The Good, The Bad, And The Jargon

L et us leverage our synergies in communications methodologies that will permit us to optimally liaise with key local stakeholders in order to build capacity within the fintech community to activate CHWs and reconceptualize peri-urban entrepreneurship.
Got that? Neither did I. And I wrote it.
Jargon. Why does it seem to be everywhere in the world of international NGOs and global development? Why is it that the people who work to improve the most basic human needs — clean water, food, education — sometimes can’t seem to talk like human beings?
I’ve long been curious about the language that development practitioners (read: people who work in this weird and wonderful space) utilize (read: use). I’ve edited out countless mentions of “sustainable paradigms” and “capacity building” and “mainstreaming” in first drafts. I’ve moderated panels that sound like the Jargon Olympics, where I’ve had to stealthily reread a participant’s bio while on stage to remember why they were invited to speak. I’ve even created a style guide for words, phrases, and images that I vow to never use within BRIGHT Magazine.
In other words, I have made it my personal mission to kill jargon wherever I see it.
J Jargon is defined as “special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand.” Difficult for others to understand. That’s the key. Jargon is purposely not inclusive language, but rather code to use around people just like you — people who have studied the same thing as you, who have sat in the same meetings as you, who often have the same outlook on life as you. Jargon signals who is in the group, and who is out.
To be sure, there are several instances when jargon is acceptable — and even preferred. If you’re with a group of public health peers, you best not confuse the prevalence of a disease (i.e., the active number of cases) with its incidence (i.e., the rate of new cases). Similarly, lawyers have developed phrases like “in escrow” and “eminent domain” for a reason. They are specific legal concepts that, if simplified, could change the meaning of a sentence.
Within groups of peers, jargon serves as shorthand. If you were giving a talk to a group of epidemiologists, it’s useful to not have to define prevalence 15 times. Specialized words and phrases help you move more quickly to the meat of your argument.
But jargon can quickly turn into a foreign language.
Perhaps the strongest argument against using jargon is that you can lose your audience. This is particularly true if you’re talking to a diverse crowd, whose eyes may glaze over as you lay out your stepwise plan to build a scalable solution to leverage blockchain technology to formalize agribusinesses.
However, I’d argue that even the most erudite audiences secretly prefer human stories to bloated technical paragraphs. Simple language does not necessitate simple concepts. As an unknown dead guy — maybe Locke, maybe Cicero, maybe Twain — once opined, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead.”
Specialized language keeps you stuck in a silo. If you speak entirely in medical jargon, you may never realize how similar, say, your struggles in your hospital are to a farmer’s in a cooperative.
Jargon can even generate suspicion. A 2010 psychology study found a “truth advantage” when people use concrete language, and conversely, increased mistrust when people speak in abstract concepts.
And not all jargon is alike. While “eminent domain” has an actual legal definition, some words and phrases found in the global development world are just strangely overcomplicated. When I was a consultant, we talked about how to “debottleneck” problems — or in regular people speak, remove obstacles. I can also help you reformulate a problem statement to have an optimal attitudinal fit with your core constituency.
I particularly dislike jargon that obfuscates. Last week, I ran a workshop on how to kill jargon, and I asked everyone to give me examples of jargon they’ve seen. One participant offered “TOC,” which to my literary mind meant “Table of Contents,” when in fact she meant “Theory of Change.”
J Jargon-laden prose is , to me, particularly unacceptable in international development circles.
First, by signaling who is “in-group,” you may exclude the very people you are trying to help. An organization may talk a big game about empowering local stakeholders in rural Myanmar through gender mainstreaming activities… but do the people they’re supposedly empowering feel the same way? How can anyone in a community feel like they can participate in a process when they are, in essence, being talked at in a foreign language?
Communication is a two-way street, and if people are serious about “community-driven participatory development” (yes, how ironic that that too is jargon), it needs to start with the language.
Second, development jargon can sometimes have a tinge of condescension attached to it. Take a phrase like “on the ground,” which essentially connotes a faraway place in a poor country with dirt floors and Coca-Cola in glass bottles. If you’re on the ground, you’re certainly not in a pristine office in Geneva or New York filled with suits and real movers and shakers.
I feel a similar hint of ego with phrases like “ beneficiaries ,” “empowerment,” and “giving voice to the voiceless.” These words all assume a blanket goodness on the part of the doer — the one who is doing the activity that (supposedly) benefits, gives power, or gives a voice. Meanwhile, the recipient lacks agency, mutely receiving benefits and empowerment and perpetually smiling. They’re poor but they’re happy, you see.
Language matters. The words we use shape the stories we construct of people and places, and ultimately, the policies and decisions we make. Words can perpetuate dangerous stereotypes of the world’s poorest places. Words can uphold myths of what it takes to “develop” a place.
Or if we are intentional in what we say, words can flip those narratives on their head.
I still don’t have a clear answer to why the world of international development includes so much jargon — especially since the sector primarily addresses the lowest rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When did food, water, and shelter become so complicated?
Perhaps jargon is a way to signal that this, too, is a professional space. Perhaps complicated language is the easiest way for people to feel justified in choosing a career at the United Nations instead of Goldman Sachs. Perhaps the language is purposely vague and celebratory, patting on the back anyone who decides to “do good.”
The etymology of the word “jargon” may serve as the best argument against using it. We often think of it as language reserved for the brightest and most educated among us. In reality, it comes from an old French word that means “the language and chattering of the birds.” It is unintelligible, unfit for humans, and best left in the trees.

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This content was originally published here.