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I Don't Understand What Anyone Is Saying Anymore (hbr.org)
332 points by azazo on Dec 5, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 128 comments

I understand this critique, but I also think there are times where jargon, abstract expressions and acronyms make communication a lot faster and clearer for people who share the same context and domain knowledge.

Trouble is, if you don't have the domain knowledge it's really hard to tell if what you're listening to is really condensed, specific info or meaningless blather.

A lot of times I might say something like "we did data analysis with Python, NLTK and R. The stack is on EC2 running Django with memcached and varnish serving up json and the frontend uses jQuery, underscore and backbone to render it"

To some people, that's a ton of info. To others it probably sounds like gibberish.

The same even applies to the "valley-girl" talking. It sounds like meaningless half-sentences to someone listening in, but to people who know all the social relationships being discussed there might be a lot of information going back and forth.

"we did data analysis with Python, NLTK and R. The stack is on EC2 running Django with memcached and varnish serving up json and the frontend uses jQuery, underscore and backbone to render it"

We performed the data analysis using a combination of dynamic programming languages and synergistic components, running on a high availability multi tiered substrate framework while simultaneously utilizing a web space language to deliver content rich user content.

Nice reformulation. It would be right in some contexts ... but, to me (and I am not a programmer by trade nor do I work in the field), the original quote is explicit enough that I would trust the person saying it to know what they are talking about, whereas your reformulation would, in many contexts, sounds like what someone would say when they really have no clue (think "pointed-haired" boss).

I think that's the point of the reformulation: there's jargon and then there's substance-removing abstraction.

Not knowing the meaning of the first formulation, I can still safely say that it was produced by someone who knows precisely what he's talking about. That breeds confidence.

The latter sounds like wall-to-wall bullshit. Not to say that the words don't have meaning, just that they're parked in that infuriating zone favored by people who would generally prefer that you didn't actually understand what they were saying.

If all this represents an especially clever or elegant solution, wonderful - talk about that in a way that makes the elegance clear. Or provide the hard information that the first formulation conveys, so that a trusted advisor can evaluate it. Just don't slip into the bullshit zone. Not if you want to maintain goodwill, trust, and confidence.

And for what it's worth, smart humans are very good at detecting the difference between actual technicalities, and bullshit. It's got little to do with the domain. It's got a lot to do with the demeanor and tone of the person speaking.

The first formulation makes me want to hire the guy. The second makes me want to fire the guy.

I'm not sure how you can "safely say ... [he] knows precisely what he's talking about" while admitting "not knowing the meaning." I think perceiving it as "breeding confidence" is precisely the reason why many business situations where experts' actions must be managed/approved by non-experts result in a flood of impressive-sounding jargon.

The deluge of specificity creates a posture of expertise; however,without knowing what the specifics mean you can't possibly evaluate it for truth. There are many equally impressively structured but semantically ridiculous statements, such as "We host our servers on NLTK, serving up EC2 to a browser frontend running varnish and memcached."

It's more subtle than that. Looking past the technical terms, the first formulation is very distilled, and cites a specific action. It's an elegant expression. The second one uses fluffery like "performed" instead of "did". And that's what sets off the BS detector.

I think you missed the point.

Why do you perceive statement #1 to be factual? If you have no domain expertise, you have no way to evaluate it. _DPS's example sounds -identical- to someone without domain knowledge, and yet is comically absurd.

But that example goes well beyond meaningless buzzword boasting into flat-out lying. This is a bit of a different problem and it's a lot easier to fact check factual statements, with or without domain knowledge.

It's almost a shibboleth, these reverse abstractions into understandable English. The more I hear someone jargon it up, the more I think they don't understand what they're talking about. "I like big data!"

And what is "content-rich content" anyway? The "translation" is still meaningless without domain-knowledge, but is now far less factual. I guess the content is now less content-rich!

the original quote is explicit enough that I would trust the person saying it to know what they are talking about

Which is why (at least) some people do it.

If I read that without having read the original my eyes would glaze over with buzzword overload. So much lost information in the "generic" (or more correctly, vague) form. This is the sort of stuff I'd expect in a sales pitch, where I'm barely any better informed after having heard it, even for someone with domain knowledge in the area.

The original however is packed with specifics, most of which can be looked up if you're unfamiliar with (for instance I had no idea what NLTK was, but a single google search informs me it's a toolkit for natural language processing). They're not buzzwords, they're product names. It's clear and concise to someone with the domain knowledge.

