Business Jargon Makes People Think You're Lying, Study Says

Last Updated Jul 1, 2011 8:00 AM EDT

Since way back in high school English class, people have probably been urging you, as per George Orwell's famous advice, to never use a long word where a short word will do. But this is one lesson that business often finds hard to take to heart.

From 'blue sky thinking' and 'impactful' to 'personal brand' business writing is notorious for its love of fuzzy and complicating terminology. Business jargon is a major office pet peeve (and topic of several heated BNET posts) and likely to annoy co-workers and customers, but is your use of the latest hot term also making you look like a liar?

Yes, suggests new research in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin covered on PsyBlog. The study is out of New York University and a Swiss university and shows that when you want to seem believable and trustworthy, concrete language is the way to go. For instance, take these two sentences:

Hamburg is the European record holder concerning the number of bridges.

In Hamburg, one can count the highest number of bridges in Europe.

These sentences mean entirely the same thing but when asked to rate their truthfulness, people judge the second more highly. Why? The simple, clear image of pointing at arches crossing bodies of water that it conjures up. As PsyBlog summarizes there are several reasons easy-to-picture language equals believable language:
  • Our minds process concrete statements more quickly, and we automatically associate quick and easy with true.
  • We can create mental pictures of concrete statements more easily. When something is easier to picture, it's easier to recall, so seems more true.
  • Also, when something is more easily pictured it seems more plausible, so it's more readily believed.
If you want to come across as a straight shooter, the study's authors suggest, stick as much as possible to simple language that's easy to visualize -- concrete verbs like 'write' or 'walk' beat ambiguous ones like 'benefit' and 'improve' -- and avoid the passive tense (for those of you with only a hazy recollection of those high school English classes, here's a quick primer on the difference.)

Still struggling to strip the business jargon from your memos or website copy? Perhaps handy translator Unsuck It can help. It promises to turn corporate speak into non-annoying, standard English and is also not bad for a Friday chuckle.

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(Images courtesy of Flickr user Dyanna, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.