Imagine you're hiring for an important position in your company and two candidates come in to interview. One peppers his sentences with jargon. The other speaks plainly in everyday language. What can you say about these two potential teammates from the way they choose to speak?
Your first impulse might be to view the candidate with all the buzzwords as more polished or intelligent, but be careful. A new study out of Columbia and the University of Southern California suggests that jargon isn't a sign of competence or intelligence. More often it just shows someone is insecure.
Your status anxiety is showing
To figure out just what was driving people to use jargon, study co-authors Zach Brown, Eric Anicich, and Adam Galinsky conducted a series of nine experiments.
One, for example, asked volunteer MBA students to present a startup idea for a pitch competition in which they were told they faced higher-status competition (established entrepreneurs), other MBA students, or lower-status competition (undergrads). The researchers found that the more anxious participants were about their relative status, the more jargon they used. Another study analyzing 64,000 dissertations found the same pattern -- the lower the status of the university, the more jargon the author tended to use.
"What our research shows is that jargon is a status signal, just like an expensive car or a tuxedo," Brown explained to Inc.com.
Is wielding language to show off an effective strategy? Just like owning a fancy car or handbag, fancy language lands differently with different audiences. "In fact, when a speaker communicates using the right amount of jargon for a particular audience, the audience likely doesn't even notice that the words being used are jargon!" Brown notes.
If you're an accountant speaking to other accountants, then using lots of fancy accounting terms is totally appropriate. It's only when technical language makes your communication less clear that it crosses the line into jargon. Once you're over that boundary, what impact will all your "leveraging deliverables" make?
Driving a slick sports car might make some people envious and others think you're a shallow showoff. Similarly, using jargon can be impressive (just ask doctors and management consultants, who often wield technical language to communicate their status). Other audiences, however, may see that all that jargon as a sign of status anxiety. And whether people are impressed or annoyed, your buzzword-filled communication is almost certainly going to leave them confused.
What's the practical takeaway for business owners here? The first is to be mindful of your own jargon use, of course, and make sure you use technical terms for the right reasons and at the right times. But the study authors also suggest other lessons for leaders.
If you suspect your company has an overall jargon problem, Anicich suggests you "conduct a linguistic audit of the words, phrases, and acronyms that are commonly used in the organization. Are these words and phrases really clearer and more efficient than alternative words or phrases that could be used instead? Are certain words used so exhaustively as to be rendered meaningless?" If so, it may be time to discourage your team from using them.
"Some hiring managers may be seduced by candidates who use lots of jargon," he also warns (and many A.I.'s used to screen résumés actively select for it). So be aware that when someone starts spouting all the latest buzzwords in an interview, they're not demonstrating confidence or knowledge. They're likely showing their status anxiety.
You might decide you appreciate their desire to impress, but don't be fooled into thinking fancier words are a sign of higher abilities.