"we did data analysis with Python, NLTK and R. The stack is on EC2 running Django with memcached and varnish serving up json and the frontend uses jQuery, underscore and backbone to render it"

English: We made a website to process data using natural language parsing and statistical modeling. We can throw a ton of data at and it doesn't slow down. It has a nice UI.

English 2 years from now: Once we wrote this really cool site, then our main developer left and we couldn't find anyone to maintain it. Know anyone who knows Python, NLTK, R, Django, EC2, memcached, varnish, jquery, underscore, and backbone? There really is a lack of good developers out there.

Exactly, you don't start with the details.

>"we did data analysis with Python, NLTK and R. The stack is on EC2 running Django with memcached and varnish serving up json and the frontend uses jQuery, underscore and backbone to render it"

This sentence has actual data in it. The author, I think, is talking about people whose statements have almost no substance, so they fill them in with buzzwords.

My point is that it's really hard to tell if something is a buzzword or is substance.

If you didn't have intimate knowledge of modern web development, everything in that sentence could be a meaningless buzzword and you'd have no idea.

When I hear friends talk about a domain I have little experience in, I usually have little idea what they're saying.

Sure, but if a client asks what you're doing, and you suspect they're not clueful about the work, you'd tailor your reply to as close to plain English as possible. But when you're talking to experts you correctly use jargon to rapidly communicate actual information.

There's a big difference between the example you gave and "executive" speak. About 80% of the uses I see of "leverage" / "leveraged" / "leverages" are bullshit. Not just 'could be replaced by use / used / uses' bullshit, but 'if replaced becomes meaningless' bullshit. It's not that people do not understand business talk, it's that much of it is vacuous nonsense that carries no information once you've decoded it.

The underground grammarian has some stuff about this (http://www.sourcetext.com/grammarian/) (although I can't remember where) when he gives an example of a legal definition for a door. It's a long, technical definition, and it's hard to understand. It's the kind of thing that people often make fun of. But he points out the context (maybe legislation about fire exits?) and says that being exact is important, and in that case it's good that there's no ambiguity.

I've totally heard people rattling off jargon where it didn't add anything. It didn't remove anything (save perhaps understanding by some within earshot), it's pointless complexity, and I'm a person who thinks pointless complexity should be eliminated.

Here is the definition of an exit discussion for you http://www.sourcetext.com/grammarian/less-than-words-can-say...

But that's exactly what the OP was complaining about in his charity example! and that's three acryonyms right there that you passed over without issue, and the other names are equally recondite (like 'Django' or 'varnish' tells you anything whatsoever about the projects?).

I understand all of that and yet I understand none of it. The article is talking about explaining things to people in an understandable manner, and that's a bad example.

I don't care that you did your data analysis with $technology unless I happen to be the maintenance programmer that's having to take over that project.

Why did you do the data analysis, how did you do it, and what were your findings, and what does any of that entail would be what most people are interested in.

Even if I'm interested in the technology you've told me nothing. What are the main bottlenecks in your stack, how does it scale, does it even need to scale at all etc?

It's not only important that your audience understands what you're saying, but that you pick the right and pertinent items to discuss with them.

Agreed. Unfortunately the businesspeople the author is talking about don't seem to be making the insider/outsider distinction that you're pointing out. Combine that with the fact that most businesspeople have the compulsive need to make their ideas sound more complicated and profound than they really are, and you have the recipe for misunderstanding and miscommunication.

That's precisely right. Unfortunately, this is caused by managers so often rewarding "confidence" instead of competence.

Fortunately, the way out of this is through greater use of data and analysis. I always find it amusing when an overconfident manager s left speechless when you show them the numbers indicating what they just said is bs. Of course, the nice thing about using data is that it makes managerial blowhards think twice before making promises or telling people that they've actually done something great.

I agree but I think it's more a matter of expression of not necessarily tangible concepts with speech, which is not an inherently perfect system of description. In these situations, abstraction is critical as it allows for experiences, knowledge and feeling to fill in the gaps. The use of this technique for this purpose is infrequent and most people use it for pure laziness of not being able to accurately an succinctly form verbal descriptors

I agree...for the most part. I think the author's point is however inclined more towards the case where there is an audience as opposed to an intimate social circle.

When it comes to an audience type setting, I think it is responsibility of both, the producer and the consumer, to understand that certain knowledge/terminology/context is required. Then, the speaker must communicate in the "lowest common denominator" of that minimal set of expectations.

