Conspicuous consumption has a bad reputation, for good reason. It’s about relying on flash rather than substance, status symbols rather than earned admiration.
We can often tell when someone is trying to impress us with flash. Most of the time, we lose respect for that person.
According to a study into the use of jargon titled “Compensatory Conspicuous Communication,” the same thing may happen when people use jargon in their speech or writing. The research suggests that people sometimes use jargon as “a communicative form of conspicuous consumption.”
The authors of the study start by offering one of the best academic definitions of jargon that I’ve seen [italics are mine]:
Jargon is “socially learned words or expressions used by a particular profession or specialized group, which are used in place of more broadly accessible and less formal alternatives, and are difficult for outsiders to understand.”Zachariah C. Brown, Eric M. Anicich, and Adam D. Galinsky
A word or phrase can be jargon if others don’t understand it and if there’s a simpler way to describe it.
Why, then, do we turn to those words?
Jargon as a status symbol
Sometimes, we use this language by accident. We forget what it’s like to not know what the words mean. (That’s the Curse of Knowledge in action.)
But sometimes people use jargon to signal belonging to an in-group. If you know the jargon, you’re in. And industries rich in jargon often have high status.
The less secure people are in their status and belonging, the more likely they are to revert to acronyms, complex sentences, and hard-to-understand jargon. This happens even when they write or speak to people outside their industry, who are not part of the “in-crowd” signaled by the language.
The researchers conducted several tests to compare the use of jargon by people in low- or high-status situations. For example:
- They collected thesis titles from candidates from low- and high-status graduate schools and analyzed them for complexity and acronyms.
- In another study, they invited MBA students to participate in pitch competitions. Then they manipulated the students’ sense of status and noted whether they chose descriptions rich in jargon.
- In live conversations about arcane topics, researchers tinkered with the participants’ perceived status and analyzed the words they used.
In each case, they found that people in lower-status situations were more likely to choose acronyms and jargon.
This report also includes a candidate for the understatement of the week, about academic writing:
“Academics have long been critiqued for using less readable language than may be necessary to communicate their ideas.”
Your ten-dollar words and insider acronyms may signal your own insecurities.
Are you focused on the reader, or yourself?
The study doesn’t offer a proven remedy, but I have a suggestion: focus on serving the needs of your audience.
Yes, this is yet another case in which to apply servant authorship.
When you worry about broadcasting or inflating your own status (whether consciously or not), you are more likely to reach for acronyms and specialized vocabulary.
This tendency presents two dangers:
- Outsiders are likely to feel left out when they encounter unfamiliar terms.
- Insiders may suspect or sense that you’re trying too hard.
Jargon is a terrible tool for demonstrating your status or expertise. Let your bio communicate your expertise.
Earn status and respect from the strength of your ideas and the crystal clarity of your expression.