Keeping Jargon and Acronyms In Their Place

Every profession has them. In some cases, they are shorthand for some long technical words. They save time during a discussion and save space on the written page. And, they are an automatic reflex in many professions. Because they are so automatic, we sometimes use them to the detriment of people outside our profession.

In some cases, jargon and acronyms are shared across related professions. You have to adopt them in order to effectively communicate with your colleagues. It can become really confusing, however, when some jargon or acronyms are similar but mean completely different things within different professions.

I was once a member of a professional association that actually created an acronym reference guide. Membership could look up acronyms to understand what they meant not only in their own professional field but in related fields. That was especially helpful when numerous agencies were providing a variety of services to the same people.

When SMART doesn’t mean smart

For example, take the plain meaning of the word “smart”. When used as an acronym in goalsetting, SMART means Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time Limited. According to allacronyms.com, in an education and science setting, SMART can mean something entirely different such as Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation. So, you have three different meanings for the same word. And, some acronyms have become such a routine part of our language that people don’t even remember what the acronym originally meant.

When I joined an advisory board for a local organization, I was one of the few who was not a member of the profession hosting the board. For that particular profession, jargon and acronyms were the language of choice. Without them, the meeting would take a lot longer if board members had to speak the entire technical term each time they used it. Not to mention how exhausting it would be! It would not have been practical for me to constantly stop the meeting to ask for clarifications.

So, I took a lot of notes, asked for some clarifications both during the meetings and more afterward. And, I also did some homework so that I could understand the terms and actively participate in the meetings. But, not everyone is prepared to do extra work.

A colleague from a nonprofit organization told me how the use of acronyms affected a new member of her board of directors. She had invited a member of the community to join her board. After one of the meetings, the community member told her that she “felt like an outsider because so much alphabet soup was being used” during the board meeting. Ouch! It wasn’t intentional, it was that automatic reflex. But, using acronyms alienated the new board member.

The Negative Impact

So, when jargon and acronyms are misused, you risk:

  • Alienating people outside your profession
  • Causing confusion and misunderstanding
  • Causing frustration for the listeners or readers
  • Negating your message 

What To Do

To use jargon and acronyms appropriately: 

  • Be mindful of who is in your audience
  • Don’t assume they know the jargon or acronyms
  • Create an acronym reference list
  • Explain the meaning of jargon or acronyms the first time they are used
  • Check in with new members at a meeting to ensure they understand

Jargon and acronyms have their place within professions. Just remember to keep them in their place when communicating with those outside your profession.

Mary Roche Cronin is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She is the Director of Human Services for the Town of Manchester, Connecticut and has held that position since January 2005. She is responsible for management of four divisions, provides contract oversight for community agencies receiving town funding, and represents the town on community, regional and statewide human services planning and advisory groups. She also provides oversight of the department budget and state and federal grant funding. She has a Master’s degree in Child Welfare from St. Joseph College in West Hartford, Connecticut and a Juris Doctorate from Western New England College School of Law in Springfield, Massachusetts. You can read her posts here.

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Nhu-Phuong Duong

I appreciate this post more than you know. While I try to be as open as possible to jargon outside of my field, it is irksome to have to look up every single one.

Avatar photo Blake Martin

This post is spot on. Communicating only in acronyms is a surefire way to alienate someone you’re communicating with (or trying to). I think we could all stand to be more mindful our use of acronyms!

Uyen Nguyen

I couldn’t agree more! When practicing mindfulness, I think we could all try to remember the first time we started working at a new organization and didn’t understand the acronyms used and how that must’ve felt.

Janice Quintana

When I moved from private industry knowing that jargon and came to local government and had to learn a new set of jargon was a tough. Great insight on this blog.