It’s the beginning of a new year and I have resolved to take things into my hands.
This year, I will seamlessly integrate goal-oriented physical exertion into my calendar, to synergistically build it up as a core competency.
That’s not all.
I have also decided to proactively cultivate my bibliophilic propensities by incorporating stretch reading goals.
In my excitement, I also mentioned to my partner that we could collaboratively re-conceptualize our domestic chore allocation and substantially increase our efficiency by leveraging on our mutual vision of an egalitarian household. Would you believe it, he brushed me off! To that, I say, he is not being customer-centric!
Why am I talking like that, you ask? That’s a resolution as well. To speak the way corporations and brands talk: in jargon.
Jargon, jargon, everywhere
Many years back, on the popular TV show F.R.I.E.N.D.S, Joey Tribbiani was given the important responsibility of writing a recommendation letter for his dear friends, Monica and Chandler. Trying to be articulate, he describes them as “humid, prepossessing Homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps” or in other words, “warm, nice people with big hearts” — thanks to the beauty of the right-click synonym feature in Microsoft Word .
I might have laughed a riot back then, but now I shed tears when I see jargon. And jargon is everywhere!
There somehow seems to be a misconception that longer or less common words make the speaker more intelligent. It’s no surprise, then, that jargon has infiltrated corporate vocabulary so deeply. From creating paradigm shifts to building digital switchboards, we have likely all sat in meetings, not entirely sure what some such phrase was meaning to say. What’s worse, though, is how jargon has entered the world of consumer advertising. The purpose of advertising is to simplify a product and explain its unique selling proposition to the customers as succinctly as possible. And yet, we see advertisements with abstract taglines all around us.
Why do we have this obsession with large words?
Duly or not, people see a positive correlation between vocabulary and intelligence. The more complex words and sentence constructions used, the more intelligent a person is perceived to be (Pennebaker, 2014). In an interesting analysis of 50,000 college admission essays, Pennebaker and coauthors found that higher grades were associated with complexly organized objects and concepts, while lower grades were associated with more personalized writing styles .
Grice’s Maxim of Manner, a touchstone for many writers, is quite clear: it recommends “to be as clear, as brief, and as orderly as one can in what one says” . However, the complexity emerges on the reader’s side. Simple text comes with the baggage of the assumption that the author did not put too much thought into writing this. A simple language representative of a simple idea requires less effort. But a complex language, requiring more effort, seems worth the process.
Complex does not mean good
Thankfully, behavioral science research has an antidote. In a paper titled ‘Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: Problems with using long words needlessly’, Oppenheimer explores the link between fluency and complex words through a series of interesting experiments .
In the first experiment, 6 personal statements for admission to an English literature course at Stanford were created, each with a different level of complexity. The most complex version was (probably) eerily similar to what Joey Tribbiani wrote, given it was a direct result of replacing words with their longest synonyms from Microsoft Word. Participants were shown one of these statements at random and were asked to accept or reject this candidate for admission to the course. The results showed that the most complex statements had the lowest ratings and the most adverse decisions. On the other hand, the simplest statements had the highest acceptance rate. The authors conclude that fluency of reading causes this effect. Complex sentences are hard to read and hence, hard to judge.
In follow up experiments, to remove the biases associated with the admissions process, the author shows simple and complex translations Rene Descartes Meditation IV to participants and ask them to judge the intelligence of the author on a 7 point scale. In line with the previous results, complexity once again negatively impacts the participant’s assessment of the author’s intelligence.