Beware of using jargon — it may reveal more about you than you intend, and not what you want.

That’s one of the key insights Professor Adam Galinsky, the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics in the Management Division at Columbia Business School, discovered when he studied the effects of using jargon. “We use jargon when we’re feeling insecure, to try to help us feel like we have a higher status,” Galinsky says.

Galinsky’s recent research examined how status impacts the way we communicate. His article, “Compensatory conspicuous communication: Low status increases jargon use,” coauthored by Zachariah C. Brown and Eric M. Anicich, was published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. In it, they write that “communication, like consumption, can be both compensatory and conspicuous.” In other words, when people are feeling insecure about their status, they rely on jargon as a flashy sign to convey higher standing, the same way one might wear a fancy watch or drive an expensive car. 

And the relationship between status and language doesn’t end there. Galinsky’s newest research shows that how we give credit to other’s work can impact status as well. Just as using jargon in an attempt to gain status can backfire, the same can happen when taking credit for oneself. Conveying credit to others can be the more powerful stance. Combining the results of the two studies provides insights for how language illuminates your status — for better or for worse.

Technical Language vs. Jargon

Galinsky’s research on jargon stemmed from an observation by a former MBA student who noticed that his classmates tended to speak in overly technical language. The student’s observation was timely: Galinsky had recently completed a research project that determined that when people feel a lack of control in the world, they often look for meaning in unrelated signs and coincidences. This behavior is what Galinsky calls a “compensatory response,” used to regain a sense of control. He wondered if the use of jargon could also be “compensatory conspicuous communication” — an attempt to display authority. “In order to display your status,” or the status you aspire to, Galinsky says, “you might try to use big words.”

It’s a natural inclination to try and mimic those with high status. Just as many wealthy people possess luxury watches, Galinksy notes, experienced leaders with deep knowledge of a topic also typically have an excellent command of the vocabulary in their field. So it’s understandable that those who are aspiring to a higher status might try to present themselves in a better light by mimicking the language of those they emulate. 

To test this hypothesis, the researchers examined 65,000 dissertations. They defined three types of jargon — linguistic complexity, acronyms, and legalese — and screened the titles for it, weeding out technical language and slang. The researchers then cross-referenced the students’ universities with U.S. News & World Report rankings and found a correlation between a high use of jargon and a lower ranked school. “This is not about the complexity of the language; it’s about showing that you are in the know, that ‘I’m an important person who has inside knowledge,’” Galinsky says.

The next set of experiments sought to further identify when people turn to jargon. Study participants were asked to present an entrepreneurial idea. Some were told they would be competing against famous alumni or MBA graduates. And in those instances, Galinsky found the study subjects were more likely to present a pitch that contained more jargon. Similar results occurred in the study when they observed conversations between two people: The person who had a lower status in the experiment also used more jargon in conversation. 

“When we looked at the psychological process involved, we found people who are lower status are more concerned with how they look in the eyes of others,” Galinsky says. “And people who have higher status are more concerned with articulating themselves and communicating effectively.”

Consider When to Use Jargon

Galinsky notes, however, that not all jargon can misfire. At the negotiating table, the setting and context matter when considering how you use jargon. “When you’re younger, and you’re using jargon correctly, it lets people know you understand,” Galinsky says. “But as a leader or a manager, it makes you seem like less of a visionary.”

He also cautions people to know their audience. “Jargon is in the eye of the beholder,” Galinsky says. “If you’re talking to Warren Buffett, you probably don’t want to use jargon, because he likes to simplify things. But for junior people talking to their superiors, it can say, ‘I’m new to this field, but I’m confident and I’ve picked up what I need to know.”

Jargon can also be a tool to reflect familiarity with a local culture. For example, Galinsky notes that at CBS, students are grouped in clusters, but when he taught at the Kellogg School of Management, they were called sections. “We often create language that is unique to our group,” he says. “People joke that when you get hired at Google, they have to give you a dictionary so you can understand all the terms. It’s a way of creating cohesion and solidarity within a group, but it also creates insiders and outsiders.”

How Status Can Influence Behavior

Recently, Galinsky has been pursuing a new offshoot of this research, looking more deeply into status and how it affects behavior. In his latest work, he gave study subjects a speech that was already written. Then he created scenarios in which he manipulated the study subjects’ insecurity about status in various ways. For example, he told some individuals that they hadn’t performed well in the past and told others that their competitors had more resources. The results repeatedly showed that when people felt lower in status, they were less likely to thank others or acknowledge their contributions. But when they then asked individuals to choose the winning pitch, those who thanked someone or were willing to acknowledge a contribution were more likely to win.

The upshot? “In not being generous and acknowledging the contribution of others, people are really shooting themselves in the foot,” Galinsky says.


Watch the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics host the 2022 Klion Forum, which features a powerhouse panel on the rise of politics in the workplace: