When you shouldn't use EA jargon and how to avoid it

by Robert_Wiblin1 min read26th Oct 202021 comments

79

Community
Frontpage

For this weekend's EA Global Student Summit I wrote a short talk about jargon that's popular in the EA community. It covers:

  • When it's good to use
  • When it's best to avoid
  • Alternatives to common jargon terms
  • Words I think we should mostly stop using
  • Why people bicker about this, and a tiny piece of philosophy of language.

Folks liked it on social media and jargon has been a regular topic here on the EA Forum, so I thought I'd share.

Open commenting is enabled on the Google Slides so you can respond to specific points!


Slide 13

21 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:55 PM
New Comment

I usually find these "lists of jargon + replacements" quite bad (i.e. include many things where the distinction between the term used and the suggested replacement is important and useful, and/or seem to misunderstand the terms they're suggesting replacements for, and/or include many things that virtually nobody says except maybe as a joke).

But I think this one is pretty good and mostly agree with it.

My only disagreement is with the order of magnitude thing. I love orders of magnitude talk. I think it's really useful to think in orders of magnitude about many (most?) things. If this means I sometimes say "one order of magnitude" when I could just say "ten times" so be it.

Hmm... often I think it is nice to have a standard term for a phenomenon so that people don't have to figure out how to express a certain concept each time and then hope that everyone else can follow. Language also has the advantage that insofar as we convince people to adopt our language, we draw them into our worldview.

One bad rationalization that I notice myself having sometimes for writing and speaking with "high" jargon is that I say to myself that it's a piece of jargon worth knowing, so I'm actually helping people learn better ways of communicating. I don't think that this is a valid logical conclusion, but instead I can briefly explain some relevant and important terminology or avoid using that if it's not relevant.

I think that my actual motivations are mainly that I feel a need to be very accurate, and that writing is generally slow and tedious for me so it is difficult for me to find better ways of articulating myself once I have already found something that fits what I have in mind. Or - anxiousness and laziness. 

Just some stuff that I notice in myself which might be worth sharing :)

I agree with this post relatively strongly. As someone relatively new to the EA scene, I found the jargon and language quite off-putting and would result in annoyance/feeling like an idiot plus some Googling later on. I'm unsure why we can't just say "What would have happened otherwise" rather than "Counterfactual". I personally try and play down this language as much as possible, especially around people newer to EA because I know the effect it had on me.

I think this post plays into a stronger point that certain aspects of the EA community actually are unwelcoming. Or rather it feels a bit like a secret club with a high bar to entry at times and there is almost certainly an intellectual elitism feel to EA occasionally (see in-group + tribalism). I think that descending further and further into niche phrases, elitism and not keeping the message as open to as many people as is not the right way to go.

 I'm strongly in favour of making EA as widespread and as broad as possible. Sure it might dilute job applications or have a few other unthought of negative side effects. But imagine having thousands of more people earning to give for example or contributing their ideas and insight into EA. I wonder how many people have turned away from EA because of Elitism, Jargon or feeling unwelcome? that doesn't feel very EA to me!

Footnote: I realise this comment might come off as a bit bitter. Contrary to that, I really love the EA community and think it has enhanced my life so much in so many ways, this is just one aspect that I think could be improved somewhat - The onboarding of new and potential EAs!

I'm actually more favourable to a smaller EA community, but I still think jargon is bad. Using jargon doesn't disproportionately appeal to the people we want.

The most capable folks are busy with other stuff and don't have time to waste trying to understanding us. They're also more secure and uninterested in any silly in-group signalling games.

Sometimes I catch myself using jargon even knowing it's a bad communication strategy, because I just like feeling clever, or signaling that I'm an insider, or obscuring my ideas so people can't challenge them. OP says these are "naughty reasons to use jargon" (slide 9), but I think that in some cases they fulfill some real social need for people, and if these motivations are still there, we need better ways to satisfy them.