No, valley girl talking is just fillers and the abstraction article refers to is fake, unneeded use of more general words that is diluting the actual meaning. The article is wrong on acronyms, they are useful and convey meaning.

I don't have any trouble understanding people when they say something like "I'm in the sort of sustainability space around kind of bringing synergistic value-add to other people's work around this kind of space." They're simply saying nothing. I remember watching some cartoon where some aliens are watching humans converse and they interrupt by saying "ritual gum flapping time is over". That's all this is: ritual gum flapping. When two people flap their gums at each other for a few minutes, it increases their comfort with each other and that social comfort helps keep society glued together. Sometimes conversations are about exchanging ideas, other times they are purely about socialization. In this case, the conversations aren't about the ideas, they're about having a conversation.

It may seem pointless, but a lot of being human is pointless.

Making a presentation to others (the context of TFA) is not about socialization, it is about exchanging ideas. If you aren't communicating well there, you are failing at the primary objective.

I do agree there are contexts where the information transfer is not important (the ritual gum smacking). Good communicators can identify which is which and act appropriately.

Are you sure? I think business presentations are 99% getting your name out there and 1% teaching people valuable information. I've been to them and I'm not sure how anyone could pay attention to the content because it's very very slow-moving and boring. But now I know the presenter. Hence, it's obvious that this is a social ritual rather than something that makes objective good use of everyone's time. (The audience members attend so that other audience members will remember them too.)

(We recently had some company-wide meeting that was a few hours long. I realized that I could have read an essay version of the "presentation" in five minutes. 1 hour and 55 minutes times 300,000 employees makes presentations a pretty fucking dumb way of sharing information, if the only purpose is in fact to share information.)

Company wide meetings are so that nobody can claim they didn't get the memo. It's not just about sharing information, it's the implicit threat that everyone knows the information has been shared with you. Lots of other ways to solve that problem, but apparently herding everyone in the same room is the accepted default.

Nonsense. You can communicate anything at all complex faster, more clearly, and above all more reliably in print, even in an email, than by speech. Meetings and presentations are all about status and signaling.

Certainly there are better ways to build rapport than saying things like "I'm in the sort of sustainability space around kind of bringing synergistic value-add to other people's work around this kind of space" though, aren't there?

Human interaction already has plenty of social rituals that serve no purpose than to build rapport. Why pass ritual gum flapping off as practical speech?

Also known as phatic communication:


It is always ritual-gum-flapping time for some folks.

I guess pointless gum flapping is OK in a bar over a beer, less in a business meeting

I think the author missed one of the motivations behind some of the behaviors: Pure unadulterated bullshitting.

Some folks figure out early in life to talk past their listeners, and some listeners will be intimidated. I found this out by simply playing stupid a number of times (it comes quite naturally for me) and making them explain it fully.

You will be surprised at the number of charlatans exposed by this tactic.

I knew a VC who you could describe as Barney Fife, and be 100% accurate. I always talked to him on a level he could understand, because I too thought he was a little slow. I was polite and explained things so that he understood how we where doing.

Fortunate for me though, I never was on the opposite ends of his ambitions, because he fooled everyone who crossed his path.

One day, we where in the process of negotiating an exit with a huge player in our market and I enter the room with him and our CEO (a brilliant guy), conversations start and this guy turns into Mr. Negotiator. I mean here is a guy that I have known for 2 years and all the sudden he is the smartest, shrewdest guy in the room. He is tearing apart arguments, quoting technical information that I explained to him (winking at me, saying that he was listening). Explaining financial models to them and why they wont work for us. etc. etc.

I walked away from that table with a totally different perspective than I walked in with. The moral of the story was sometimes the bullshitter gets bullshited. They thought they had this guy, and when the time was right he, let go, blind sided them, took them off of their game, and walked out of the room holding the aces.

I learned that day, that the dumbest guy in the room, may very well be the smartest guy in the room. Never underestimate people and their capabilities it may come back to haunt you.

After that meeting I said to him, man I feel like I don't know you at all, in which he said something pretty profound, he said: I am the same friend you have had for two years, and that is a humble good listener. Those last 3 words have been what I have aspired to be since that day.

Great, great story.

"Never underestimate people and their capabilities it may come back to haunt you." Well, the guy trying to look like the smartest guy in the room, probably isn't. To your point, if the "dumbest guy in the room" seems comfortable looking like the dumbest guy in the room -- _that_ is the one to keep an eye on.

