Recently I was shocked to discover how, within less than a year of being out of the day-to-day world of work I had lost the ability to decipher acronyms.

I was working with a client developing a business plan when I was presented with an acronym that was completely foreign to me.

I had no idea what it meant! I raked my brain and delved into my knowledge of the sector, new developments and possible solutions to find the meaning of this acronym – to no avail.

In the end I had to fess up and ask for it to be ‘spelt out’ for me.

My ignorance of acronyms showed me!

A few things struck me about this experience.

  1. A year is a long time to be out of day-to-day contact with the world of work.
  2. You should never assume you know everything – clearly you don’t.
  3. Ask when you don’t know – people won’t judge you and will be more than willing to share their knowledge.
  4. Often times people don’t even realise they are using acronyms and assuming a shared language.
  5. We use acronym as a code, a way of simplifying our communication but for those ‘not living and breathing’ the air which you breathe it is not ‘a simpler or an easier way to communicate’ – in fact the opposite is true it makes it more complex.

More importantly though imagine how someone who is not in our world reacts to our use of acronyms.

Social Media make acronyms more acceptable

We might be more accepting of acronyms with the rise of social media and short message service (SMS) is our everyday life.  We’ve all seen the text message abbreviations such as LOL, BTW, OMG, THX etc. These are almost universally understood now through their pervasive use.

But think back to when you first encountered these, how did you feel – confused, stupid, unsure who to turn to decipher them.

How long did it take you to learn them and then use them? Or did you resist the use of abbreviations/acronyms?

A little about the meaning and history of acronyms

In the book ‘Word Myths’ the author tells us most acronyms start life as proper nouns and that the use of the word first arose in the 1940’s, and is derived from the “Greek akros, meaning point, and onuma, meaning name.”. He also asserts that the use of acronyms is a 20th century (and beyond) phenomenon.

He distinguishes an acronym (using the first initial of each word such that it can be pronounced as a word) from an initialism (using first letter of each word – but not pronounced as a word)

7 ways acronyms don’t help in customer conversations

When using acronyms daily and instinctively it becomes harder to shift back to ‘normal language’ but in dealing with customers we need to convey that we understand their needs and are here to meet them. Are we effectively doing this when using acronyms?

Using acronyms may have some other unintended consequences, including that they

  • open the door to miscommunication and misunderstanding,
  • communicate exclusivity or an inner circle which the customer does’t belong to,
  • alienate customers by excluding them in a ‘shared language’,
  • truncate and restrict the conversation – you’re not giving the customer an opportunity to explore understanding,
  • demonstrate you’re not listening to the customer’s request but are running on ‘automatic’,
  • fail to properly inform or empower the customer and they
  • potentially can give rise to false assumptions, where a meaning is imputed that isn’t correct.

On lesson for the future

So the lesson when communicating with customers (face to face or in writing) if you wouldn’t say it out loud don’t use it