My daughter is involved in a particular extra-curricular activity that has an incredible number of special terms, abbreviations, acronyms, and other words and phrases that are incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Just like Science! I have learned some of the terms, but there always seem to be more that I don't know. And no, this extra-curricular activity has nothing to do with athletics of any sort, so my ignorance is not related to my lack of interest in sports.
I will never learn all of this new activity-specific language, and that's fine. This is my daughter's activity, and it would actually be quite weird if I started hurling around the relevant acronyms in conversation.
When we were en route to visiting some relatives this summer, I said to my daughter "You know, you're going to get asked about Activity, and you should try as much as possible to avoid jargon and describe it using words that they will understand."
She was silent for a few moments, thinking about this, then said "You're right, but I'm not sure I know what is jargon and what isn't anymore. I should practice."
So we pretended that I was Great Aunt Milly and I asked her about her recent Activity activities, and my daughter started talking about this, trying but failing to avoid jargon. I listed the incomprehensible words she had just used, and she tried again. This time I made an obnoxious beeping sound whenever she jargonized, and then we both started laughing too much to continue for a while.
Later, we tried again, and she did much better, and by the time we were surrounded by Great Aunts and Not-Great Uncles, she did an excellent job of talking about her Activity, and our relatives were able to ask her questions instead of lapsing into stunned silence, which is what some people have done when she's gone into full-jargon mode in other conversations.
It occurred to me that I could use some help de-jargonizing my own descriptions of my work. I can easily give a 101-level description of my research, but in some cases (e.g., elderly family members) that doesn't work very well, probably because even the most science-phobic undergraduate has recently had some science in high school, whereas some of my relatives have not thought about even basic science concepts since Eisenhower was president.
So I started thinking about all the different 'levels' at which we need to talk about our general or specific fields of expertise; in this example, I will use Science:
- Great Aunt Millies: total non-scientists who don't know even the most basic words that we don't really consider jargon because they aren't particularly specialized are incomprehensible in this context.
- Non-scientists/non-students who can handle the basic vocabulary of science, either from K-12 classes or from watching shows on TV (or reading science fiction?) or maybe from some technical experiences related to their job of hobbies.
- Non-science faculty and administrators who read our internal grant proposals, award nominations, or other documents that are supposed to be jargon-free.
- Students in introductory-level Science classes (if not at the beginning of the term, by the end..).
- Students in more specific classes in Science.
- Science faculty or administrators who are in our department or our institution but who aren't in our specific field of research AND science faculty, students, and others who attend our invited talks at other universities (if the talks are supposed to be oriented to a general Science audience)
In grant proposals to programs in our field and certainly in articles in journals, we can typically go wild with the jargon because the people reading our text will understand these terms, although even here it is possible to go too far and use complex terms where a simpler one would suffice.
What about talking to the media? For those who aren't science journalists, I think it's best to go with the Great Aunt Milly level of simplicity, and for science journalists.. it varies.
My last experience with the media was with a science journalist who seemed to know the basic jargon of my field. Nevertheless, I kept having to decrease the Science level of the conversation because, although he knew vocabulary, he didn't really seem to know what these words actually meant in terms of processes or interrelated concepts. Although we talked for a long time and I asked him to repeat back some of the essential points (a suggestion that seemed to annoy him, perhaps understandably), the result was kind of bizarre. In fact, as I was trolling around the science news headlines, I overlooked the article about my research because the headline had absolutely nothing to do with my research. Only once I started getting e-mail about the article did I realize which headline referred to my work.
Clearly I need more practice de-jargonizing my Science speech. Fortunately, I know exactly the right person who will help me with this, most likely by making obnoxious beeping sounds when I use jargon, but that's OK.. that technique actually seems to help a bit.
10 months ago