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I just ran across another example of something that, in the technical writing field, is as common as trash. I was reading a book that was obviously aimed at an audience that was unfamiliar with a particular technology. The author, however,  was using terms that would only be known by someone who was already familiar with this material. The result was a piece of writing that could be useless to the initiated (they already knew this stuff) and impenetrable to the ignorant. The danger exists that the only thing that the piece might accomplish is to impress the reader with how much the author must know. It’s this kind of incident that gives jargon a bad name.

It used to be said that the Inuit had many more words for snow than those of us living farther south. For a while, there was a theory that the Inuit saw snow differently than we did, that the richer vocabulary for snow reflected (in some way) the Inuit’s richer world view. However, each of the terms that the Inuit used could be translated into an equivalent phrase in some other language (provided that the base concept of “snow” existed in the language). My personal belief is that the multiple terms certainly helped the Inuit talk (and maybe even think) about snow more efficiently than I could. But that’s all. Even when this richer vocabulary helped the Inuit talk about snow, it was only if the conversation was with another Inuit.

I’m not opposed to using jargon. Among peers, jargon actually facilitates communication. Thinking about it, this shouldn’t be surprising that the Inuit languages are filled with terms for snow: The Inuit are snow experts. They not only live surrounded by snow, but they also have a snow technology that uses snow for temporary shelters, refrigeration, cooking, and so on. But while jargon makes experts more efficient, jargon gets in the way of talking to people who don’t know the words.

In two of my pet topics, user interface design and technical writing, understanding your user is critical to success. In making a living as a consultant or an employee, knowing your user is critical to getting, keeping, and doing your job. One of the first things that you can do when working with a new client is to learn to speak in terms that your user understands. It’s tempting to try to teach your user or client your terminology, but I think that’s self-defeating.

The likelihood that a user will remember some piece of jargon when you use it later is small. The likelihood that they’ll understand the full implications of the term is smaller yet. And, during the time that your users struggle with remembering and interpreting the term when you bring it up, they won’t be giving their full attention to whatever you were talking about. A worse situation is when your client can’t remember what the term means and, having had it explained once, is too embarrassed to ask again. That’s not the worst situation. The worst possible scenario is that your client has got the term wrong and doesn’t realize it. The two of you can go on for a considerable period of time thinking that you’re talking about the same thing before you discover your differences.

You need to speak your user’s language. Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from getting the user’s jargon wrong. As you pick up the user’s language, you need to keep checking with your user to make sure that you do understand what the term means and are using it correctly.

The book that I was reading, by the way, was Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. I still don’t know what a “salamander” in a kitchen is, except that, I think, it’s used for keeping food warm. Kitchen Confidential is a great book about the underbelly of the cooking business, and, despite the mismatch between the level of jargon and the intended audience, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also appreciated the definitions of some of the terms that were provided—unfortunately—in a chapter at the end of the book. I think that Bourdain didn’t define his terms because he had a literary purpose in mind: He wanted to give the reader the experience of being tossed into a new world. I appreciated the experience in a work of entertainment. I don’t think it would be a good business practice. More importantly, it was worthwhile to be reminded what it must be like to be a successful business person when faced with geek-speak.