People Use Jargon To Make Up For Their Low Standing In A Group

By Matthew Warren

Why do business people promise to “reach out to KOLs” when they could simply say that they will contact leading experts? How come judges sometimes remark that they will hear trials “in-camera” instead of just “in private”?

As infuriating as it can be, jargon actually performs a social function. By definition, jargon refers to language used by a particular group of people, in the place of more accessible words and phrases. And although that can make it frustrating and confusing for people not in that group, if you are a member then it can help signal to others that you belong. People may also use jargon as a way of displaying their expertise.

But according to a series of studies published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, those who are of low status within a group are also predisposed towards jargon-filled language. Zachariah Brown at Columbia University and colleagues found that these people appear to want to compensate for their lowly position by using language that is often associated with high status.

In one study, students doing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) were told that they were taking part in a competition to pitch a start-up idea. They could choose between two different descriptions of the start-up to submit: one which was full of jargon words and phrases (e.g. “obtain a first mover advantage”), and one which used equivalent plain English phrases (e.g. “become one of the first companies to…”).

Some participants were told that their competitors were recent graduates who had already started their own companies — so as MBA students they were of comparatively low status themselves. Others were told that their competitors were undergraduates — so in this case, participants were of higher status. The team found that 41% of the low-status participants went with the jargon-heavy description, compared to just 29% of the high-status participants.

In another study, participants chatted online in pairs. One took the role of an academic researcher presenting their work at a conference. They were given a description of the work, which contained both jargon terms and what they meant in plain English (e.g. “My work highlights that non-human primates exhibit bi-pedal locomotion, or two legged walking movements. They do this on both arboreal and terrestrial substrates (in trees and on the ground).”). In the low-status condition, the “researcher” was told that they worked at a small community college and were looked down upon by others in the field; in the high-status condition they were told they were a well-respected researcher at an Ivy League university.

The other participant in the pair asked the researcher questions about their work; the team were interested in how often the researcher used jargon terms in their response. Once again, low-status researchers used significantly more jargon than high-status ones.

To figure out why low-status participants tended to use more jargon, the team asked another set of participants to again imagine themselves as either a high- or low-status researcher, and choose one of two titles for a presentation — as well as indicate why they made their decision. Low-status participants were again more likely to choose the option containing jargon. They also reported focusing more on how the audience would judge them, and this could explain why they chose the jargon option.

Overall then, the work suggests that jargon use is “a novel form of status compensation”, allowing people to make up for their low status through their language choices. It’s obviously not the only reason that people use jargon, but is one that hadn’t previously been considered.

It would be interesting to look at language used naturally by high- and low-status group members outside of the lab, to figure out the extent to which this effect applies in day-to-day interactions. (The team did find that thesis titles from higher ranked universities used less jargon, providing some preliminary evidence that it does apply more widely, but more work is needed). And there’s still one big question left to answer: does jargon actually work to convince people that you are a higher-status group member — or does the audience just see through it?

Compensatory conspicuous communication: Low status increases jargon
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Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest