12 October 2012

Despite Addressing a General Audience, Professionals Speak Using Complicated Jargon … It’s Not DESPITE; It’s BECAUSE! (6)

Sometimes when professionals such as medics, police people, financial specialists and others appear on TV or in the newspapers, they use very complicated language specific to their profession (jargon). Sometimes what they say is more of a “wooden language”. Virtually no-one in the audience fully understands what they say since “normal” or “regular” people don’t know the meaning of the words used. Now, it’s a bit paradoxical since these professionals realize that when speaking on TV or giving a statement in the newspapers they “talk” to people who are unaware of the specific jargon for each profession. Moreover, the media wants such specialists, who are credible sources, to explain to the masses. So the media is interested that the audience actually understands what the specialists say.

I have to make a note. I’m not referring to specialized spokes persons who appear often in the media, who are trained in addressing the general public and know how to translate complicated words into more digestible ones. I am referring to people who are professionals with little PR training and who appear in the media seldom, usually invited as “experts”.   

In order to understand the reason behind this paradoxical behavior we should shift the perspective through which we analyze this phenomenon. The current perspective is from the side of the audience, namely “regular” people who have very little knowledge on specific jargon  Regular people don’t understand word “expert” professionals say on TV and they feel frustrated since they were expecting to get some high quality information. However, if we shift the perspective and see things from the “expert’s” point of view things change dramatically.

Such an “expert” professional that gets a chance to appear on TV or give a statement in a high audience newspaper, has different goals than just making the audience understand what they are supposed to explain. As I said before these people don’t get too much media attention and appear seldom in the eyes of the wide public. When they do, the reason behind the media attention is their expertise and they are expected to show it. And they do show it, but not to the audience that the newspaper or TV station.

In order to better understand, imagine yourself in the shoes of such an expert. You get to appear on TV and millions of people will see you. Since you don’t appear frequently on TV this is a special event in your life that will be the subject of discussion with your friends, colleagues, family and even rivals. Adding to this people you know both friends and rivals will talk about your TV appearance. Knowing this would you be more likely to try and make a good impression on your social group than try to explain to the old lady living 500 km away what is happening with the stock market or with some patient you have. Anyhow she will not understand too much of what you are saying anyway. Moreover, she doesn't know you and most likely she will forget you even exist half an hour after your appearance on TV.

So it is in your best interest to try and impress your social group. Now, if you are a professional in let’s say the stock market, then most of the people you know (social group) know what you are doing and know your level of expertise. Moreover, a considerable proportion of people in your social group have similar education and occupations as you have. It is very likely that at least some of your friends and rivals have jobs related to the stock market. So in order to impress them you will get use all your specific knowledge and skills in the field and show them on TV. In doing so, you will completely ignore 99.99% of the people who will see you.

The reasons why professionals in different fields use quite complicated jargon are various. One reason is that in each field there are concepts, objects, processes that don’t exist in other areas of activity. This way, there was a need to create words for them. Another reason is that although there are (normal) words that describe the concepts, object and processes, they are non-scientific terms and thus considered inappropriate.

Focusing on the later situation, here we have a typical case of “arms race”. Let’s make a thought exercise and imagine that at point zero everybody speaks using regular words and these words are sufficient for expressing all what is needed in a profession. In this case, one professional would be perceived as more competent, smarter and more educated if he or she would use one scientific, more complicated term. Since this person would have an increase in social (professional) status, then all other professionals in the field will have an incentive to use that work in order to achieve parity, namely to be perceived as smart, competent and educated. Moreover, each professional will have an incentive to use another (or more) pretentious scientific complicated term(s). The cycle repeats itself and we assist to an “arms race” where everyone wants to show how great he or she is by using a language that is virtually unknown to normal regular people.

Now you realize that when being on TV or making a statement in a newspaper, one would feel the need to use the entire arsenal that is in his or her possession. And so the regular TV watchers or newspaper readers fall (linguistic) victims of the status arms race of professionals in various fields.

An additional explanation could be that some people working in a certain profession master the specific jargon and all people with whom they interact have the same vocabulary, thus having the false impression that everybody understands these terms. Although this is highly plausible, it fails to explain why people use these terms after being made aware that the audience is a “general” one. Moreover, most of the appearances on TV and statements in the newspapers are prepared in advance, thus giving enough time for thought on who is in the audience.

So it is not that despite addressing a general audience, professionals speak using complicated jargon. It is in fact Because they have a chance to get in the media that addresses a general audience they try to emphasize on their sophisticated knowledge, skills, education etc.

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