In Defense of Jargon – Kind of

CEOJargon can get up your nose. Easily. Especially when it is being used to let you know you are not among the elect (you outcast, you). Jargon separates us out into those in the know, and the rest. In this it is like the distinction between U and Non-U in the middle of the last century. Popularized by the pen of one of that formidable female phalanx, the Mitford sisters (two fascists, one communist, a novelist, a farmer and a duchess) this was a way to parse out the aristocracy from the rest of us, the hoi polloi. Do you pour milk into your cup before or after the tea, that sort of thing. It was no good simply eschewing milk at all. Your very words would give you away: do you speak of the looking glass or the mirror, etc.

So jargon distinguishes between an in-crowd and an out-crowd. But it seems to me that this is more of a side-effect, in the sense that almost anything can be hijacked to our proclivity for identifying ourselves with groups, and the desire to have our own group be seen to be better in some way than another group. That’s just the way we seem to do things around here. And only the anthropologists can tell us whether that’s the way everyone does it and has always done it, or not.

Using jargon to play power games is clearly a misuse. I feel it is this misuse, or the suspicion of it whether justified or not, which lies behind our annoyance with jargon. Remove that and a jargon term would be nothing more than a word or phrase of which the meaning is unknown to you. Not knowing its meaning would carry no suggestion that you are a bad or a lesser person. Coming across jargon would simply be like coming across a term in German. You don’t know what it means but neither do you expect yourself to. That would prick the balloon of emotion that jargon seems to generate.

Not that it’s likely to happen, of course. As suggested previously, jargon gets made use of in our social system so it is never likely to be innocuous. But if, for the purposes of this article, we separate out its social misuse from its more direct function, what do we have. Essentially, we are left with a technical term. Sometimes this will be a term completely created by some technical discipline (often based on dead languages), sometimes a word in common usage which is given a specific technical meaning, and sometimes a hybrid of the two.

One learns the jargon as one learns the technical discipline. It is like medical students learning anatomy. Their career will be involved with the body so they had better have a terminology to talk of it. Much technical terminology also migrates, with time, into our common vocabulary. It just becomes another word, gradually losing its identification with the discipline from which it derived.

The public resistance to jargon, no doubt due to its misuse in delineating status from stupid, has been all but overwhelmed by the rapid ubiquity of computers. Computers came in with a slew of jargon which built up into a tsunami. Yet almost everyone now has to deal with at least some of that computer terminology. Here was a private language which became public, and in a remarkably short period of time.

It is not to computers, though, but to a psychological discipline, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), that I will turn for our case study on jargon. NLP generated a whole lot of jargon. I know, I’ve added to it. The extent of jargon in NLP may even have had something to do with its genesis being contemporaneous with the development of personal computing, and to NLP’s own appropriation of the computer metaphor for brain functioning.

Let us take, for examination, the term, ‘Anchoring’. Within NLP this term is used for the process of associating a sensory signal, be it something seen, heard or a touch, with an element of experience, most often an emotional state. In its most obvious and evident application, I may ask someone to think of a really pleasant experience and, as they tell me of it, lead them further into the experience by asking them to see what they saw and hear what they heard at that time. When I judge that they are immersed in their experience I then use a couple of fingers to press on, say, their knee. To test whether this ‘anchor’ has been set, that is, whether an association has been established between the touch on their knee and the pleasant experience, I can, in the midst of talking about something completely different, press their knee in the same way and find out what effect this has on their ongoing experience. When the anchor works it will bring back a significant portion of the experience with which it has been twinned.

Now this process may seem already to have been delineated, and even within the field of psychology. Setting up a ‘stimulus-response’ pattern is how this would have been termed in the field of Behaviourism. So why do we need another term? Aren’t the NLP people simply adding needless jargon?

Well, they certainly did come up with an odd term. There is nothing nautical about NLP. As I said, much of its metaphoric structure was drawn from the nascent computer field; that and the field of linguistics. So why the nautical term. I don’t know, but I can speculate that there is a suggestive analogy between an anchor tethering a vessel in an ever-moving medium and the way an NLP anchor works within the ever-flowing stream of experience. Odd though it is, there is a metaphoric justification for the term itself. That leaves us with the question of why we need it at all.

