way to go. I think a lot of people hide behind it,” he says. “Too often customers don’t understand the jargon. The more clear we can be, the more comfortable they are in working with us.”

However, like kicking any habit, going jargon-free is not easy. Loges has let his co-workers and advisors know that he’s trying to kick the habit and asked them to help—something his colleagues are more than happy to do, he says. “They call me on it.”

Photo: Getty Images
Survey Methodology 
The American Express OPEN Get Business Done Survey findings are based on a survey conducted by Morar Consulting fielded across the US between May 30th – June 5th, 2017. For this survey, 1,061 employees were asked about their views regarding “jargon” words usage, distractions, idea barriers and office personalities in the workspace. The study targeted employees who work in an office of 5+ people in multiple industries. Respondents were recruited through a number of different mechanisms, via different sources to join the panels and participate in market research surveys. All panelists have passed a double opt-in process and complete on average 300 profiling data points prior to taking part in surveys. Respondents are invited to take part via email and are provided with a small monetary incentive for doing so. Results of any sample are subject to sampling variation. All data points were rounded for the purposes of reporting.