I am always reminded of him when someone quotes the saying used in gambling if you look around the table and can't spot the sucker the sucker is you. Smart people (at least smart enough to bullshit) are used to deflecting questions from the dumb and they are shrewd enough to never get trapped in a room in which they are out of their league with people that can see through their ruse. What he did was lure them into a trap in which they felt comfortable not bringing their defenses (lawyers, and accounts) because it would scare the sucker. The did not play conservative in the face of a competent adversary. So thinking they had a sucker they adopted a riskier strategy of bullshit, and pacify, in an effort to keep the sucker at the table while they milked him. Where they entered the room thinking they would keep it small an "among friends".

There is a lot of back story on this deal and it is a long story, one day I may post it. But it did involve this player starting negotiations by suing us, so there was a lot of bad blood. He pal'ed around with their CEO for a month being their sucker all the while rejecting a purchase in favor of a partnership (which made absolutely no since to us or them), he would use all kinds of dumb excuses as to why we did not want to sell. I had no idea how well this guy had us covered, until I went into that room.

It was one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed. If you have never seen a person that can plan out 20 to 30 steps ahead, all hinged off of other people, when you see it unraveled in front of you and connect the actions, it is nothing short of amazing. It was the single greatest display of brilliance I have ever seen. A single man took on a giant with his mind, and nothing more than timing. It was a valuable lesson in underestimation and the element of surprise.

> one day I may post it.

Just dropping a comment encouraging you to do so. I'm sure I'm not alone.

Yes, please.

Will do, I am working on getting funding for my next project right now, so I will sit down and start working on it, as soon as I am through that push.

The guy sounds like a genius, it's pretty straightforward Sun Tzu, or anyone of a number of tacticians who have discovered the same thing, when your hand is weak present it as strong, when your hand is strong present it as weak.

That sounds like a really easy-to-game strategy. If you know that someone follows this approach, then just invert your estimates of his strength.

Yes, but you still have to know he's following this approach. A good practitioner will hide that.

If you remember the show Colombo, the main character made an art of playing dumb.

Usually, though, you don't know. And most people don't follow it, so you kind of have to assume any random person doesn't until you have better information. Hopefully this is before he beats you.

Right in his case, he exposed it when he needed to, and that was on rare occasion. The funny part is that you would be surprised how much of superiority is engrained by behavior, people would underestimate him more than one time which really surprised me, it was like his actions where able to turn off instinctual safeguards, so even when someone logically knew he was sandbagging, they would still get all the cues that, they had the upper hand. He would trap people with habitual and natural interaction with him, you may go a year with him playing dumb (simple is a better word for it) and you get lulled into the routine off it, then when needed he became shrewd. With people that he was not in an adversarial relationship with, he just assumed the manner as his default manner. So it was not totally manipulative. As he said, he is a simple guy and likes to use the simple part of his brain, but can draw on the rest when needed. In a way, it was not fake, hence my not being able to detect it. I am usually very good at detecting people that are putting up fronts.

It was not that simple, this guy knew how to use behaviors and social norms against adversarial individuals. To the extent that he was able to use human nature and unspoken language of both his, theirs and others against the person. Coupled with, planning out steps far in advance and setting up multistage scenarios in which each piece was part of a grand plan that had to fall into place just right, made him formidable when negotiating.

Anyone's strategy is easy to game if you already know what it is.

Accidentally upvoted. No, some strategies are strong even when uncovered.

I think his point was that, not knowing the strategy gives the strategist an advantage and the adversary a disadvantage. Once used the adversary is the wiser for the experience.

Unfortunately we on HN do not like generalization and the poster used anyone, in which he probably meant a good deal or a majority. I would note though, that anyone that is able to fundamentally change their character, to not exude intelligence, is probably not a one trick pony. He was the only experience with a person that cunning, but to me it seems like his character would be a prerequisite.

Hah! I was just reading this on a political-ish blog yesterday:

"In my experience — and I'm old, so it's long — people who make a noticeable exhibition of their smartness are not the most intelligent people. They're not the dumbest people. But the smartest people are strategic about displaying intelligence. That's how they outsmart you. "


I will try to skirt the politics as best I can, but one thing that I have come to realize with age, is generally those who complain loudly, are not smart enough to see the solutions. But others mistake their complaints as actions and intelligence. I will venture there, because both individuals in that article are guilt of the same, diversionary pandering. I see it in business all the time. It's an arch-type, the guy that comes into the meeting complaining about everything that is messed up, with no actionable recommendation on how to fix it. It's a form of bullshit based on facts and is intellectually lazy.

