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Acronymonius

Reading is one of the great pathways to knowledge, I think we all agree on that. Have you ever started out trying to drink from some great fountain of knowledge, anxious to add to your own storehouse of stuff that you know, and then, just a little ways in, you stop? Being able to use any number of search engines to power your way to new information should allow us to scale new heights, and nothing can hold us back from being veritable learnification machines, right?

Please allow me to explain where this tirade originates. Insider knowledge, acronyms, shorthand, jargon – are all ways that we can use to further the divide among people.

I was working on an update for our monthly newsletter that we publish. I use that platform to keep people informed about stuff happening in my sphere of influence. I wanted to explain my topic in clear simple terms, possibly oversimplifying it. My goal was to have anyone who read what I wrote to understand it without having to contact a lawyer, and without having to research it mercilessly in order to continue reading it.

Here’s the kicker – to no one’s surprise, the government website that I went to so that I could close my knowledge gap about a stormwater runoff approval, nearly sucked the life right out of me. I understand that the goal of most government documents is to repel people’s curiosity and therefore totally annihilate anyone’s ability to understand what they are probably obligated by law to reveal and discuss. In this case, the objective was attained by having 11 ELEVEN acronyms on the first page. Now, in their defense, they did put in parentheses what three of the acronyms stood for. But as for understanding their function, purpose, and mission – you just run along pal, trust us and don’t worry about it.

When I see acronyms, jargon, insider language, call it whatever you want, my first reaction is to sigh… Who in the heck is proofreading this?

Probably no one, or just another insider who cares not one whit about whether someone from outside their circle is able to read and understand it. Now I get it, sometimes the intended audience is a bunch of like-minded people and a program isn’t necessary to know how all the pieces fit together… Rock on, go talk to yourselves, everyone nod your head and you can be really in the know about the topic without a lot of ‘splainin’ going on.

I work for a church. We are very intentional about not using “insider” language that “outsiders” won’t understand. We don’t even want there to be any notions of insider vs. outsider. Part of making people feel welcome is to speak a common language, not dumbing things down, but by using words that convey the message without anyone feeling like an interpreter is necessary. Let me use an example: how many of you reading this (thousands and thousands, I’m sure) would know what I mean if I use the word “narthex?” Narthex is a church word for lobby or entrance. It’s our goal here for that word to only be used when I am talking to people about words that we don’t use. Why use a word that most people don’t know in the place of a word that everyone understands? The answer to that, I believe, is that you want to feel superior, or that you want it clearly understood that you’re the insider, and they are not.

Acronyms are similarly used and abused. As with many things in life, you get one free one. The dog gets a free bark before he gets chastised to be quiet, the baby gets one squawk before you have to get up and check on the little human, the kids get one free scream before they are encouraged to be jubilant at a lesser pitch. If I see two or three acronyms, abbreviations or code talk in the first couple paragraphs, the writing better be so riveting and the content so pulse-quickening that I am muttering silent prayers for your forgiveness as I travel off into the ether to look them up.

We all operate in different spheres, we have different contexts, different backstories, different experiences, AND different audiences. None of those are bad things!

Use your powers of imagination and imagine someone who doesn’t know what you know trying to figure out what the heck you are talking about. If there is some chance at all, that the eyes of some poor uninitiated soul shall fall upon your writing, please take a minute or two and explain what any shorthand might be representing.

I used to follow and interact with a guy on LinkedIn who I thought was pretty insightful about a lot of things. I’m pretty sure that his writing was cathartic for him and helped him to deal with some of the issues that had caused a few bumps along his journey. I finally stopped following him, and I don’t even read his stuff anymore, besides his narcissism, which caused all discussion to be solely focused on him, he was a constant acronym dropper. Every other sentence had some reference to him that was as common to him as the names of the days of the week, but it wore me out. I am certain that he is crushed about my exit from his group of groupies.

Maybe your target audience would find it pedantic and tiresome if you explained too much, but I find that I can easily speed read through something I already understand, rather than pull off at every single exit ramp to ask for directions. After just a few turn offs, I’ll usually turn around and just head back home.

Tom Dietzler
Tom Dietzler
Lifelong, proud somewhat strident Wisconsinite, I love my state and love to sing its praises. A bon vivant and raconteur, lover of history, literature and good conversations. Laughter and music are salves that I frequently am applying to my soul. I have spent time (too much) in manufacturing and printing and have found great joy in my current position as director of operations at a large church in the same area where I grew up. Husband to Rhonda and father of two adult children Melanie and Zack, I’m the constant companion of my five-year-old Lab, Oliver, who is my muse to a lot of my stories. I’m a fan of deep conversation and my interests are in learning and gaining wisdom, so in the last few years I have become and less politically vocal, and hopefully more respectful and open-minded. Rhonda and I sold our home in 2018, bought a condo and have traveled a bit more, golfed a bit more and are enjoying life a bit more. If you take the time to get to know me, prepare yourself for an invite to the 30th state to join the union, a gem located in the upper Midwest, full of beautiful scenery formed by the glaciers, with lots of lakes and trees and gorgeous scenery, and the nicest people that you’d ever want to meet.

22 COMMENTS

  1. Tom —
    Your story reminded me of some (many?) of the LinkedIn profile headlines I read that are replete with alphabet soup acronyms. I guess an insider to a particular industry might know what all those letters stand for. As an aside, I love words like “narthex” because it contains no clues as to what it means. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Tom, I think this is brilliant and I am on your side 100%. To me that type of writing is not only narcissistic, but lazy. When I read, that’s exactly what I want to do. If I have to spend a ridiculous amount of time looking things up, you’ve lost me. Thank you for sharing what I believe is an important lesson for everyone who writes or aspires to.

