Monday, October 23, 2006

Jargon as a Solution: Could it Work?

Continuing from the last post, Nicole Lazzaro and I met in Virginia with a diverse group of very bright people to discuss a range of topics that interested us all.

I decided, quite against type, that there is a place for jargon.

Why This Surprised Me

As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I believe that jargon is unnecessary for understanding and, in fact, divisive. Jargon both creates and reinforces silos among disciplines and thinking people. The use of jargon keeps those on the inside in a position of authority, even if those on the outside know just as much, or more. It's a weapon in a larger power game that includes in intellectual, economic, and social politics and power struggles -- either all together, or one at a time.

The "Aha" Moment

Nicole uses English terms except for the word "Fiero" for the feeling of winning after a long struggle in a computer game. The word, she said, "Sounds like what it is -- F-I-E-R-O," she said stressing the "r's." A great breath of pride and relief. A thrilling sense of accomplishment. It's a perfect word for what Nicole was looking to describe.

Why Jargon Can Be Useful

I suggested to Nicole that the words she uses as technical landmarks in a game's progression -- "emotions," "amusement," "anger," and so on -- don't have the credibility to a business audience or the specificity of a word like "fierro."

"Fierro" is specific to her project, and it's unfamiliar to an audience that tends to dismiss emotional response as either weakness or a lack of credibility in intellectual ability. It's not just business people who dismiss emotional reactions as such. Teachers, particularly of older children -- certainly in university -- will have none of it expressed in what are valued as intellectual arguments defending a position.

Jargon solves this problem. Generally, it serves to distance the raw immediacy of feeling from a discussion by disassociating an emotion from a response. This works for two reasons:

First, credibility today lies with the Johnsonian’s and Cartesians rather than the Romantics, Swift, Sterne, and the "men" of sensibility. In other words, we behave as thought the head operates entirely without the emotional system.

Second, jargon obfuscates the feeling state for professional reasons. In a time when assumptions about thinking have become habit, it keeps everyone comfortable and makes the response credible.

Nicole has said (quite rightly) when dealing with the familiar, "It is much more powerful to use a new word. It grabs attention and . . . cuts one free of associations from a previous word. Such mental baggage gets in the way of the new conversation."

Without the Nasty Side-Effects: Optimizing the Benefits of Jargon

I like "fierro" because the word means what it says onomatopoetically. It also genuinely means what Nicole wants to express, albeit in another language. The combination to me makes jargon acceptable. First, words like this are accessible to everyone through sound and feeling. Second, if that isn't effective, you can find the meaning by looking to cultures outside the business world and find overtones not available in your own language.

This is jargon that enhances, rather than reduces, meaning. It also derives from everyday language without abusing it. Why transform "construction" into "construct" when they mean the same thing? Why invent a word when there are plenty of wonderful options already in existence? The only effect is to alienate those who are not familiar with the jargon.

In a larger sense, if language of a particular field has lost its power to persuade -- such as those associated with emotional reactions -- why throw the baby out with the bathwater? Why not instead, like Nicole, create connections -- among cultures and languages -- to rehabilitate importance concepts?

Next Steps

Nicole and I are going to work together to consider the emotional language of gaming research. If we can energize it, the effort can only offer support to other fields suffering from a lack of credibility in an environment hostile to arguments that include feeling.

Any suggestions are most welcome.

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