I hate replying to my own post, but my old post is too old to add an edit to and there seems to be some interest on the subject. I found an old article about him, that was written after we sold our venture, when he was purchasing the Tampa Bay Lightning, it sums him up pretty well:


Sometimes I feel the little up arrow doesn't express enough. I really enjoyed your story. It's a good reminder for myself to keep my own ego in check.

Thanks, it's nice to know my contributions are appreciated.

I love it, slow-playing intelligence is the best. I have a ton of respect for those with world-class intelligence and the ability to refrain from constantly showing it off.

Agreed. It's not being stupid that makes you vulnerable to bullshit. It's not wanting to look stupid. Lots of people will silently nod as if they understand when they have no idea what's being said. I've even done it myself in some circumstances. Unfortunately, this allows the speaker to gloss over critical issues make nice-sounding ideas unworkable in practice.

I sometimes fall into the trap of not asking questions in order to avoid looking stupid. However, when bullshit rises to a certain level and I've heard practically no substance, I don't ask questions mainly because I don't care. Once the bullshit bit is flipped, it is hard to unflip.

I'm certainly guilty of this. In my case, I suspect I process verbal information a touch slower than I should (which is to say probably above average, but below average when dealing with the fast-talking-fast-acting business crowd).

I do that all the time, but not because I don't want to look stupid. Usually it's because they're talking about something I'm just not interested in, but I don't want to be rude about it.

I've been on a conference call where everyone was banding around acronyms that I didn't know, so I jumped in and asked if they could define a particular TLA that was coming up frequently.

It turned out that not a single person on the call knew what it stood for.

That happens all the time, but it's because the acronym is not the point. For example, when some production system went down, a "swat team" was assembled to make sure that wouldn't happen. SWAT stands for something, but what it stands for is meaningless, it's just a unique identifier for the sort of activities that the team will engage in. It's like when people call an ATM an "ATM machine". To them, ATM is an opaque word, not an abbreviation for "automated teller machine". And that's fine; use a word enough and it becomes a word.

* Special Weapons and Tactics.

I think it's important to still learn what any internal acronyms and jargon mean, otherwise you can get into a "telephone game" situation where two people have acquired different and conflicting definitions for the same term.

humorous anecdote: My brother's friend thought "lol" meant lots of love. Until one day an exchange went down:

someone else: "I have to leave town, my mother is sick." them: "oh no! lol"

In fact, the discussion that followed my question demonstrated that everyone had different ideas of what the acronym meant, and that those differences underlay some of the conflict over what to do about issues related to it. It wasn't just a placeholder for a shared concept; it was an active barrier to cooperation.

…asked if they could define a particular TLA that was coming up frequently.

Were you meta on purpose? For the other people that don't know (like me): TLA stands for "three letter acronym". I was really wondering if you were being recursive by using a made-up acronym, that nobody could define.

Sorry, couldn't resist. :)

Did your next review state "Could be better at being a team player"

Reviews are for the still-employed :)

In retrospect, I'm embarassed that I had to google TLA.

I have the same problem. Once I realized that I was not just stupid and the other person was simply not communicating well, I began to try repeating what they just said back to them in "normal language" to ensure I had understood them correctly.

When I did this, two things happened: people began to think that I was really smart, and I realized that I could usually repeat whatever I wanted and the person would agree with me.

> ...I realized that I could usually repeat whatever I wanted and the person would agree with me.

This is actually a successful conversational terrorism [1] strategy, which I have used (when pressed) both in written and spoken contexts.

[1] http://www.vandruff.com/art_converse.html ("Distorted Active Listening")

A part of me wonders if this isn't a factor of people trying to give more importance to the importance of their roles than is, in fact, justified. The doorknob example from the article is a good one in this respect. Instead of calling it a "doorknob", a complicated, important-sounding analog is used. Who's using it? Someone who feels that doorknobs are not that important, and that putting "doorknob salesman" on their resumé won't look nearly as impressive as "residential access tool marketer".

Human nature, I suppose. Still, it makes the language less useful.

I'm in the advertising industry where I frequently find myself surrounded by this kind of jargon (the word "media" is a tell that you're about to get an avalanche of bullshit).