Some ideas:

  • Instead of associating jargon with cleverness, mentally reframe things. Someone who uses jargon isn't necessarily clever, especially if they're misusing it. Feynman said "If you can’t explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand it", so pat yourself on the back for translating something into straightforward language when appropriate.
  • Instead of using jargon to feel connected to the in-group, build a group identity that doesn't rely on jargon. I'm not really sure how to do this.
  • Instead of using jargon to prevent people from understanding your ideas to challenge them, keep your identity small so you don't feel personally attacked when being challenged. When you have low confidence in a belief, qualify them with an "I think" or "I have a lot of confusing intuitions here, but..."
    • Perhaps also doing exposure therapy to practice losing debates without feeling like you've been slapped down
    • This is actually one of the reasons I like the "epistemic status" header; it helps me qualify my statements much more efficiently. From now one I'll be dropping the "epistemic status" terminology but keeping the header.

I'm sure there are more and better ideas in this direction.

"funging against" -> "cannibalising"

"displacing (the impact of)"?

"competes with"?

I currently have two polls on whether my posts have too much or too little jargon, one on Twitter and one on Facebook, phrased this way (Twitter poll is public and anonymous, Facebook is not):

Speaking for your own interests and ease of understanding, should I use more or less jargon on {Twitter, Facebook}?

  1. more jargon
  2. less jargon
  3. about the same
  4. I just wanna see results!

Before clicking ahead to them, I'd like other commentators with a (strong) opinion to offer a prediction for what people voted for in the above survey questions. I'd also like them to form an opinion on how a (hypothetical) poll on a more prominent EA figure (eg Robert Wiblin, Greg Lewis, Anna Salamon etc) will resolve.

Facebook, Twitter

"Deeply understand" lacks the connotations from Stranger in a Strange Land.

Yes but grok also lacks that connotation to the ~97% of the population who don't know what it means or where it came from.

As one data point, I had to google what Stranger in a Strange Land refers to, and don't know what connotations the comment above yours [1] refers to. I always assumed 'grok' was just a generic synonym for '(deeply) understand', and didn't even particularly associate it with the EA community. (Maybe it's relevant here that I'm not a native speaker.)

 

[1] Replacing the jargon term 'grandparent' ;)

Most native English speakers from outside of particular nerd cultures also would have no clue what it means.

It's not particularly associated with the EA community – I think your impression there is correct. I'd say it's more generic nerd jargon than EA jargon. I actually don't think I hear it used especially often in EA.

I honestly don't remember the detailed connotations from Stranger in a Strange Land, but since I'm neither a Martian nor a member of a weird New-Agey Martian cult I don't consider this a huge disadvantage.

And the way it's used in tech is almost totally lacking the mystical angle from Stranger in a Strange Land anyway.

Also Stranger in a Strange Land is a profoundly weird and ideosyncratic book and there's not really any reason to evoke it in most EA contexts.

(That said I do think "deeply understand" doesn't quite do the job.)

(I notice that the use of ~ to mean approximately is also a kind of jargon.)

(That said I do think "deeply understand" doesn't quite do the job.)

I feel the same way, even though I'm relatively strongly opposed to EA jargon, and even though I  don't know the specific connotations from Stranger in a Strange Land.

Here's the compromise I've settled on: "to grok" -> "to grok, to really deeply understand." 

That is, I'll use the jargon and immediately follow it with the translation. It's inelegant, and I've only used it in conversation so far. Not sure I'd be comfortable with so many redundant words in text. But I like that this compromise:

  • Conveys as much of the point as possible to someone unfamiliar with the term "grok."
  • Adds the marginal value of "grok" for anyone who is familiar with the term.
  • Maybe even adds some of the marginal value of "grok" for someone unfamiliar with the term. The fact that I'm using a foreign word to describes this idea suggests that it's a different/harder-to-capture idea than simply "really deeply understand." So from context, you could conclude that "grok" means "like really deeply understand, but in a different or harder-to-capture way," which is most of what I mean by "grok" anyway.

I had a detailed comment here, but then I realised I seldom use the word "grok" anyway so I don't have much cause to be nitpicking other people's substitutions. :-P

Great presentation! I wish you luck.

By the way, I get tired of saying "impact" since it's cited as a buzzword that people should avoid, especially in business. Do you recommend any synonyms for "impact" (as either a noun or a verb)?