The Monday after Humentum’s annual conference, I immediately put one of my #ahamoments into action: doing the “empty chair” exercise.
During a session on employee engagement, Nancy Murphy, founder of CSR Communications, instructed attendees to pull up an empty chair next time they write something – be it a blog post or an email to your boss.
“Imagine someone sitting in that empty chair. How will you write as if you’re talking to them? Will they do what you want them to do?” she asked.
As a global health storyteller, I understand how frustrating it can be to work in a sector that’s heavily reliant on jargon. I too, am guilty of defaulting to jargon, especially when I’m with people in the same industry.
While jargon can be a unifying language for some, it muddles the stories we’re trying to tell – and worse yet, it can inadvertently strip people of their dignity and humanity.
We won’t do away with jargon entirely. But the speakers at Humentum compelled me to start by eliminating these three terms. (All the more reason to fulfill this promise: Humentum staff have been known to throw ‘jargon balls’ at offenders)!
“Beneficiaries.” This catchall phrase for anyone who receives any form of assistance from a development organization is problematic for two reasons. One, it undermines the recipient’s ability to voice what they genuinely want and need. And secondly, it falsely assumes all development projects are good and that recipients always “benefit.” Is the project designed in a way that’s culturally sensitive? Are local community members leading the charge? Have you defined what excellence actually looks like, from the community’s perspective? Keynote speaker Saba Al Mubaslat encouraged organizations to have these difficult conversations internally and with the people they’re supposedly helping. The more that happens, the closer we’ll get to not only organizational excellence, but sectoral excellence. (And if you are a “beneficiary” of a project, let organizations know what you want to be called.)
Contextualize. I was clapping in solidarity when one attendee remarked, “contextualize – I can’t stand that word! If the solution is truly local, it doesn’t need to be contextualized in the first place.” It’s common for information to be adapted for different geographies, due to time and resource constraints. “Contextualized” materials usually start with the right intent – from translations to culturally symbolic colors on the brochures. But too often, the photos on the brochure are taken by a photographer flown in from the U.S. or Europe, or the stories inside cast the organization as the hero. If we insist on using this term, hire local photographers – not to “strengthen in-country capacity” but because it’s the right thing to do.
“Global North” and “Global South.” The notion of “Global North” (read: the generally wealthy countries of the Northern Hemisphere) and “Global South” (read: the Southern Hemisphere, where the majority of the world’s poorest countries are located) perpetuates the “us versus them” mentality. At the various sessions on trends in learning and knowledge management, speakers said such terms imply the Global North dictates which knowledge is considered “good” and worthy of sharing. Still, there are few viable options for alternate terms. Like the “Global North,” the “First World” and “Developed Countries” also confront poverty and societal challenges – and they’re home to organizations that have a long way to go to achieve excellence. The best solution? If you’re writing about the differences in access to healthcare in Mississippi and Malawi, simply say so.
Cutting the jargon will make the work we do more understandable, and push us to challenge long-held assumptions. Excellence is already out there. NGOs in the “Global South” aren’t waiting for the “Global North” to teach them and “contextualize” what it looks like, and neither are their “beneficiaries.” (Picture me ducking, that was at least three jargon balls).