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Do you speak jargonese?

It was a stirring contest of the wills. Two people sought control of a situation in order to further their goals. One, an authority figure battled for quiet and respect. The other, a would-be de facto leader, sought to overthrow the power wielded by his nemesis.

At first glance, this seems like a contest for minds between a staff member and an insolent and ambitious offender. However, this example comes from the classroom.

You see, I teach corrections and criminal justice classes for a community college. And I find that talking with pre-professionals is both gratifying and interesting. And under most circumstances, there is a peaceful and fun interchange. Yet, early in my teaching career, one student seemed to make it a crusade to disrupt the class and challenge my authority. To grab back this control, I often use a certain tactic that worked rather well – for a while. I “volunteered” the disrupter for demonstrations whenever I could. And this was not done to belittle the student. It was designed to utilize his apparent energy and need for attention.

For one visual exercise, I was demonstrating the elusive nature of contraband. I had prepared a book with hollowed areas and taped pages. I also hid a computer disc, a tooth brush and money inside the book.

When I selected the “volunteer”, the mistake that I committed was in my phrasing. I said, “Who wants to shake down this book?”

The student in question grabbed the book a bit too eagerly and abused the book with a series of violent shakes. Like a shoddily constructed high-rise on a fault line, the book did not survive. There was an almost imperceptible trace of a smirk. To this day, I am not certain if this was intentional.

Intentional or accidental, my simple error of using verbal short hand resulted in the loss of a teaching tool. How many times are meanings lost when we use jargon? How many times do we need to clarify and rectify mistakes due to our unintentional obscuring language use?
Do we overuse alphabet soup when we talk? I recall a recent conversation with a professional who worked in a Federal agency. We could compare stories rather well through context. But our chat was halted by the use of initials. This, of course, did not result in a horrible mistake. It just reminded me of the sensitive nature of meaning.

Another example is our colloquial use of the phrase “front street”. If it is taken literally, there is bound to be confusion, as there are rarely streets within most institutions.

So it behooves us to remember if the recipient might know our professional jargon and colloquialisms. We also need to exclude these linguistic short cuts from official documents, unless the phrase is a direct quote. That should help to promote clarity in our correspondences and verbal interactions.

The student who shook the book so effectively and I are on good terms. And I believe that we benefited from each other in the education process. Perhaps the resolution came slowly. But it remains one of the best examples of jargonese that I have ever experienced.

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joebouchard Self Scrutiny, Training

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