Linguistic Gatekeeping

Some times I think that people unnecessarily use complex terms and arguments in order to make something appear harder than it actually is and simultaneously make that person sound smarter. This happens in a lot of fields especially those that have a close connection to academia (e.g. law, technology, finance, art history, etc.). I feel that this is a problem for two reasons.

First, if I use unnecessarily complex terms, I create an artificial barrier of entry for many people that might want to learn more about what I am talking about. For example, if I am trying to explain to someone how a web application works and I start talking about Node, Javascript, Relational vs. Non-Relational databases, AWS, etc., they will likely feel intimidated by all the jargon that they are unfamiliar with. This is not good because you’re making that person’s life harder.

Second, if I use unnecessarily complex terms it probably means that I don’t have a good understanding of the underlying principles of what I am talking about. We as humans tend to equate complexity with expertise. If someone says something that sounds complex, then that must mean that they know what they are talking about. In this case, using overly complicated is not only a disservice to the person that you’re talking to but also to yourself because you’re not being honest about how much you actually understand what you’re talking about.

Now it’s important to clarify that I am not against using “big words” because sometimes we need advanced words to be precise or to make our message more nuanced. My point is that I don’t think that complexity is bad but sometimes we go over the top and that’s bad.

Having said so, I believe that I am guilty of using unnecessarily complex terms. Last week I published an article titled “Unknown, Unknowns: The Problem of Hypocognition”, which is a very complicated way of saying that there are things that we can’t think of because we don’t have the label for them.

Moving forward I will try to stop myself whenever I see that I am using overly complex terminology. Furthermore, If I can simplify what I am trying to say without removing meaning, then I will do so.