While teaching speech communication at the University of Georgia, I left the campus twice weekly during a summer session, to instruct a highly unusual audience: thirty-one inmates at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, enrolled through the university’s extension program. Immediately, I noticed that my prison students used words and phrases totally unfamiliar to me.
To establish greater rapport, to teach more effectively, and to become more aware of what was being said in classroom and hallway conversations (not a bad idea in a prison setting), I needed to understand the vocabulary of “the big house.” So I asked the group to prepare a glossary for me, defining their code words. Believe me, I learned those word and phrase definitions quickly.
Have you learned the lingo for the subcultures you belong to—or want to belong to? Let’s say you want to cultivate professional relationships on the golf course. You’ll have to understand "bogey," "dormie," "banana ball," "lateral hazard," "honor," "a sandy," "handicap," "shank," (golfers will shudder at the mention of that word), "away" and many other terms.
Suppose you have a product or service you want to market to physicians. Then get ready to talk intelligently about "HMO," "PPO," "MRI," "lithotripsy," "managed care," "malpractice," "home health," "hospice," and more. When you are trying to land a consulting contract with a legal firm, brush up on "pleabargaining," "appellate court," "mistrial," "hung jury," "writ of habeas corpus" and other lawyer terms.
Deciphering the lingo is especially significant for job seekers. Interviewing for a stockbroker position? Then study up on "bulls," "bears," "calls," "puts," "selling short," "arbitrage," "yield," "odd lot," and "penny stocks." Seeking an academic post? You will have to become familiar with "tenure," "full time equivalent," "sabbatical," "graduate faculty," "audit," and "exempt."
Certainly if a professional move takes you to a new region, you face a potential language barrier. A person moving to the southern United States can’t acclimate comfortably until he or she understands "putting on airs," "deer stand," "much obliged," " y’all," "a mess of fish," "the back forty," "dinner on the grounds," and "call on."
To make the most of these observations, I suggest that you:
- Identify the groups you want to join or market to, in addition to those that you are affiliated with or cultivating now.
- Read the group’s publications. Frequently you can find the Annual Report on the corporate Web site. Request back issues of newsletters, magazines, and press releases. Study the mission statement.
- Interview two or three organizational leaders. When they use terms that puzzle you, ask for clarification. You can do that in the early stages of cultivation without losing credibility. In fact, you will appear interested rather than uninformed.
- Attend special events open to the public.
- Tactfully ask for invitations to “insider” events, such as strategic planning sessions and annual meetings.
- List new words and their definitions, and keep them handy. You could easily compile a glossary for each of your target industries.
- Incorporate the company’s jargon in your conversations, presentations, handouts, and proposals.
Truly, when you learn the lingo, you will ingratiate yourself to prospective and current clients. To conclude with an old southern expression, you will be “singing off the same page.”