Insider Language

Recently a friend wisely pointed out that I use a lot of “insider language” in my writings. The problem with such is not everyone is an insider—they do not share the connotations I/we attach to the words, phrases and acronyms. For some that is a put-off. For others it is a challenge. For most it does not really matter, because they are not interested, yet.

I am going to take my friend’s observation to heart and attempt to do a better job defining the terms I use. When I wrote my thesis for my Masters Degree the first section had to be definitions of terms as I would use them in the paper. Beginning with this section allowed readers to grasp the meaning I intended. While they might not choose to use those words in exactly the same way, they at least had the opportunity to be aware of my perceptions.

When I am reading an article I try to assess what the author means when it appears s/he is using language in a specialized way. I remember hearing my dad and uncle talking insurance business lingo when I was a kid. It was obvious they had shared meanings they attached to their “code” words, phrases and acronyms. Most of the time I was glad they did not explain it to me because I was already hearing more than I wanted to know. Besides, I could always ask if I was curious.

But later in life I was appointed to serve on a community health task force because of my involvement with a local emergency shelter for homeless people. More than eighty-percent of the members were from the public health field and I really felt like a fish on dry land. They spread their “insider language” on thick. It appeared their assumption was that anyone on this task force would already speak the language. After hanging on several months I resigned because I realized I did not have any desire to learn a new culture or language.

I am thankful for readers of my blog who ask questions! Your boldness in speaking up reveals an interest in understanding. (The fact that you have to write them out and wait for my response is a high compliment.) It would be easier to “blow-off” the whole matter and say, “Much learning has driven you crazy, John!” Thanks for sticking with me (if you have wondered about some of my “insider language” I would love for you to let me know so I am more aware of what needs to be explained).

Insider language develops as a form of short-hand for people who work in the same field (just think about the computer lingo you have learned over the last twenty years). When you first encounter the new field it sounds like a foreign language. Once again you either take the plunge to learn the short-hand, or you do not. But ultimately, you learn enough to be functional if you must become proficient.

Are you focusing on the interested or the late adopters? Are you charged with rapidly training the early wave who ask lots of questions or are you responsible to educate those who are involved because of their support  and interest in you or another participant? Choices about the use of “insider language” should probably hinge on the audience. But it takes wisdom to make good decisions, and it often takes good friends who will point out your blind spots to you (thanks, Jerry).

Interestingly, the original disciples puzzled over some of Jesus’ choices in this matter. He deliberately used parables that restricted some people from grasping his meaning, while he explained these matters to the disciples— when they asked (Matthew 13:1ff). Maybe there are times when we should use “insider language.” What do you think?