When I was in Belgium it was hard for me to communicate well. This is partially because I don’t speak French, partially because I don’t speak Flemish, and partially because I never knew when to not be able to speak which language. For those not in the know, it’s best to fail at French in Brussels and flounder at Flemish in Flanders.
I took one year of German in college, so, equipped with this, I asked some teenagers (in what I thought was Flemish) if the next stop on the train was Bruges. They said yes and then turned away from me and laughed, mocking me in Flemish or French or a language created just for that purpose.
In that moment, hearing twelve year olds make fun of me, I reprimanded my unprepared self: I should have taken German for another year; I should have learned Dutch; I should have bought a little travel phrase guide; I should have used Google translate to ask about the stop; I should have watched the Rick Steves episode on Belgium; is there a Rick Steves episode on Belgium?; please, there’s a Rick Steves episode on every country; that guy masters knowledge without arrogance; did we miss the stop?

There is tendency to put engineers on a pedestal and focus on their intelligence. You see this on the TV show Silicon Valley and The Big Bang Theory. To emphasize how much engineers exist outside of the sphere of regular intelligence, these shows focus on engineering lexicon. A quick Google search of Sheldon quotes gave me this gem: “This is a classic example of Münchhausen’s Trilemma. Either the reason is predicated on a series of sub-reasons leading to an infinite regression, or it tracks back to arbitrary axiomatic statements, or it’s ultimately circular, i.e. I’m moving out because I’m moving out.”
Why is that funny? It’s funny because it has long words that nobody else understands and he says them in a deadpan way. This recipe has gotten the show twelve seasons so bravo. Regardless, Sheldon isn’t saying anything that a five year old can’t understand. He’s just defining a fancy term, Münchhausen Trilemma which is a theory that the reasoning behind any statement is either:

  • Circular, like when your mom says she’s mad because she’s cleaning, and she’s cleaning because she’s mad
  • Never-ending, like dominos of truth that knock each other over but keep going forever
  • Already known; it relies on something else that we already know to be true

Besides the name, nothing about that theory is particularly difficult. So is Sheldon a genius for responding with that answer to the question of “Why are you moving out?” It seems like he could have just said “I don’t know” or “I don’t want to explain” and he would have been more easily understood.

So what’s the point? Teenagers made fun of me and Big Bang Theory is overrated? Yes. Also, technical terms have a time and place, and using them when inappropriate can make others doubt themselves. In a relevant technical conversation, engineers need to use their jargon to be as detailed as possible. That is entirely appropriate. But, as Sheldon’s ridiculous answer indicates, some engineers may continue to use this jargon in times when it’s not necessary and it can even derail or disturb from the conversation.
I make this point because I have seen how some non-engineers accept without proof the fable that engineers are smarter than them. This acceptance does not help collaboration or synergy; it does not help a business to have some employees think of themselves as lesser. And it’s simply not true.
There are many meetings that include engineers and non-engineers, as in an interview debrief. Does it help the conversation for engineers to use technical terms when it is not necessary? Not only does it perpetuate the stereotype that engineers speak a different language, it also creates an environment where part of the meeting participants are left out of the conversation. Given all that we know about how engineers are portrayed in popular culture, do we expect the recruiters or analysts in the meeting to interrupt and say “I’m sorry, you’re using technical terms that other people don’t understand, could you explain them if they’re relevant or, if they’re not relevant, can we move on?” Is it appropriate for us to put the onus on someone else to step in and remind us when we’re being rude?
This behavior does not help us reach business solutions; it helps to otherize engineers and create miscommunication. In cases where we use too many technical terms at inappropriate times, we are isolating our non-technical or junior colleagues and inadvertently making them feel inferior. To be clear, not everyone feels less intelligent when they hear words they don’t understand, but it is certainly a potential response to not being able to follow a conversation. We do not want to make our colleagues doubt their intelligence.

So how can we prevent this division from happening or worsening? I have some ideas (of course I do):
Use technical jargon only when appropriate
As engineers we are so used to speaking in certain terms, it may be hard to transition to layman’s terms. But remember, in a meeting with marketing analysts, use the terminology that will help everyone stay on the same page and get to the business solution. We would not appreciate if marketing analysts conducted the entire meeting with undefined acronyms that we did not understand.
Ask if anyone needs terms explained
If during a meeting or group lunch, another engineer is using some heavy technical jargon and you have a pretty good idea that others are lost, speak up. You can say something along the lines of “does everyone know what X means?” or, more to the point, “is this conversation relevant to everyone? If not, maybe we should move it to a specific meeting on that topic.”
Have the Flemish conversation when people make self-deprecating jokes or comments
At a lot of companies, I have gravitated towards recruiters since they tend to be my age and gender. I have heard them make self-deprecating remarks in response to communication with an engineer. If you hear this, consider explaining that time you were on a train in Belgium and teenagers made fun of you. Ask anyone who claims they’re not smart because they don’t know what for-loops are: was I supposed to think that I am not smart because I can’t speak Flemish?
It’s not that I’m not willing to be self-deprecating when there are lessons to be learned, it’s just that I don’t consider myself less intelligent than Belgian teenagers because they know Flemish. It makes sense that they would know Flemish, they grew up learning that language. When they were drinking melk, I was drinking milk; when they were playing with kinderspeeltje, I was playing with toys. It makes sense that engineers would know what for-loops are; while engineers are writing loops, recruiters are writing job descriptions and program managers are writing requirements.

We should be careful of when and how we use technical language and how it affects those around us. We should be careful not to otherize ourselves and isolate our colleagues. And let’s remind ourselves and others and those rude teenagers that not knowing a language isn’t a reflection of our intelligence.