Shorthands are useful to communicate lots with few words, but assumes that everyone has the same understanding of the shorthands.

Picture of a page from a dictionary with the word “technology” being in focus.
Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

As I’ve gotten further and further in my professional career, and also as just as an adult, I’ve been finding phrases and terms that mean very specific things with a lot of static context that someone not familiar with an area might misunderstand. This sounds weird, so let me show you an example:

When I ride my motorbike with the local IAM motorcycling group, we always ride to the system. To you, the “system” doesn’t mean anything, because you don’t have context. We know what “the system” is, because everyone who’s done the IAM Advanced Rider’s Training learned it, as it’s a requirement. It’s a set of very specific way of behaving within traffic, mainly consisting of IPSGA: Information, Positioning, Speed, Gear, Acceleration sense. Each of these also have their specific meanings: scan continuously in 360° to know what’s around you, be in a position where you’re safe, legal, but you also have the advantage of seeing as far as you can, have your speed match the conditions of traffic, your abilities, road surface, visibility, be in a gear that’s appropriate for the gear and allows you to slow down and speed up by just using your throttle. And then each of those have some more training behind it. This is a lot to detail every time, so we shorthand it to the system within this group.

Another example is from an Instagram ad I got about property investment opportunity. In order to proceed, you had to confirm that you understand the phrase “I understand that this is an investment, and I am an investor.” It seems easy, but also has very specific meanings: investment is something where you understand that the money you put into it might not come back, and you might even lose money of it. Calling yourself an investor usually means that you have enough discretionary money to throw around that you’re not going to compromise your current living situation if you lose that money, that you have a lot of knowledge to know precisely what these mean.

Each industry has their own shorthands. It’s a neat way to cut down on a lot of words and increase the information passed to others significantly, but it only works if the receipients are also in the same in–group and have the same understanding of the shorthand in question.

For folks outside of that group, shorthands might be confusing, and occasionally pretentious. I used to think “why do you <fancy word> when <ordinary word> means the same thing?” That changed when I figured out that the fancy word has a lot more context, a lot more attached knowledge with it, whereas the ordinary word doesn’t. An accounting term is revenue (the fancy word), and income (ordinary). They mean the same thing for the person on the street, but in accounting they are wildly different terms with different meanings.

The challenge for you is to know who you’re communicating with, and what their understanding is of the shorthands that you use. Do you need to explain specific terms to your users or customers? Do you use these to qualify your customers so you only work with folks you don’t need to teach? Is your documentation full of shorthands that lead to confusions?