barriers to effective communication

Acronyms – What Are They Trying To Communicate?

Barriers to Effective Communication

Acronyms are confusing. Do you remember your first day on the job?  New people, process, and systems; it can be overwhelming. And then you are hit with an acronym. Everything seems so new, foreign, and fastpaced, and you are trying to keep up, but the company lingo is shutting you out of the conversation and creating barriers to effective communication. You say to yourself, “I think I know what they are talking about, but we used that acronym at my previous job, and I don’t think it meant the same thing. 

You find yourself thinking, is there an acronym dictionary?  Should I ask what that means?  Will I ever catch on?  I know we have all been there.  An acronym is a kind of abbreviation.  A shorter form of a word or phrase. Fantastic shortcuts when people understand the lingo.  Over the years, I have found that people use too many acronyms.  Inevitably the use of abbreviations creates communication gaps, especially between Baby boomers, and millennials, techies and nontechies, hospital workers and patients, city dwellers, and visitors. 

Effective communication is critical to every aspect of a businessIt is the process of information sharing between team members in a way that keeps in mind what you want to say, what you convey, and what the audience understands you to say. Of course, acronyms can save time and speed up the conversation in times when the speed of delivery can save a life.  But often, this method of communication is used to show you are in the know that you have finally “got it. 

So we perpetuate the same crime on the next group of recruits.  Thinking, they will figure it out.  Why should they be put in that position?  The new kid on the block is not the only one who experiences the moments of uncertainty acronyms can cause.  Let’s change the dynamic, and remove these barriers to effective communication.  Keep these rules in mind when using acronyms: 

  • Acronyms, whether spoken or written in a sentence, are great when used after the words are spelled out. For example, the Department of Defense, (D.O.D.), Application Programming Interface (API) Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Office of Professional Responsibility (O.P.R.), or the Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19). 
  • Do not use acronyms in mixed company.  If the audience is new to your department or from a different department, avoid abbreviations.  
  • It is OK to have the acronym in your documentation to help the audience get acquainted but don’t assume they know what it means. 
  • Most people will not ask what an acronym means.  They will try to figure it out (if it does not appear in the documentation). This causes the person to miss a part of your message.
  • Be aware of your entire audience.  There may be others near you that can hear the acronym and misunderstand the meaning. 

If you forget everything I shared above, please remember this story. 

A gentleman goes to the emergency room complaining of trouble breathing.  He was the only man in the waiting area.  While awaiting his turn to see the doctor, the nursing shift changed.  The nurse coming on (Nurse A) duty asks the nurse leaving the area (Nurse B) to give her a rundown on the patients. Nurse A proceeds to recap the symptoms of patience in the waiting area.  Nurse a could see that the gentleman with the breathing problem could hear what she was saying. As she rambled off the list, she got to the person with the breathing problem, and she said, and finally, we have the S.O.B. guy. 

The gentlemen heard this and became enraged. “How dare you call me an S.O.B.,” he says.  At this point, he launches into a verbal attack of Nurse B.  Nurse A says, “I’m sorry you overheard that!”  The gentleman responds, “OH, so it’s OK to call me an S.O.B. out of earshot?  Nurse B gathered herself and responded.  “Sir, I apologize.  That is just a short cut way of saying Shortness of Breath. 

What is the moral of the story?  Use acronyms when they promote understanding for all in earshot of the conversation.   

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