They’re a quick and easy tool for communication, but overusing abbreviations at work might mean your message isn’t being heard.
Are you a PCBU (person conducting a business or undertaking), or an FTE (full-time employee)?
Does your organisation employ a MBO (management by objectives) or MBWA (management by wandering around) approach? Do you use OSKAR (outcome, scale, know-how, affirm + action and review) as a coaching technique to boost employees’ performance?
If you weren’t already confused enough by the multitude of workplace abbreviations that existed BC (before COVID), then came a whole dictionary of pandemic associated terms to get familiar with.
Last year, it was mandatory to wear PPE (personal protective equipment) if you were WFO (working from the office), but if you became a PUI (patient under investigation), you needed to stay OOO (out of the office) and in your SOHO (small office/home office) until you received a TN (true negative).
Staying abreast of all these abbreviations in a VUCA (volatile, unpredictable, complex, ambiguous) world has sent many of our heads spinning. Just ask former Seinfeld star Jason Alexander.
But before we unpack some of the confusing and alienating aspects of using abbreviations at work, let’s first consider why they’ve come to populate our workplace rhetoric, and how they can be a useful tool for effective communication.
Purpose of abbreviations at work
Due to their efficiency and ease of use, abbreviations have earned their rightful place in the workforce across myriad industries, countries and cultures.
Bernadette Vine, research fellow and member of the Wellington Language In the Workplace Project team at the Victoria University says that in most cases, abbreviations are “effective agents of communication”.
“When you’re frequently referring to the same things that might have long and complicated names, shorthand just makes communication faster, easier and more effective.”
Outside of efficiency, acronyms and initialisms also serve a deeper purpose integral to a company’s cohesiveness and employees’ shared sense of identity.
“It’s part of belonging to a team,” says Vine. “By showing that you know what [certain terms] are and that you can use them, you’re signalling that you belong to a group, and are knowledgeable about a particular topic.”
It’s common for teams to develop other shorthand terms, jargon, in-group humour or slang, for the same reason.
Echoing Vine’s sentiment, Kipling Williams, professor of psychological science at Indiana’s Purdue University, says abbreviations make people feel they are “in a private club that uses code”.
He says shorthand is a double-edged sword: “it alienates and excludes prospective and/or new members, but it might make regular members feel special and superior to those not in their group”.
Abbreviations at work can be alienating
Professor Williams’s research entitled Alienating the Audience, How Abbreviations Hamper Scientific Communication (2017), conducted with Andrew Hales and Joel Rector, explored how abbreviations can be alienating for those in the ‘out-group’.
The study assigned 98 university students to one of three groups.
In each group, the students were asked to read a recruitment message from exercise company, CrossFit.
One third of the participants read a passage in which abbreviations were spelled out at every mention, the second group read a message which had abbreviations peppered throughout, but the wording was only spelled out for the first mention of each abbreviation. The third group was required to read a passage that included abbreviations that were not spelled out on any occasion.
When participants were then asked about their psychological needs (belonging, self-esteem, control and meaningful existence), their interest in joining the group, and how difficult they found the passage to comprehend, it became apparent just how alienating abbreviations can be.
“It alienates and excludes prospective and/or new members, but it might make regular members feel special and superior to those not in their group.” – Professor Kipling Williams, Professor Psychological Science, Purdue University
The degree to which participants felt their basic needs were threatened increased as the message became laden with acronyms, as did their interest in joining the group and the sense of difficulty they experienced when reading the passage.
Williams says overusing abbreviations can “alienate new or prospective members. They don’t know what the abbreviations or acronyms mean, and they feel excluded, detached, and uninterested in whatever group is using them”.
Now working with Purdue University’s diversity, equity and inclusion taskforces, Williams has noticed that members of the team frequently use abbreviations with newcomers present “even though they know [it’s] exclusionary”. He’s often reminding the more seasoned employees to be mindful of using abbreviations without spelling out the meaning, revealing just how automatic it has become for most of us to freely use abbreviations at work without consciously considering the impact it’s having on others in the room.
Obfuscate true meaning
Abbreviations are widely used in the corporate world, but popular usage of shorthand might hark back to wartime.
In an editorial on abbreviations published in the Journal of Child Neurology, Roger A. Brumback explained how the word ‘acronym’ was popularised during World War II due to its usefulness in disguising a message’s true meaning from an onlooking enemy.
“Despite its initial justification of economising materials and time, the use of abbreviations and acronyms now appears more likely to fulfil the World War II purpose of hiding written information, particularly from the ‘prying eyes’ of scientists, physicians, and researchers,” Brumback writes in his paper.
“It is puzzling why scientists would want to erect barriers to the understanding of their studies by publishing articles with abbreviations that make reading difficult for anyone not intimately familiar with that specific field.”
By this logic, those who are unfamiliar with a particular abbreviation may miss essential details instead diverting their energy towards deciphering the meaning of the abbreviation in question.
Williams says this effect can occur even when an abbreviation is spelled out at the beginning of a paper or talk.
“People unfamiliar with the abbreviation are not going to be able to recall it well, and it will slow their processing of subsequent information.”
“You’re signalling that you belong to a group, and are knowledgeable about a particular topic.” – Bernadette Vine, research fellow at the Victoria University of Wellington
Further, while noting his own research didn’t explore how abbreviations can conceal vital information, Williams says shorthand could be manipulated for this more sinister purpose.
“It is possible that one could laden one’s speech or paper with jargon and abbreviations to obfuscate lack of logical thinking,” says Williams.
If his speculation has some empirical basis, then heavy reliance on abbreviations presents a danger to meaningful communication, and could conceal a lack of understanding, which could be detrimental to a company’s output and reputation.
Here to stay
Abbreviations are a useful shorthand to have in your back pocket and the role they play in the formation of group identity means acronyms and initialisms aren’t leaving our workplaces anytime soon.
How, then, can we use them in a measured and effective way that ensures everyone is on board, and that newcomers aren’t left behind?
- Awareness is paramount. “Abbreviations become so ingrained in everyday talk that we might forget that outsiders may not know what they mean,” says Vine. “Be aware and know that if someone doesn’t know an acronym, it doesn’t mean they are incompetent. It might just be that they are accustomed to a different set of words, or come from a different culture and use a different term for the same thing.”
- Check in: Consider adopting a TED (tell me, explain to me, describe to me) approach for new starters. “If you are using a lot of abbreviations, check that people understand the jargon or acronyms because you’ll be helping hem integrate into the group,” says Vine.
- Normalise not knowing. Vine says new starters need to have the confidence to ask when they don’t understand a particular abbreviation. “Doing so could be something that new starters find threatening, but understand that it’s part of learning to fit into a new team, and being brave enough to ask if you don’t understand.”
- Spell out an abbreviation in the moment if a newcomer is present.
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