    • I know that not everyone will like or care for what I say. I can’t see the world changing to make things more clear and understandable. I’m just saying what I know a lot of people believe, in that mucking up our language with a bunch of stuff only a fraction of a percentage understand… it’s possible that you don’t want people to read and understand what you’re saying. Thank you for your support and contribution to the discussion.

    • Apparently you have passed some kind of judgment on my writing style, and those names and grades and numbers must all mean something. Without context, I will shrug and say thanks. I never mind it when someone challenges me with some words with which I am not familiar, I am all about expanding my vocabulary and learning more. It’s more about Acronyms, technical terms and abbreviations, in which looking them up may not be helpful as there may be multiple organizations or uses for that set of abbreviations, so you may have to guess at which one is correct. If I am using the English language, I am placing expectations on the readers to be familiar with such, and we cannot go out and survey each individual reader to find out their own individual grammar, usage and comprehension skills. The race to dumb down our society is happening to quickly for me anyway, and I don’t feel the need to speed things up. Thank you for your perspective and contribution.

      • It’s all about being understood. Your point seems to be that acronyms are hard to understand. That may be true to you.

        Your writing style is hard for many others. Pot meet kettle.

        If you choose refuse to consider (ore refuse to understand) an alternative view, that seems exceedingly simple to me, then there is essentially no difference from the abreviators, you seem to have tiraded against.

        • My style is my style. I was speaking in reference to how some people unnecessarily confuse and complicate their writing. I don’t write with the expectation or desire that everyone will understand or appreciate what I am saying. If you want us all to sound alike and say the same things, that would defeat the purpose of being individual. Disagreeing makes the world go around. I’m not going to change my style just because you don’t like it, in the same that the purveyors of jargonese aren’t going to stop what they are doing. The sun will come up tomorrow.

  3. Tom, I quite agree with you. Frankly, if I see more that one acronym in the first couple of paragraphs, I check out. I have no interest in trying to learn someone else’s version of shorthand. I consider that the writer is trying to make me feel stupid or is just too lazy to write out the words. In either case, I find that to be a toxic situation in which I choose to not participate.

    • Ken, I believe that you represent a lot of readers, who simply tune out or scroll on when they see those things… If it’s worth us knowing about so that we can grasp what they are talking about, they can give us some help and explain it a little bit, I know that you can’t eliminate them altogether. If we are trying to communicate, we need to put forth some effort to help the reader understand. Thanks for your contribution to the discussion.

  4. Hi Tom,

    Your story demonstrates to me that inclusiveness is important to you.

    For myself, I respect and am aligned to that way of thinking. If everyone has the opportunity to understand what is being conveyed – all the better, and I believe that to be the point of communication.

    Some things that I want to keep in mind for my future offerings.

    Have a great week and keep enlightening your all of your congregation and all of us as well.

    • We can be overly careful and become too much of a critic and silence our own voices from saying what needs to said. I love that you are so supportive and open to various ways of thinking and expressing ourselves. We can’t say that we are getting our message out if we are speaking in a language that leaves people out of the loop, even if it is not deliberate. I do not mean that we have to dumb down our communication, but as in all things, just to keep in mind all of the potential audience and to see our messaging in a way that would not prevent an average user from understanging our communication. Thank you, as always, Maureen, for your contribution to the discussion.

  5. I like this Tom!
    So many smart people do this!
    I wonder too if this type of communication is constructed to only enhance the need for interpretation by a hired professional.? Lol
    Keeps the economy going in a way..haha
    I also think of how we all try to make things easier, and a lot of technology does this…so we take something simple…introduce a compilation of subject phrases and then we need to simplify it for others….sales…
    I understand the use of abbreviations and code words…within a certain circle, but when you are not in that particular circle, then no one is going to get it.

    It is very enlightening. We all speak at different levels… different abbreviations…expressions…terms…language is a challenge..but to master the words is a task for many!
    It really comes down to making it simple.

    “Big words mean nothing to people who do not understand them” #opism

    Thanks for this read, we are not alone in our quest to make it easy!
    Have a great day my friend!
    Paula

    • It’s about not only knowing your audience, but about respecting them too. I understand that everyone has different levels of learning and understanding. There will always be things that aren’t clearly understood or well explained, and we have to continually work at that, but my point is that jargon and technical terms and abbreviations aren’t the most helpful things to include in messaging, unless you can explain them. Thank you for your insightful addition to the discussion!

  6. Tom Dietzler, you are spot on with these observations and insights! Like you, I have observed and reacted to difficult writing styles once too often. I appreciate you taking it a step further beyond discussing unskilled writing to consider the risk of creating insiders and outsiders. It’s so important to be clear on our purpose and values when communicating — like you discussed with use of terminology that includes vs. excludes. Great job at illuminating one of the nuances of effective communication.

    • Thank you Mary, I love it that you can appreciate where I was coming from on this. I don’t mind when someone uses some unfamiliar terms here and there, because that causes me to stretch and expand my vocabulary, which is never a bad thing. I mean, learning is a wonderful thing, and we should never shy away from that. But when we make our messaging without giving any thought to “outside” consumers, we are asking for at least confusion, but more likely, apathy. Thanks for reading and for joining the conversation.

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