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Let’s talk about appropriate use of “jargon,” and, just to make sure we’re all on
the same page about what it means, let’s look at three definitions from
Webster’s Dictionary:
1. Language or vocabulary peculiar to a particular trade or profession
2. Unintelligible talk or writing, gibberish, or babble
3. Pretentious vocabulary and convoluted syntax, often vague in meaning
Talk about differences in perception! The first definition works for the incrowd,
those of you who are in the field—members of the club, so to speak.
You’ve acquired your vocabulary through years of training and experience, so
writing or speaking in jargon allows you to use a sort of shorthand that is accurate,
specific, and professional, right? Well, not necessarily. It all depends on
your audience.
The last two definitions speak to the feelings and judgments some people
who are outside a field have about jargon. We’ve all been there. When we go to
doctors or lawyers who can’t or won’t speak in plain English, we leave their
offices feeling as much in the dark as when we first entered. We don’t know
about you, but all other things being equal, we don’t return to those doctors or
lawyers. We find other professionals who don’t make us feel ignorant or powerless
or angry. (Choose your poison.) We don’t want gibberish thrown at us. We
don’t want to suffer through someone else’s show of pretensions and insensitivity
to our needs. We don’t want vagueness when much is at stake. Do you? Would
your clients?
Once again, it all depends on your particular client. “Appropriate use of
jargon” is a relative term until you combine it with a specific client or group with
their own needs, expectations, and knowledge of the design field (or, in the cases
of intercultural communication, knowledge of English). What is appropriate for
one client will be inappropriate for another, and your flexibility in deciding
when explanations are needed and when they might be resented is important.
Here are some key questions you should ask:
• How experienced are your clients about design? Is this their first design
job? Their second? Their twelfth?
• Are your clients hands-on or hands-off people? How interested do they
appear to be about acquiring new language and information? How comfortable
are they in admitting what they don’t know?
Answering these questions will help you to see things through your clients’
eyes, and a little empathy goes a long way towards communicating clearly.
When meeting face to face with clients, it’s easier to get a fix on their reactions
and make the appropriate adjustments to your language. If clients are experienced, you can throw in some jargon and see how they do with it. Do they use the same or similar jargon back at you? If they’re curious and unthreatened by what they don’t know, do they ask questions or repeat a phrase or two? Those are good signs. Or do they avoid responding at all? That’s not a good sign. Observe your clients’ verbal as well as nonverbal reactions and respond accordingly. Of course if you are writing to your clients, you don’t have the luxury of trying out different language styles, because you won’t have the visual facial cues and voice inflections to tell you how well you are being understood. In an e-mail, memo, or letter, use clear, everyday English, whenever possible. And always give your reader the opportunity to get questions answered, by concluding with just that phrase, “please contact me with any questions you might have” or a similar one. For the same reason, keep your telephone messages clear and jargon-free too in order to avoid misunderstandings and wasted time. Now, the truth is, you may not know how to translate jargon into everyday language. You may only understand a concept yourself in the terms of your profession, so defining it might be a challenge for you. Here are some simple strategies for defining words, phrases, and terms.