The Write Stuff
Insiders and Outsiders
By Alan Crawford,
If lawyers used everyday language, an embarrassing truth would be revealed. We’d all learn that anybody can do a lawyer’s job and that it’s only their secret language that conceals this fact. That’s not completely fair, of course, but there’s a smidgen of truth to it. Every profession develops its own vocabulary, and as David Vallance writes, the use of such otherwise incomprehensible words and phrases isn’t just a way to save time.
“By scattering our language with indecipherable jargon, we create exclusive workplace languages understood only by those on the inside,” Vallance argues in a Dropbox blog. “And those incomprehensible workplace languages aren’t born out of a desire for efficiency. They are a means to create an us and them, a powerful elite on the inside who understand the conversation, and a powerless group on the outside who merely nod along. From banking and finance to social work and software development, linguistic barriers exist in all industries — but they don’t need to.”
Anthropologist Andrea Hummel says that the amount of preparation necessary to get a job in a prestigious field “results in a perceived need to keep non-members out of the loop.” The result is like a “secret society having its own language, through which members are instantly recognizable to each other.”
I first noticed this lamentable tendency when, years ago, I worked for a public relations firm. The younger and less experienced my colleagues were, the more determined they seemed to be to adopt the language of our clients. They loved nothing more than talking the talk, which — they seemed to believe — made them sound authoritative and knowledgeable.
What they failed to realize was that in appropriating the client’s jargon, whether in writing or in speech, they were shirking their chief (and maybe only) real duty. They were forgetting that they were working in public relations and that they needed to express their ideas in terms readily understood by — yes — the public.
What Vallance calls “workplace language” isn’t just incomprehensible to people who aren’t card-carrying members of a guild; it is actually off-putting.
It erects barriers when what we need are bridges.
Annoying Word of the Month: Relatable. A few years back, a column I was writing for a magazine killed my monthly morsels of wisdom because — an editor claimed — it was not sufficiently “zippy and sound-bitey.” The fact that the subject was summaries of serious medical research, making it zippy and sound-bitey was a tall order, but I’m not bitter, am I?
If such criticism were offered today, I’m pretty sure the editor would have said my little gems weren’t “relatable.” And the word isn’t just annoying in itself; it’s annoying because its use signifies an annoying trend in writing — and in thinking.
Writers these days labor mightily to be relatable, but what strives to be appealingly real and personal and even fun ends up sounding not only phony but also exactly like everybody else who is trying to make this supposedly adorable impression.
Bloggers like to include throwaway lines that remind the reader that they’re not fussy or unapproachable. They tell you their dogs’ names, whether or not what they call their pets has anything whatever to do with the matter at hand.
They like to let you in on their supposedly guilty pleasures. “I love chocolate,” they say, and then, two paragraphs later, add, “Did I tell you I love chocolate?” Frankly, I really don’t care whether they love chocolate, especially when telling me that they do gets in the way of the point they are trying to make.