jargonCommunications professionals know that jargon is a problem. We don’t want to alienate people with unfamiliar or confusing language. Jargon destroys our ability to communicate clearly and effectively, and most of us think we do a good job of avoiding it. The reality is that jargon is sneaky and pervasive, even in everyday conversation. I realized just how pervasive during a trip to the Jersey Shore.

As transplanted Californians living in Brooklyn, we used our vacation time to explore various destinations that born-and-bred East Coasters had long tired of. This particular excursion was to the Jersey Shore. No, not that one. This one.

Believe it or not, many parts of the Jersey Shore are tranquil seaside destinations designed for family fun. We booked a cute motel with a Tahitian theme. The room had not been updated since the 1960s and included a kitchenette complete with a blender! All we needed to complete our kitschy weekend getaway was to obtain provisions for snacks and frozen daiquiris.

We headed to the lobby for a chat with the proprietor. Coming from New York, we weren’t sure what the liquor laws were in New Jersey. Could we buy booze at the grocery store like we could in California? Did we need to find a dedicated liquor store the way you would in New York? When we asked our host to direct us to a store, we made the point that we were looking to buy food and liquor and inquired as to where we would be able to do both.

“You want an ack may or a wah wah?,” she asked us.
“An ack ha or a waa what?” we replied.
“An ACME or a WA WA,” she repeated, a bit louder.
We did a version of this a couple more times.

I tried to offer more information.

“Those words you are asking me to choose between have no meaning to me,” I pleaded. “We want a supermarket or a grocery store. A place to buy food, and also a liquor store.”

“I understand,” she said, exasperated. “But do you want an Acme or a Wawa?”

“Can you explain what those places are using other words?” I asked. “Because what we are hearing is nonsense to us.”

She struggled through our idiocy to try and come up with a different way to explain the obvious. “Well,” she said in a drawn out way to make sure we understood what an inconvenience this was, “an Acme is like a Safeway. And a Wawa is like a 7-11.”

Ah! We finally understood. The Acme was a traditional full-service supermarket, and the Wawa was a convenience store.

Our host’s assumption that we all shared the same brand references, and her inability to describe the establishments by their non-branded types turned what could have been a three-sentence interaction into a drawn-out exercise in frustration for us all. Luckily we were highly motivated (Snacks! Daiquiris!), or we would have simply given up.

Miscommunications are the basis of most sitcom plots and many funny stories, but they can have tragic consequences, too. If you aren’t using the language your audiences understand, including cultural references and nomenclature, you are undoubtedly missing potential opportunities to connect with and engage people who might be desperate for what you have to offer.

So the next time you write something for a new audience, ask yourself:
“Is there an Acme or a Wawa in there?”

. . .

Photo courtesy of Flickr user duncan

Amanda Cooper is a LightBox collaborator who hopes you say what you mean and mean what you say.