File this one under study-findings-so-obvious-we-can’t-believe-someone-felt-they-had-to-research-it. A recent study from psychology professors at New York University and the University of Basel in Switzerland finds that people are more likely to think you’re lying if you use abstract language, rather than concrete terms and phrasing.
Still, the professors’ unsurprising results could be a useful reminder to leaders that all the dreck that invades their speech—the jargon, the euphemisms, the corporate cliches—could have worse effects than just making them sound like idiots (hat tip to BNET). The people who work for them could actually be less likely to trust them.
The study isn’t directed at correcting corporate patois, but at how using vague nouns and verbs instead of specific ones and passive voice instead of active voice can make people less likely to think you’re telling the truth. For instance, “using verbs like ‘count’ and ‘write’ are solid, concrete and unambiguous,” note the folks over at PsyBlog in reference to the study, “while verbs like ‘help’ and ‘insult’ are open to some interpretation.” In experiments, the professors found that statements that said exactly the same thing were judged more likely to be true when they were written in definitive rather than fuzzy language.
But if “help” and “insult” are ambiguous, where does that leave “cascade” and “onboard”? If saying “vanilla ice-cream” is more likely to get people to trust you than saying “dessert,” what on earth will people think when you talk about “action items” and “deliverables”? Leaders’ capacity for using hideously awful language in an office setting seems to have no limits, and it’s more dangerous than we might think.
Of course, some jargon is helpful. The military’s vast system of acronyms and code words and lingo, while difficult for anyone without a uniform to understand, helps to create a common language for an organization that has a truly unique set of technology, processes and hierarchies and that needs a way to communicate about them. Likewise, the shorthand used by doctors and nurses in a hospital helps to make quick decisions, prevent errors, and work efficiently in an environment where life and death are on the line.
But in most cases, leaders who say we need to “cut some capacity” when what they really mean is firing people, or who talk about “incentivizing” employees instead of just simply motivating them, are using such language for no other reason than to veil what they really mean. To me, people who use such lingo are either trying to avoid actually speaking the painful thing they have to do, or trying to make it sound like what they’re doing is more complicated—and therefore worth more in terms of reward or promotional opportunity—than it really is.
Sometimes it’s intentional, other times it’s not. Even leaders with good intentions who have some respect for the English language and would prefer not to mangle it by saying “pain point” instead of “problem” find themselves falling into the trap of saying they need to “synergize” instead of “work together,” if for no better reason than to fit in with their colleagues. Some of it is harmless, though horrible to listen to. But if it makes the people you work with (or worse, who work for you) think you’re not telling the truth, it could be more hazardous than previously believed.
What’s the most egregious piece of jargon used in your office? Tell us in the comments section and translate it to real English—or “unsuck it”—at this hilarious site.
More from On Leadership:
Jena McGregor: Facebook ‘likes’ the talent myth
Tom Daschle: Washington's leadership failure