One of the most common causes of misunderstandings in the workplace is the use of proprietary words and phrasing. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert discusses the way sub-groups re-purpose common terms to create an insider-only dialect.
‘Words matter. I cannot stress that enough. … You have to know what you’re talking about so that you can translate your ideas into terms that your audience can wrap their heads around.’
I felt so strongly about that idea that I wrote a supplemental, out-of-cycle column about it last Friday. Since then, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the problem. So, here we are again.
My youngest son has been getting really into Riot Games’ video game League of Legends lately.  It’s actually a good thing, I think; he’s motivated every weeknight to get his homework done as soon as he gets home so that he can get online with his mates right after dinner in order to play a match or three of LoL before lights-out.  He’s also started (finally!) taking an interest in PC technology so that he can build himself a better gaming rig. He’s even asked me for advice on how to properly ‘harden’ his system so that he can play matches with strangers on the Internet without exposing his PC to malware. I’m awfully proud to see his tech interests blossoming, and it’s all thanks to a video game.
Therefore, since the game is important to my son, I figured that I ought to learn about the game in turn. I figured that I’d need to be able to visualize what he was up to when he played, at the very least. So, last night, I downloaded the free-to-play game, created a user account, and asked my son to walk me though the tutorial levels.
My boy was chuffed – he hoped that I’d enjoy his favourite game as much as he did. Once I opened the app and clicked on the tutorial, Austin started yammering on about game tactics and ‘champion selection’ and a bunch of other stuff that I barely registered. I held up a hand and asked him to start over, using plain English  to make his points. He smiled, and started telling me slowly about I should ‘Go Nautilus to attack–damage–carry in the mid-lane unless you get ganked by a jungler, then …’
I howled and threw a fistful of loose papers at him. He fled into the hallway, chortling. He knew that his banter was completely unhelpful, and felt like goading me for his own amusement. That’s my boy.
I get it, though. I do. Language is one of the most efficient ways we have to divide people up into ‘us’ and ‘them’ categories. Only someone who is accepted inside a particular community will be able to understand group-unique vocabulary or proprietary uses of words and phrases. Sub-groups invent new language and twist existing language in order to create and reinforce their collective identity, such that it differs markedly from mainstream culture. If you know the group’s words, you’re one of the group. Anyone that doesn’t ‘get’ the words and phrases is easily recognized as an outsider. It’s one of the common ways that we create and maintain cultures within cultures.
Within the League of Legends enthusiasts’ community, the members of the in-group have gone to (arguably obscene) lengths to create a parallel language exclusively for their members’ benefit. The bent words and phrases all make sense once they’re explained in context. My heartburn with it is that it’s almost impossible to figure out what’s going on or what you’re supposed to do as a new player when every explanation is delivered in League-Speak. You darned well need a separate monitor open with a translation guide just to get through your first game. As it was, I played through the tutorials under my son’s not-so-patient supervision and got a general feel for how it all works. I even assimilated some of the vocabulary. A little. Enough to need a drink afterwards.
Language matters. Using a proprietary version of a common term in an environment where no one else recognizes the proprietary version of the term can be disastrous, and vice versa. I once got quite sideways with a wet-behind-the-ears manager who told me to ‘take point’ on a new project. I did exactly what he told me to do – I researched the project and sought out first contact with the client. The manager heard what I’d done and had a public meltdown over how I had ‘disobeyed’ him. It took some patient digging, but we finally worked out that the young buck had heard us seasoned engineers use the phrase ‘take point’ in our discussions, and assumed that it referred to the point guard position on a basketball team (i.e., a second rank, supporting role) instead of its proprietary meaning of point man (i.e., the forward-most scout in an infantry patrol). The young manager had no military experience whatsoever, and was working in a group full of veterans. Us vets communicated with one another in our comfortable old squaddie patois; the young manager was too afraid of looking foolish to ever ask us grumpy old curmudgeons for clarification. Unnecessary drama ensued.
Misunderstandings like these happen all the time when you have people from two different sub-groups interacting. Yes, they may both share a common language, but any two people probably have at least one point of divergence based on their sub-group affiliations’ linguistic drift. Military people and civilians frequently confuse one another, as do technologists and regular people (‘normals,’ in nerd-speak). We make trouble for ourselves and for others when we forget to switch out of the in-group version of the language – or when we assume incorrectly that the person that we’re talking to is a member of our sub-group when they aren’t.
This is especially aggravating when people attempt to cross into an established sub-group. I experienced that this week when I tried to join my son’s LoL community. I also got to watch it play out over a lovely 15-week period back in Air Force cyberspace officers’ school back in the early oughts. Back then, I was pretty much the only hardcore nerd in my class of 14. I had to go through the USAF course because I was converting from the Army to the AF, whereas the rest of my classmates were coming into the technology field from wildly different professional backgrounds, and many of them didn’t have a basic grounding in systems and networks. Watching my classmates struggle to re-order their thinking in order to adopt a whole new alternate vocabulary was quite a lot of fun (for me, not for them).
Out of sympathy, I drafted a fake ‘study guide’ for my classmates at the end of every training block that took the piss out of the new vocab elements that we’d just been taught. I’d type up anywhere from fifteen to fifty fake definitions based on words that would most likely appear on the next exam, and would share the joke sheets in class the day before each end-of-block test.
Tongue-in-cheek examples included basic computer terms:
- Disk Administrator: Modern name for the profession formerly known as a ‘chiropractor’
- Volume Label: Marking your vodka bottles to determine if the janitor is helping himself to the booze that you left in your office overnight
… common network terms:
- Bandwidth: The tendency for rock stars to put on weight and bulk up as they pass their prime
- SONET: A14-line poem, usually written in iambic pentameter, favoured by Shakespeare
- Twisted Pair: An inexplicable celebrity coupling (e.g., Billy Joel plus Christie Brinkley)
… and radio communications terms:
- Spread-Spectrum: The risqué name of the femme fatale character in the next James Bond epic
- Waveguide: A pretentious surfing instructor
… and so on, including everything from space operations to military doctrine. There were fifteen blocks’ worth of new terms that I drafted farcical ‘study guides’ for. No one ever missed a test question over the gags. Really, the jokes helped to take the edge off of the pressure to learn a new pseudo-language. People remembered the nonsensical definitions, and made it easier to remember the peculiar new in-group definitions. A little levity makes everything more bearable.
I’d ask you to remember that whenever you’re bringing a new hire on board your team. No matter how educated and experienced the ‘new guy’ is, there will always be some reserved terms that are unique to your in-group that mean something different to y’all than they do to the general population. It’s frustrating for new hires to get their bearings when it’s evident that there’s a gap between what they heard and what you actually meant.
Better yet, make the introduction to your in-group language part of the new hires’ cultural assimilation process. Make up little ‘cheat sheets’ or games to help people pick up the new terms and how they’re used differently in your crew. It’ll help people feel like they’re a welcome addition to the team, and it’ll head off some embarrassing future drama.
You might also discover that you have a lot more unique language instances than you were consciously aware of.
 More potential for confusion. LoL means League of Legends, whereas LOL means ‘laugh out loud’. You’d think that there would be an agency out there that would regulate the introduction of new initialisms and acronyms, and would have the power to deny any that were too likely to cause confusion.
 Plain American English, that is. So… not as clear as it could be.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.