I've found one trick for turning these conversations about abstract business models into something meaningful; ask "Who writes a check to whom, and for what?" If you get a quick answer, then you have a chance that there's common sense lurking around somewhere; if not, flee.

Here's a real life example I ran into a week ago:


We've made some changes to the Open AIM program to better align with AOL’s new direction and clear focus on our core strategy areas. Going forward, we're shifting our focus to select partnership opportunities that will help us move the needle in the communications space.


Well, it is annoying corporate-speak, but I can understand it: "this development program is now closed to the general public. It will be open only to partners that can help us making money."

Wow, no way. Wow.

Valley Girl 2.0

Sadly this is me, I hate it, but I know it is true, my mind works far faster than my mouth and when I am excited it comes out as half sentences, joined by "likes" and "you knows". I have to concentrate to focus on pulling myself back and then I worry that I am not getting my thoughts across, but at least I know I am not getting them across when, I am doing it at thought speed.

Someone said to me once "Dude you use likes like other people use ums". If there was one thing I could change about my speaking style that would be it. Funny part is I speak at conferences and when I monolog it is not an issue. Q&A is a different story all together.

In my (private) high school's health class "like" and "um" and others were referred to as "stop-words" by the teacher because people would say them instead of pausing. It's really obvious once you look for them, for instance I hear things like college tour guides that would literally say "um" after every single sentence, probably unbeknownst to themselves!

One of the class projects was for us to remove the stop words from our speech by the end of the semester. We did this by all using recording software (had to submit either by cassette tape or wav/mp3) and answering questions such as "Do you want to live forever and why or why not?" by speaking for at least 5 minutes. These were our homework assignments.

We had to very consciously never use any stop words. We could pause the recorder if we had trouble thinking of what to say, but we could never say those words.

I was skeptical of the assignment at first but my class all agreed by the end of the semester that it made us much better speakers, simply learning to consider our pauses instead of filling the silence with "like" and "um".

Stop words have a function though in some situations. They tend to stop people interrupting you. The better alternative if you dont want to be interrupted is to pause in the middle of sentences as people then tend to wait.

Of course letting people interrupt is goid a lot of the time but sometimes you want to dominate a discussion.


When preaching sermons (which are all recorded) I soon learned that a short pause was better than a stop word. And as long as you don't look or sound panicked when you pause, it comes across as being thoughtful and people accept it as a natural part of speaking to deep issues.

In my high school public speaking class, we also had a goal to remove these stop words from our speech by the end of the semester - but in our case, the teacher would simply stop you if you ever said one of these stop words in class, at which point you would have to say what you were going to say again without any stop words.

it didn't take long for most people to learn, and it's probably one of the more valuable lessons I've carried with me from high school. I've learned to be more comfortable taking a pause if I need it, which I think has had only positive effects.

On the other hand, sometimes it can be annoying just how aware you are of other people using stop words :)

This rule never worked for me, because I, like some sort of analogy machine, like to use analogies. And like is a good word to place emphasis on before making an analogy.

Except I imagine like the author like meant using like out of like, you-know, thingie... context.

I live with someone who uses like far to often it's almost a speech impediment. Of course, he doesn't notice it and I'm learning to ignore it. However on the flip side, when I can't think of what I want to say next (and that is also often) I just go silent, frequently leaving my conversation partner puzzled and sometimes they ask to repeat what I said.

edit: grammar.

I would not say thingie but the rest of it is pretty much a conversation with me, about something I am extremely interested in. Speech impediment is a good description for it. It's has to be related to turrets or something, because it is ingrained and habitual, but yet in monologing (generally learned speech) I don't have the issue.

You learn language by listening to others. If a lot of your friends say "thingie" in regular conversation, you will too. It's how language adapts and evolves.

Remember, language is just a more refined form of making random noises. (Also, think about how easy it is to remember the lyrics songs you've listened to over and over again. The imitation part of your brain is very strong.)

You learn language by listening to others

Right, I think I did a bad job of conveying my point, which was monologing is generally not a natural way to speak, therefore most people learn to monolog and can go into that mode, same with reciting, though it is less of a conscious act, reciting is a form of learned behavior and therefore has events and patterns that you can draw on to reproduce ans suppress impulsiveness, at least for me that is how it works. With spontaneous dialog, again for me, it is less structured, and is more thought oriented, I therefore seems to bounce around more in that particular situation, more than other more unnatural and therefore learned forms of speaking. The "like" I most definitely picked up as a learned word from my environment (a surfing town), the fact that I use it as conjunctions and commas, I think is my own doing.

