Acronyms: friends or foes?

29 06 2007

alphabet soupThere I am, a homegrown English-speaking American in an English-speaking American office, and I constantly don’t understand the language being spoken to me. Are my co-workers foreign? Well, some of them- but that’s not why the language barrier exists. The problem is I’ve noticed everyone is speaking in acronyms and I don’t know what they mean yet! It’s like some vernacular that I have to speak and understand only when I am inside the walls of my building and nowhere else!

It really got me thinking about the nature of acronyms and what they can offer or detract from a community that uses them. For instance, in a business setting, acronyms seem to be used to save time (I suppose this reason is pervasive throughout all acronym use). Instead of repeating Cost-Benefit-Analysis all day (8 syllables), one only has to say CBA (3!). The hook here being that people have to understand what words each letter of C-B-A stands for.

People are usually pretty good at this because context plays a large role. If I discuss CBA with my friend Andre over lunch in the middle of a conversation about Big League Chew, he is not going to follow my language code. However, just because humans are contextually intelligent doesn’t mean that they don’t have to learn the meanings of the acronyms at some point.

I realized that anyone a company hires and brings into their community of both global and specialized acronym-talk, will have to be, in a sense, trained. The more acronyms used by the company, the more time and effort to be taken by the new employee to be able to converse comfortably with his/her co-workers.

It got me thinking- I wonder if the acronyms end up really saving time (and time is money, no?), or if they end up just really creating and breaking down language barriers, each new employee at a time. Of course, it would depend on the turnover rate of this place to say whether the cost of training would beat out the cost of time and tongue-weariness.

…Or, is it all about creating a shared sense of knowledge to gain a sense of pride and belonging, like in a social network. I remember working in a warehouse doing shipping and receiving while in school. I developed this excel spreadsheet report that I dubbed the “Weekly Receiving Inventory Report” (or WRIR) and while I worked there, I thought it was pretty official-sounding… Uggh! Try and say that a few times…I’m surprised nobody ever pushed me down the elevator shaft.