NEW YORK – Speakers and writers are often encouraged to keep communications clear and accessible and, in the words of one adage, to never use a twenty-five-cent word when a five-cent word will do. This is because unnecessarily dressing up communications with jargon and complicated language can make it more difficult for audiences to understand key takeaways. But new research from Columbia Business School suggests that jargon use might not be a simple matter of communication preferences. In a series of nine different studies, the research found that individuals with low status are more likely to use jargon, acronyms, and legalese at higher rates than high-status individuals because they are more insecure about how they will be perceived. Meanwhile, individuals recognized as having higher status are less likely to use jargon because they are motivated primarily by effective communication and not just bolstering their public image.
“Jargon is like a suit, a car, or a watch – it’s a status symbol. Those who are insecure ‘dress up’ their words, believing it will make them appear smarter or cause others to take them more seriously,” said Adam Galinsky, the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School. “It’s ironic though, because the reality is that people secure in their high status use less jargon, acronyms, and legalese. They prioritize clear communication, rather than concerning themselves with status or public perception.”
The research, co-authored with Columbia Business School Management PhD candidate Zachariah Brown and University of Southern California Professor Eric Anicich, spans nine studies that focus on three main areas. Two initial studies surveyed the titles of 64,000 dissertations and master’s theses available through ProQuest and found that authors from schools that were ranked lower by U.S. News & World Report included more jargon, both in the forms of complex language and in acronyms. A second collection of four studies included 1,500 participants and established that low status caused jargon and acronym use to increase. The paper’s third area of research, comprised of three additional studies, employed an experimental-causal-chain approach: more than 1,100 participants completed surveys to understand what drives low-status individuals to use more jargon, finding that low-status individuals were motivated to use more jargon because they were concerned with the audience’s evaluation of them rather than an attention to clarity and understanding.
“Understanding that jargon is highly social requires its own line of research,” said Zachariah C. Brown, a Ph.D. student in Columbia Business School’s Management program and the study’s lead author. “The current research indicates just one way jargon is dependent on status. Other research we have finds that a speaker’s status can even change whether or not an audience perceives what they’re saying as jargon; we find that the same words used by a low-status person are more likely to be dismissed as jargon. There’s very little experimental research in linguistics that are looking at how social hierarchy changes our use of language, so our study is a crucial first step.”
This nuanced approach to jargon’s social role opens the door for researchers to further study how the desire to belong may motivate increased jargon usage, how an audience of mixed statuses affects jargon use, or how an audience receives messages full of jargon in comparison to those without.
The study, Compensatory Conspicuous Communication: Low Status Increases Jargon Use can be found online here.
To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted at Columbia Business School, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.
About the researchers
Adam Galinsky is the Vice Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics and at the Columbia Business...Read more.