With that question we arrive at the essence of our argument. ‘Jargon’ is simply a derogatory name for a distinction. And distinctions are of inestimable value in our world. It could even be said that distinctions actually create our world. But let’s keep our feet on the ground with an example. I well remember a girl-friend who had grown up learning a lot about birds. Her father even had a camera and flash rigged to a trip-wire on their bird-bath (I often wondered whether all the birds in his pictures looked startled). As we strolled along river and through park she would occasionally point out birds, their habits and flight patterns. In other words, she was making distinctions for me. Previously, I had only had the undifferentiated category ‘birds’, and then ‘robin’ because it was distinctive enough to stand out. Afterwards, I might not have remembered all I was told but I did notice differences between birds. In consequence my world became that little bit richer. That is how distinctions work.

Coming back to the developers of NLP, if they had used the term ‘stimulus-response’ it would have brought along with it all the baggage of its usage in Behaviourism (pigeons and Pavlov and all that stuff). Behaviourism was a denial of cognition (it was No Mind, but it wasn’t Zen), while NLP was part of what has been called ‘the cognitive revolution’. It wouldn’t be smart to be borrowing a term from the discipline you are ridiculing. Moreover, there were distinct differences in the two processes and especially in how they were used.

Pavlov simply paired the sound of a bell with giving a dog a hunk of meat. Because the smell of a hunk of meat would naturally cause the dog to salivate in preparation for a good chew, if the bell were rung alone it would act as a substitute for the smell of meat. Consequently, the dog would salivate. (You can do it yourself just by thinking of sucking on a lemon.) NLP was less overawed by the wonder of this process than in making use of it.

Going back to our knee-squeezing example of anchoring, once the anchor is established it can be used to bring the pleasant experience back to mind (and body) whenever it is wanted. For instance, during an NLP session a person would be bringing up and dealing with distressing incidents from their past or present. If at any time they appeared to be becoming overwhelmed with the feelings those incidents generated it might be helpful to press on their knee in that distinctive manner in order to bring back the feeling of pleasure. Additionally, to change the emotional tenor of one of those incidents I might ask the person to recall the incident and, just as they begin going into it, apply that touch to their knee. The result could be that whenever they subsequently think of the previously unpleasant incident the good feelings of the pleasant experience come up instead. In addition to it circumventing their feeling bad it can also encourage a different way of thinking about the incident, and similar incidents as they occur in the future. Another use would be if the person is planning a forthcoming meeting with someone intimidating, then those same good feelings may be purposefully associated with the thought of the intimidating person, and the meeting-place, beforehand. This makes it all the more likely that they will feel more comfortable in the difficult situation.

Applications of anchoring in NLP extend beyond these. It is not only feelings that can be anchored in this way, movements, images and sounds can also be used, and used both as the anchor and what it triggers. Additionally, the concept of anchoring is extensively applied in NLP thinking. For instance, the visual stimulus of words in a book can be thought of as anchors for the things they refer to. When we see the word its referent pops to mind, just as the good feeling did when the person’s knee was touched. Indeed, we are surrounded by anchors of all types.

There are certain kinds of voices that annoy us; they do so because they are an anchor for the unpleasant experiences we have had with other people who sounded similar. I remember someone coming up to me at a workshop and saying she’d been finding it hard to listen to me until she realized that my voice was like that of a vicar she’d disliked as a child. In that case, she became aware of what was triggering her response. Often we don’t. An NLP colleague was being given a hard time by a woman in one of his groups, so much so that he chose to use this as an example of the process he was teaching. He asked her to stop for a moment and to take the feeling she was feeling back through time to discover what it was associated with (a process which, if you are really wanting some heavy jargon, is called a ‘transderivational search’). As she did this, the woman became teary-eyed. On investigation it turned out that my friend was wearing the same kind of flannel shirt as had her late husband. In the mix of emotions she had about his death was the common one of anger at his leaving her. It was this emotion which was triggered by seeing the shirt, but it became attached to my friend. (This is also a good example of the process of rationalization: she looked at my friend and felt angry, so she made sense of this feeling by deciding her anger was due to something he was doing.)

The implications of that story are pretty wild to contemplate. And they would not have come from the concept of ‘stimulus-response’ as it is generally used in Behaviourism. Thus, the developers of NLP were justified in coining another term for the process they were using, even though the similarities might have appeared to make it redundant. This will often be the case with jargon, if examined, though that is not to say it will always be the case. Be reassured, you will always be able to find a piece of jargon on which to vent your justifiable wrath.

Graham Dawes