As It Happens

Feeling inferior? You're more likely to use jargon, study says

A new study suggests people who use more jargon may be compensating for their lower social status.

'Human peacocking' might be compensating for something, suggests lead author

A new study suggests people using jargon may be trying to improve their status within their particular profession. (Catherine Benson CRB / Reuters)

Transcript

Would you say 'antecedents and consequences' instead of 'cause and effect?' A new study analyzing how academics and business school students use jargon suggests people could be using more specialized language to make up for feeling inferior. 

"People who are lower in status are using words not really to communicate, but ... for social purposes, to get acceptance and respect within their desired [professional] group," Zach Brown, Ph.D. student in Columbia Business School's Management program and the study's lead author, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Brown says jargon has multiple uses including creating a shared reality, as seen in military and scientific communities. 

For example, a primatologist may say "upright striding vertical bipedality on horizontal terrestrial substrates," whereas some outside the scientific community would put it more simply as "walking on the ground." 

Fledgling members [and] aspirational members — these people who want to be part of the group — they will often use this particular linguistic status signal for social reasons.- Zach Brown, Ph.D. student in Columbia Business School's Management
According to Brown, another use for jargon is to obfuscate, such as when a politician tries to avoid answering a question. And he says jargon can be implemented to exclude and even embarrass those outside a certain group.

However, Brown notes specific types of jargon like acronyms and legalese are often implemented as status compensation.

"I'm looking at human peacocking and all the beautiful ways that we show off status and affiliation."

Zach Brown is a PhD student at Columbia Business School and lead author of the research paper "Compensatory conspicuous communication: Low status increases jargon use." (Submitted by Zach Brown)

As part of their research, Brown and his colleagues Eric Anicich and Adam Galinsky analyzed 64,000 academic dissertation titles and found that authors from lower status schools used more jargon than their colleagues from higher status schools. 

The team also conducted experiments wherein Masters of Business Administration students were told they were competing against either alumni or undergraduates, and then asked to choose from two different business proposals.

The first proposal stated:

"We plan to leverage the anticipated disruption in the retail furniture industry space and obtain a first mover advantage by disintermediating existing physical retail channels and selling directly to customers online."

The second proposal was far more clear:

"We plan to take advantage of the anticipated changes in the retail furniture industry and become one of the first companies to bypass existing physical retail channels by selling directly to customers online."

Researchers found that when the person believed they were competing against someone of higher professional status, they would choose the first proposal, which was far more jargon-laden. 

"Fledgling members [and] aspirational members — these people who want to be part of the group — they will often use this particular linguistic status signal for social reasons."

The team is now researching the consequences of using jargon. 

According to Brown, when lower status professionals rely on specialized words and acronyms, colleagues may view them as more competent, but less likable. 

"They judge you like you're low status and you're doing it to show off." 


Written by Lito Howse. Interview with Zach Brown produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.

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