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The benefits of workplace jargon

AIn no mood Running to the flagpole: The jargon gets far too bad coverage. Not the kind of jargon that involves using words like “flagpole” and “run-up,” but the kind that binds teams together. The kind exemplified by the term “small block”. In case you find yourself on a sub but not the crew, you’re a little guy.

A nub is a “useless body” – one that runs out of oxygen, food, and space without offering anything in return. A nub is someone who is not on the team, and the opacity of the jargon makes the word seem out of place. What this means, only the insiders know.

Helpful crew members all have names. This group of characters includes nukes, awls, shower technicians, and other bubble heads whose jobs may include caring for Sherwood Forest. (If you need to ask, you’re a little problem.) While submarines are unusual environments, using jargon to refer to specific practices, objects, and people is common in workplaces everywhere.

Some of this jargon is little more than slang. “Blue Goose” is what White House staffers call the traveling presidential podium. “The Grid” is the nickname for the British government’s diary of planned policy announcements. Physicians provide patients with a private vocabulary when they are out of hearing range. “dramatic statusThis is how some doctors diagnose people who don’t have much of a problem but act as if death is imminent; “cash for ashes” is what British doctors charge for signing cremation orders.

This shared language isn’t exactly noble, but it does serve a useful purpose – to create a sense of tribe and belonging. Each company generates its own specific dictionary.this General Electric Company The logo is also known as the “meatball” by those inside the industrial company. At digital payments company Stripe, hiring committee meetings are known as “figures.” ‘Fourth leader’ is what journalists focus on economist Call for lighthearted opinion articles. No one knows why; it’s usually the fifth of five editorials. But knowing is enough. This code grants membership.

Jargon can be spread for practical reasons as well as cultural ones. The aviation industry has common slang terms, from “deadheads” (off-duty crew members on commercial flights) to “George” (a common nickname for autopilots). But codifying knowledge in agreed ways can be serious work. Between 1976 and 2000, more than 1,000 passengers and crew were killed in accidents in which misunderstandings of language were found to play a role. Pilots use highly standardized and scripted terminology to reduce the scope for potentially fatal errors.

Clauses can emerge as a way to increase efficiency. A paper published last year by Ronald Bocconi’s Ronald Burt and MIT’s Ray Riggans looked at how jargon emerges naturally in groups. It describes an experiment in which volunteers are assigned to teams. Each team member is individually assigned a set of symbols, and one symbol is common to all. Team members must quickly recognize this shared symbol by sending each other messages describing what they got.

First, the team uses quasi-sentences and generic words to understand what they’re seeing (a symbol “looks like its legs are kicking”). Soon everyone on the team was calling him “The Kicker” or “The Kicker.” As the round progressed, the default agreed vocabulary enabled the team to identify common symbols faster and faster. Different teams use different forms of jargon for each symbol, but the effect is the same: everyone knows what it means, and things get done faster.

Jargon may not help. Confused terms make the criminal justice system more threatening to both victims and suspects. Doctor-patient conversations are better when everyone understands each other. One of the reasons management jargon draws so much ire is that it often replaces some really good work. No one is baffled when they hear the phrase “I’ll talk about it later.” A lot of people do hear the phrase “let’s put a needle in it” and wish they had a sharp object on hand.

In other words, there’s a lot of useless crap out there. But the fact that the jargon emerged spontaneously and repeatedly shows that it has its merits. In the right circumstances, it can help build a culture and serve as a useful shorthand. If you think all jargon is worthless, maybe it’s time to step back.

Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
Why Employee Loyalty Is Overrated (June 8)
How to Beat Desk Rage (June 1)
Why are corporate retreats such a luxury? (May 25)

Plus: How the Bartleby column got its name

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