I thank you guys for the advice, and I have done this and I have perfected (to the best of my abilities) my ability to monolog. Which is what these exercise teach you, my problem comes in natural conversation in which I am excited about the subject. The conversation is more dynamic in a dialog, and I find myself hopping from idea to idea faster than in a monolog in which I an the one who determines the switches in context.

In a speech class (I think it was Toastmasters), they had someone with an audible 'clicker' they would click every time someone used a 'stop-word', which also provided a count at the end of the speech.

This was very effective training to stop (or at least greatly reduce) their usage.

Record yourself. Playback.

The course correction will happen quite quickly.

Very quickly in my case.

At the church that I pastor, it is still small enough that I am the principle sound engineer as well, so I get to hear my recorded sermons before uploading them. This cured the use of stop words and also is removing my rabid dislike of hearing myself speak.

No discussion on this topic is complete without George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" essay[1]. It shiws this isn't a recent issue, and is systemic throughout the English world.

Everybody who wants to communicate well should read this regularly. It is far easier to write abstractly than it is to write concretely, so people who aren't striving to be concrete will trend towards abstraction.

[1] http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

I came here to post this myself.

Language is an adaptive system: a term emerges with some small skerrick of insight, is rapidly applied to everything, is diluted and then loses its semantic potency. Then it happens again with a new term.

Too true. Some guys over at college humor are on to this problem already... Anyone who has spent time in Silicon Valley will find this clip awesome!



For anybody that needs a quick and humorous guide to all the terrible tropes of Business Guy Language, check out http://unsuck-it.com/browse/ (warning, some bits may be NSFW). An indispensable dictionary for the common man.

I'm not saying these and other business phrases aren't widely misused or used as a way to sound smart while saying nothing. But in case anyone is interested:


The term comes from M&A and refers to scenarios where the whole (after a merger or acquisition) is worth more than the sum of the parts. For example, a steel foundry which acquires a competitor and can now buy iron at a lower price because it buys in higher volume. The increase in profitability of both foundries from the decreased cost of iron is a "synergy".


Comes from Michael Porter (I think) and refers to the idea that each of the activities a company performs on their inputs before the final output should add value to the final product. If the company is unable to add value through one of those activities it's something they should pass to another party. This leads to phrases like "is our customer service call centre a value-add or should we outsource it?"

My beef with things like this is not with the concept, but the way it is used. 'Does our call center add value to our product?' is an entirely reasonable question. 'Value-add' as a noun is a big red flag for me, suggesting the speaker has a poor grasp of the underlying concept and/or is trying to overstate the significance of the issue to seem more important. I feel the same when someone uses 'dialog' as a verb.

I've had this same argument when I hear project managers talk about what the "ask" is. I don't think "request" is a complicated word.

Your definition is good enough, but "synergy" actually comes from Buckminster Fuller who built a philosophical system mostly around the idea in the 1950s through early 1970s. The business community got it from him, largely, from what I heard, by way of a bunch of leftish techies that were associated with him and Black Mountain College in the sixties.

Uh, according to Wikipedia the word comes from Greek (like so many other in English), 'synergia συνεργία from synergos, συνεργός, meaning "working together"'. They do mention that Buckminster Fuller analysed it further, and coined "synergetics". See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synergy.

Oh, and to the grandparent (I think), it was fun to see "M&A" used in a thread about opaque language. Turns out it stands for "mergers and acquisitions" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%26A).

Haha, good point. The acronym didn't even cross my mind when I was using it.

Using real words that made sense would vastly decrease the grandiloquent feeling of self-importance that puffs up these enemies of clear communication.

I sentence them all in absentia to ten readings of "The Elements of Style" by Strunk & White.

The Economist has an excellent style guide (free online) for business communication. The magazine is geared towards a global, generalist audience so there's plenty of tips for communicating complex topics clearly.

The Orwell essay mentioned above is excellent too. I'll often go back through something I've written and "make change" by splitting the $2 words into a handful of simpler ones. After all, no-one likes a sesquipedalianist.


I call it "biz dev jargon". The corporate hierarchy trains you to speak this way. The people at the top of the org chart have no clue what "we need a REST API for our Hadoop cluster " means or why they should even care, and if you do speak that way to them then they'll nod kindly at you then ask you to surrender your red stapler. You instead have to say "We're providing the customer with automated control over their own data processing." If you don't speak biz dev then the business owners don't understand you.

