How startup jargon is exclusive and dehumanising

In a recent tweet, outgoing Fishburners chief Annie Parker claimed that Australian start-up language needs to change.



The tweet was followed up by SmartCompany in an interview that delved into Annie’s suggestion that our prevailing language around success leans towards a blokey, masculine view of the world where aggression and domination is key  —  “We’ve been smashing all our milestones for the last 12 months, and now we’re hoping to keep killing it over 2018.” — as opposed to language that encourages hard work but is uplifting and motivational.

Whichever way you think that argument should go, we can all agree with Parker when she says “Words matter. Whether you like it or not, potential employees, customers or investors will make judgments about you or your business based on how the language you use makes them feel”.

What is less obvious but worthy of discussion is the use of cheesy jargon that litters start-up conversation and articles, a practice that excludes those who don’t understand it and patronises most others. Much of the language is childish, simplistic and serves to trivialise creative energy as teenage enthusiasm. Worse still, it turns people into perfunctory cyborgs operating with limited human impulses.

Having worked in a startup for four years, I’m happy to admit that people involved with startups love a bandwagon, a zeitgeist, a catchphrase. It’s what us bleeding-edge folk do. (I work at Houzz Australia, where I get to look at glorious home design all day, and thankfully, naff jargon has not taken hold.)

‘Consuming’ articles, ‘connecting’ with people. We’re all just pivoting, scrappy rockstars with enough bandwidth to deep-dive into ideation. You might have your own loathed terms. Some are so popular we don’t question their strangeness — vanity metrics, bootstrapping, pitch decks.

Why are you moving into a ‘space’ and not simply an industry? Why is your suggestion ‘a pitch’ and your strategy ‘a piece’? The bonkers words abound.

Not all jargon demeans us; burn rate, churn rate, run rate all work as they save considerable time explaining complicated financial metrics that are better summed up with a snappy phrase — even if churn sounds like people being ground into sausages.

The digitisation of people

One particular trend I’d love to see end is the move towards describing people as pieces of technology. When someone asks if I have the bandwidth to cope with a task, it implies I make binary decisions based on available data. Alternatively, asking if I ‘can fit something in’, allows me to make room or find a way to adjust my priorities. If you want to take this chat ‘off-line’, maybe you should just ask if we can discuss it later. It’s enough to make you want to disconnect from office life.

According to netlingo, “If a person is described as having “low bandwidth,” it means he or she is considered slow on the uptake”. That’s not really fair if your language removes your colleague’s ability to find a third option. But all this jargon can be hard to fight against. Calling someone out on jargon makes you look like a nitpicker.

Dehumanising lingo

LinkedIn is contributing to the problem by calling people ‘connections’. I’d like to meet you, but must we connect? Down-time was once an IT term referring to a system disruption, before it became parlance for taking a break from all the annoying people downloading their issues onto you. People are going on holidays to fully unplug. You don’t walk around plugged in, do you? Or, maybe you do.

Pretty soon, I might let others know I am taking a day off to “refresh my cache”, just to see the looks on their faces. :-/

As the demands of a crowded worklife continue to rise, and startup cultures like ours in Australia look for more interest, investors and staff, let’s remember to keep people as people, data as data, and not minimise our humanity with degrading terms.



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