The Perils of Jargon and Assumptions

Wayne JeansonneRecently, I bought some new accessories for our motorcycles and had a devil of a time figuring out how to install them.  The instructions were cryptic and made a lot of assumptions.  They used jargon that I’m sure made sense to the engineers who designed the products.  I couldn’t read their minds and was frustrated. Another recent experience:  I was using a construction material that was new to me.  I missed a few details in the planning  process.  I think the manufacturer and the sales rep assumed I knew more about the process than I really did.  For better communication, I could have asked more questions, and they could have spelled out the details in advance.

So how do I use jargon?

These recent experiences caused me to stop and think about my own use of jargon and assumptions when building and remodeling homes.  As I spend more time in this industry, I think I’m often guilty of using jargon and then just assuming the client knows what I’m talking about.


Pondering this, I paused and dipped into the web for quick definitions.  An assumption is "something taken for granted."  Wikipedia says jargon is "terminology used by people who work in a particular area or who have a common interest.  Much like slang it can develop as a kind of short-hand, to express ideas that are frequently discussed between members of a group, though it can also be developed deliberately using chosen terms.  A standard term may be given a more precise or unique usage among practitioners of a field.  In many cases this causes a barrier to communication with those not familiar with the language of the field."

In other words, when I make the assumption people understand my jargon, it causes a barrier to communication.  That's not good.

Jargon has its uses

I thought back to my previous career where I spent more than ten years as a visual communicator in commercial advertising photography.  There, it was my responsibility to interpret the art director’s layout and create the photographs they imagined.  To communicate, we used lots of terminology, slang, and jargon to communicate.  Somehow, it all worked out and we achieved the end result desired. As a builder, my job is to interpret plans from the client and architectural designer and communicate these ideas – using lots of jargon -- to trade contractors and vendors to achieve the desired end result.  In other words, I juggle chainsaws.  (Ah, there – I used jargon on purpose.)

When jargon gets us into trouble

The trouble is, communication can break down quickly when I let the use of standard building industry jargon spill over into my conversations with homeowners and when I assume they know what I’m talking about.  Throw on top of that the use of energy efficiency and green building terms, and you have the potential for a sticky thicket of miscommunication.  And that's not good.

Communication techniques

So how can we get past the mistakes that can result from the reckless use of jargon and assumptions?  Here are a few communication techniques I try to practice:

At the very first meeting with a new client, I start by admitting that I sometimes slip into jargon that might be confusing or misunderstood, and I ask them to challenge me when I do.

I tell clients to stop and ask questions as soon as they come up.  Don’t wait for an explanation, because it might never come.

The trade contractors we hire are experts in their field.  They must also know how to communicate with clients in a very effective manner.

People all have different learning styles, so I know that I might need to present information in many different ways to make sure it's understood.  I try to say what needs to be said at least three different ways.

As I learned in elementary school, I have to be good at show-and-tell.  It's always helpful to have visual aids, samples, brochures, website information, and so forth.  There's nothing better than allowing clients to discover information about a product on their own terms.

Patience.  Never lose it. Sometimes it's frustrating to have to repeat myself, but it's always worth it to take the time and make sure everyone reaches a common understanding.

Put it in writing.  Emails, contracts, letters, whatever.  The written word can't be forgotten like the spoken word can.

Stop me

None of us are perfect communicators, but we should all do our best.  Do me a favor?  The next time we start a conversation and I wander off into jargon and assume you know what I'm talking about, just kick me in the shin and say, "Hey, talk to me in plain English, will ya?"