This reminds me a bit of when I watch a Movie or a TV Show and there is some geek or hacker character who is supposed to be doing something related to computers in order to resolve a plot point.

They will often say something like "oh I just.." then spiel of a load of technical phrases some of which I recognize and others which are clearly made up, this is supposed to sound highly complicated and clever but not understandable to the average viewer. Of course if you know anything at all about technology you realize it sounds completely ridiculous.

I always wonder why they do this, since it is something viewers are not supposed to be able to understand anyway. Why not at least make it accurate enough to at least give the geeks watching a chuckle (references to nmap in the matrix for example and apache/perl in "the social network" being examples of this) rather than just roll their eyes.

If the presentation is by a technical* person to other technical* people, and you are just sitting in, then its fine. You just don't understand. The techies do. Its just domain knowledge speeding communication.

If the presentation is to non-technical people, then its probably jargon intended to bullshit you into thinking the speaker knows what they're talking about, and also a game brinksmanship to dare you to call their bluff. Call them on it. If they do know what they are talking about, you'll learn something (and probably so will everyone who was keeping quiet). If they don't, well, you learned something too.

* substitute lawyer, doctor, {domain_professional}

I believe the author wants to let us know that the phenomena of Proof by Intimidation is catching up with most of us.


In my experience, its over abstraction that is the real hard nut to crack. I have heard people using very abstract statements which everybody seems to agree on, but most of them understand it differently.

Kind-of tangentially related, but I find that there's a high tendency for people to interrupt other people and speak over others. This often leads to poorly-thought-out discussions, because people are rushing to get a word in edge-wise. At one point, I had to implement a "Lord of the Flies" style conch system to make discussions bearable. Lately, it seems endemic to programming style discussions. I'm not sure why.

I find that when everyone slows down, thinks before speaking, and uses deliberate language, understanding improves greatly.

Reminds me of this quote from Aditya Chakrabortty:

> One of the best gauges of whether a statement actually means anything is to stick a not in its middle. If the opposite sounds ridiculous, then the chances are the original proposition is mush.


I am extremely bad at this kind of talk. I like it when it's clear. But I am in a middle of preparing a presentation for some employer whom I want to offer some consultancy. What should I do not to give him an impression that hhe can move on without me because the topic is so clear and simple?

Make it clear that you are the one making the topic clear and simple.

I recently interviewed somebody who had previously been an elementary school teacher. Their resume had the following line: "Instructed a diverse group of up to 29 students in a self-contained classroom on a daily basis." I laughed at that bit of buzzword padding for quite a while.

Consider what your audience wants to know, not what you want to say. Try to avoid metaphor or analogy.

"We recommend games based on what their friends play. Someday books and movies." = good

"Our EC2 based cloud platform combines social dynamics for consuming a range of media types. Like facebook for apps." = bad

Death Sentence (http://www.amazon.com/Death-Sentences-Management-Speak-Stran...) by Don Watson is the seminal work on the topic.

Hahah, this is one of the truest articles I've read recently. I think everybody on here knows at least one person who speaks like the latter example in this piece, and the takeaway advice is immediately relevant and usable

Especially when it pertains to oneself.

This would not typically be appropriate for HN, but it is relevant:


Reminds me of this Finding Nemo quote:

Marlin: It's like he's trying to speak to me, I know it. [to Squirt] Marlin: Look, you're really cute, but I can't understand what you're saying. Say the first thing again.

It could be that the techie tendency to not be able to put them(our?)selves in others' shoes makes this kind of communication much more difficult.

Sadly enough that is the kind of talk that gets you hired as a manager in some places.

As a great example, contrast a Mark Zuckerberg interview with a Steve Jobs one.

You should listen to a Geordie for a few minutes. They literally use 'like' as punctuation.

The word "like" - just casually pay attention to the number of times this word is used (abused?) in conversations, especially by teenagers - unbelievable. It is probably the new filler word, in place of "Umm", "Hmm" etc

All I know is, anyone who uses the word "space" in any sense other than the mathematical one of "a set with dimensionality" needs a slap in the face.

If they use it in a sentence where it could be substituted for "room" or "place" with no difference in meaning, then they get two slaps in the face.

(Just realised this means I now have to slap people at my local hackerspace. So be it.)

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