A WRITING TEACHER I HAD IN COLLEGE once told our class that if readers don't understand what we write, chances are it's our fault, not our readers'. It's our job, he said, to be understandable more than it is the readers' job to understand.
That advice has stuck with me since, and it applies not only with writing but with every form of communication.
That's why one of my pet peeves is jargon. Jargon is the enemy of good communication. It immediately throws up a wall between the communicator and his audience, one that the communicator can quite easily eliminate.
Jargon is inside code language, used by people who wrongly assume that everybody knows the secret handshake, and if they don't, well, then they don't really matter anyway. That or they mistakenly feel that they will sound smarter and more informed by throwing out a bunch of obscure acronyms and references that only they a small group of people on the inside understand. But instead of sounding smart, they are, at best, confusing to most audiences and, at worst, incomprehensible. It's kind of annoying, when you think about it.
Jargon lurks in pretty much every subculture we can imagine, whether it's a particular industry, avocation or other field of endeavor. It exists for a good and healthy reason: to save some time, to provide a shorthand among those who know a lot about a particular issue or field. In fact, I have no problem with people wielding jargon among their peers; they don't need to spell out everything to people who will understand what they're saying. It's like French people speaking French to other French people. Of course.
It's just when they start throwing around arcane terminology and, worst of all, acronyms that only the insiders would know. You hear this sort of talk a lot among government and military people (though they're not alone), but I hear it in business all the time. We've all got an acronym for everything. And unless you stop the jargonist and ask him to define his terms (something that most of us find intimidating to do because we think we sound stupid to ask), you are bound to miss something. Again, whose fault is that?
I would appreciate it if more of us thought a bit before we talk. Instead of tossing out an acronym -- at least on the first reference -- consider saying the entire term from which the acronym comes. It really doesn't take that much more time. Or instead of showing off by referring to the technical name of a rare disease, just tell us what the symptoms are first. Or instead of using fancypants business terms that everyone seems to be using -- like "double bottom line" or "Six Sigma" -- try explaining what those things are first.
After all, it is your responsibility as communicator to make the communication work.
P.S. I'd love to hear your examples of amusing jargon and jargon stories. Send 'em in. And I'll highlight some good ones from time to time, if I can.