Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
Bridge the Jargon Divide
We all hate jargon that we don't understand. It leaves us feeling confused, frustrated, and belittled. We simultaneously wonder why we don't know what the terms mean and why the speaker doesn't explain them or use more understandable language. Communication between those "in the know" and those not in the know has always been an issue and will no doubt continue to be. But there are steps both sides can take to mitigate the problem. Techies, take note As a self-described techie, I feel I can, and should, address what we must do to make it easier for others to understand our issues. After all, I struggle with this every month in this column. How can I help my colleagues push the borders of their knowledge without leaving them behind? I struggle to describe what are sometimes very technical topics in terms that those new to them can understand. A good part of the issue gets down to jargon. Jargon is a word for technical terms for which the meanings are known only to a select few. Jargon is sometimes used to establish one's credentials as a techie, to impress one's colleagues, and, frankly, to confuse intentionally when clearer language may not result in the desired outcome (such as more staff or money to accomplish one's objectives). For some advice on how to change your ways, see "Seven Tips for Talking with Nontechnical People" and "13 Tips on How To Tech-Talk to Non-Techies." Attitude adjustment Still, jargon is sometimes inescapable. Accuracy often dictates that an exact term be used. Or there may be no reasonable substitute. In these cases, a basic definition of the term should be offered, preferably through a link to a simple explanation (in the case of a web page), a quick description in the body of an article, or a reference to an additional resource in a bibliography. Anything worth saying is worth being understood. Another issue is attitude. Too many techies feel superior to nontechies, whether they will admit it or not. Some even riducule and poke fun at nontechies and their ignorance of technical topics. We're merely tech superior It's important for techies to realize that we are not superior because we know about technical topics--our knowledge simply lies in a specific, albeit important, area. Many of our colleagues are more knowledgeable in other, equally important areas. As people to whom technical understanding comes easier, we should bring our colleagues along with us in this ever-changing world of technological advancement. Explain technical topics in simple, direct, easily understood terms. Define jargon when speaking with people to whom it is new. Demonstrate in specific ways how technology can help all of us to advance the mission and goals of our libraries. We should, in other words, dump the attitude and do what we can to include our nontechie colleagues and not alienate them. Nontechies, listen up Nontechies (surely someone has a better term?) have their own responsibilities. When faced with technical jargon, demand an understandable explanation. Don't allow techies to get by with obfuscation and intimidation. Ask questions until you're satisfied. Learn about technical topics and don't rely on others to bail you out of scenarios that you should be able to handle. Specifically, learn the standard functions of the software you need to do your job. This includes basic operating system procedures (such as moving files around, finding files, etc.) but not necessarily advanced system procedures (such as running diagnostic utilities). Knowledge is power. Know enough about technology and what it can and cannot do. This way you'll detect when you're being snowed. If you know for a fact that a given task is achievable, no one will be able to tell you that it is overly difficult, time-consuming, or expensive. Perhaps you can't achieve such knowledge owing to lack of time, inclination, or desire. So if your request for a particular technical service is refused, ask for specifics: What resources would it take to achieve the goal, and why? Then take the answer to a techie outside your institution. Ask if this is a reasonable assessment of the situation. Gather specifics that can be taken back (anonymously) to your own staff for further explanation. After a few times of calling their bluff, your technical staff will know they can no longer put one over on you by exploiting your ignorance. Come together Just like the Beatles song says, I beseech both techies and nontechies to "come together, right now." We must focus on our common goals. Certainly we cannot achieve these outcomes without the willingness and participation of what we sometimes think of as "the other side." After all, it's simply another face of us. __________________________________________________________________ LINK LIST Seven Tips for Talking with Nontechnical People Builder.com.com/5102-6374-1046003.html Thirteen Tips on How To Tech-Talk to Non-Techies www.writing-world.com/tech/techtalk.shtml