“What does that mean?” My kids have asked me that question numerous times over the years. Usually, the question revolves around some reference to my childhood. Like, “why do you say you’re going to tape a show instead of record it?” I had to explain that back in the days of VCRs, the cassettes actually had tape inside them. Or when I fell back on my Arkansas upbringing and said, “cheese dip.” With their Texan sensibilities and looks of dismay, they asked “why did you call queso cheese dip?” And in response to me asking them, “whatcha talkin’ ‘bout Willis?” when I didn’t understand what they were telling me, they asked what in the world I meant. They were unfamiliar with 1980’s sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes” and Arnold’s catchphrase to his brother Willis.
My daughter Riley was at counselor training at the camp she’s attended since she was 8 years old. While she was familiar with the camp lingo, she noticed that the newly hired counselors who hadn’t grown up there didn’t understand the phrases. She told me about a situation in which one of the upper-level counselors used a lot of camp lingo in one sentence, and a new counselor said, “I have no idea what you just said.”
Sometimes we use jargon out of habit or nostalgia. Sometimes we develop a shorthand from immersion in a profession or world that requires or promotes the use of certain terms or acronyms. But sometimes, when we use a particular vernacular, we end up excluding people, whether inadvertently or purposefully.
Even church communities fall into the use of “Christianese,” which may feel particularly cliquish to those who have not grown up in church settings. This problem is not new. In the days of the early Christian church, an angel of the Lord led the disciple Philip to approach an Ethiopian man who served as an important official for the queen of Ethiopia as he traveled from Jerusalem. “Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked. ‘How can I,’ he said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’ So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.” (Acts 8:30-31). Their discussion led to the Ethiopian man’s baptism. When we use specialized terms or refer to the past or shared stories, whether in church or elsewhere, we must consider others who may not understand and therefore feel left out. We would do well to include others in the conversation and offer to explain.
But blessed be the ones who ask the questions. Who are willing to be vulnerable and admit they don’t understand; who risk being ridiculed for admitting they need clarification; who don’t take things for granted or at face value; who challenge the status quo; who demand that people explain their words.
We can create open environments that encourage people to ask questions. Those questions could lead to new understandings and amazing results. Let us try to explain ourselves when we fall into the trap of repeatedly using lingo and also celebrate those who ask, “what does that mean?”