KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Mind your language

with 2 comments


One of the challenges in knowledge sharing in development (or anywhere for that matter) is that different people often use different words to describe the same things, or even more confusingly they use the same words to describe quite different things.

The written word is both a powerful tool to help us connect people and ideas over space and time, and also a very imperfect one that doesn’t adequately capture the body language and other physical aspects of face to face communication, nor the much richer knowledge context and that is captured inside a person’s brain which can’t be easily conveyed in any means to another person.

I recently switched jobs, and although it’s only to a different agency within the United Nations, I found I had to learn a whole new set of terminology, acronyms, and tacit assumptions about what things mean. I’m quite good at picking up specialized lingo and already after a couple of months I was presenting at an external meeting when I found I was using internal acronyms and terms that were in everyday use by those in my office, but which unfortunately were not familiar to my audience. This experience made me think a little about how we use language in our work.

On the one hand using specialized language is helpful in that it helps reduce the time to communicate if you don’t have to explain or spell out commonly used terms in longhand. It also adds precision in communication IF all those using a term know exactly what is meant.

But the use of specialized language is also like a kind of argot – a way of indicating membership of a group and showing who is in and who is out. Using UN jargon or social media speak, or whatever specific jargon you are using just as much identifies you as a member of a group as does using the latest patois or gang slang, but in the workplace we just don’t admit this as openly.

When we are communicating we need to think about the audience and the purpose of the communication – are they familiar with the language we are using and do the terms carry the same connotations to them as they do to us? We often forget that the terms we use for brevity or improved clarity might have the opposite effect if they are used with audiences unfamiliar with our lingua franca.

Similarly we need to ask ourselves whether we are being honest with ourselves about our reasons for using aid worker vernacular. Are we using it to communicate clearly, or are we  really using it to appear smart and “with it”, to try to be insiders (and possibly to signify to others that they are outsiders) rather than to ensure we get our message across in the best way possible.

Politically correct speech is another “challenging” area. On the one hand we need to be careful not to use terms that might be culturally offensive or unfairly critical or judgmental, especially when working in a multicultural environment. On the other hand, this frequently goes so far as to make communication bland and opaque, such that you need to be adept at reading between the lines to understand what is really meant (the British are experts at this – see this excellent piece from the Economist on what Brits mean). This involves striking a difficult balance between not offending, but still saying something clearly enough to be understood.

Another pitfall is promotional language. We see this everywhere in advertisements, including in charity fundraising and even in our annual reports and press releases. Jakob Nielsen (the web usability guru) explains that “promotional language imposes a cognitive burden on users who have to spend resources on filtering out the hyperbole to get at the facts. When people read a paragraph that starts ‘Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions,’ their first reaction is no, it’s not, and this thought slows them down and distracts them”.

So if we really want to share knowledge, and communicate effectively, rather than just show off our “mad writing skillz” then we need to “Mind our Language”. As J so expressed so well, writing is a critical skill for the aid worker, since for all its imperfections as a medium the written word is still the best and most ubiquitous means of sharing what we know. It’s a skill I know I’m still working on, and one that we all need to reflect on from time to time.


Written by Ian Thorpe

January 5, 2012 at 10:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Ian,
    Your observation seem generic; that is, I also experienced the lingo-game from acronyms up to euphemisms. And coming from another sector – researching consumer markets – the amount struck me too. Also I notice colleagues very hard trying the acronym being a word. I have heard about ‘FIETS’ (bike in Dutch) used for labels of a set of logical issues in English, but anglophones will never get FIETS sticking in their head without twisting their tongue! Anyway. Perhaps you should see it as an initiation rite, a passage to the ranks of a hierarchy.
    On the other hand it supports my inclination to understand development in terms of discourse. Not only with ans in ‘the South’, but perhaps far and foremost within our Breton Woods institutions. And to me that discourse is always about power over people, nature (technology) or money. Process is important, but in the end collateral damage. Let us call that the ‘PNM discourse’ 🙂


    January 5, 2012 at 11:44 am

  2. Thanks, I had overlooked this article from the Economist. Here is what I take from it.

    Please, please don’t make up any new acronyms or jargon.

    They’re not necessary and often come from companies marketing products that they want you to think are cool or new. Think of the current old buzzword “the cloud”. Doesn’t that just mean the Internet?


    January 6, 2012 at 4:20 pm

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