For the purpose of this article I will refer to all letter abbreviations as acronyms, though I am aware that some are actually just initialised.
"It's such a huge thing - the Olympics - and . . . you've just basically got to get used to people talking in acronyms. You spend most of a meeting trying to work out what the acronym meant and by the time you've done that, it's time for the next meeting."
— Danny Boyle (2013), director and producer, known for Slumdog Millionaire, and artistic director for the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games
If that's how a big-shot Hollywood director and political activist feels in a meeting, just imagine how a Newly Qualified Social Worker could possibly feel!
Now, I accept there is a legitimate reason to use these acronyms in text in order to save time, and the effect is mitigated when the first mention is accompanied with the long form version so that the reader can go back and refer. But for the spoken word I question the need. Are we really saving that much time? I mean, is WWW really easier to say than World Wide Web? Of course, that last example is very much tongue in cheek, but I will ask you to consider the legitimacy of using these codes when the real aim of any conversation is to clearly exchange information, and I would challenge anyone who thinks they are saving time by using an acronym. Perhaps they are, but I would suggest it is no more than a second, and we have to consider if it really is worth that second measured against possible miscommunication and alienation. Is it worth the time we save by dropping a few syllables from a sentence compared to the time lost by people not understanding or you having to state it in full form, or for the poor listener having to look up the meaning?
I think one element that needs to be examined is the element of power in using this non-explicit code. I'm not at all suggesting using acronyms is a deliberate ploy by the speaker, but how acronyms are received can be incredibly disempowering. If you look around the room at everyone nodding in agreement, how does it feel to be the one who doesn't know? I'll let you in to a secret, my estimate is you're not the only one who doesn't know, it's just that no one else wants to confess they don't know.
When texting came about, such phrases as brb, lol, gr8, tbh, idk, g2g became a language that was quickly adopted by the "young" to exclude the "old" by being in the know as opposed to not in the know. I've certainly been caught out in this situation with younger relatives rejoicing in the fact I didn't know what a certain acronym meant to emphasise my uncoolness. Again, a light hearted story, but it can highlight the potential alienation in more formal settings.
For a Newly Qualified Social Worker - or anyone new to a team - it can be really intimidating to ask for a second time, the context or exact meaning of an acronym. It can also be exacerbated when a conversation has gone on for several minutes and with each passing second the feeling of "how much more ridiculous will I feel now, it's been mentioned 3 times... make that 4!?" Given their situation of starting recently and having to learn so much, including people's names, door codes, passwords, processes, legislation... and on and on; maybe it's a good idea not to make things more difficult, eh?
"No one can actually remember all these acronyms and people don’t want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance."
— Elon Musk, 2010
Another real life example of the acronym code inhibiting communication was as an Adults social worker recently transferred to a Learning and Development team. Colleagues in a Children's team were talking about attending a PLO meeting. Now, fortunately, I was well aware that my first/automatic deciphering of the code was very wrong (not the Palestine Liberation Organisation!), but again this is an example where these short form codes have multiple meanings. I'm not sure if it's better or worse, no one knowing what you're talking about or everyone thinking (wrongly) that they know what you're talking about. A more routine and potentially dangerous mix up could come from the use of NFA in social work recording. Does it stand for No Fixed Abode or No Further Action? And a homeless person with support needs has their case closed...
Don't know what PLO stands for in a social work context? Well, maybe I'm just going to leave it that way to emphasise my point*
My personal war on acronyms started almost by accident and in a very understated way. At a team meeting, I requested an explanation of an acronym that I wasn't sure of. Later that day, two colleagues approached me and thanked me for having the courage to ask: "We know we should have known, but I couldn't for the life of me remember!" At the next meeting, an acronym was again used. This time it was one that I knew, but thinking about my colleagues, particularly the newer ones, I asked the speaker to clarify. The speaker apologised, but also chastised themselves and acknowledged that they shouldn't be using acronyms. I looked across to the colleagues who had spoken to me previously and got a thumbs up from one and a mouthed "thank you" from another.
It was at this point I realised I was on to something, but I knew I had to up my game and not come across as a pedant. I was at yet another meeting (hey, we're social workers, we love them) and the first acronym was used within the first few minutes. "For the benefit of our new members of staff, should we explain what that means?" And so it went on. The acronym usage went down and even in my absence there would be routine challenges of their use as the team culture began to change.
The really bizarre thing is, if you ask anyone about acronyms the vast majority of people will condemn their use and regale you with an embarrassing story of sitting through an entire meeting: "I didn't have a scooby what they were talking about!" So why do we carry on using them? I don't know the answer to that one, but I do know how to start to reduce their use. Start with you.
*In England, the Public Law Outline (PLO) sets out the duties local authorities have when thinking about taking a case to court to ask for a Care Order to take a child into care or for a Supervision Order to be made. This is often described as initiating public law care proceedings. In Scotland, a PLO is a Practice Learning Opportunity... which reinforces the point about possible miscommunication.
Boyle, D. (2013) "Olympics was a laborious process" - cited online at http://www.digitalspy.com/tv/news/a470860/danny-boyle-olympics-was-a-laborious-process/
Musk, E. (2010) "Acronyms Seriously Suck" - cited online at https://mannerofspeaking.org/2015/12/17/acronyms-can-seriously-suck/
About the author:
Andrew is a qualified social worker, currently working as a learning and development consultant with Warwickshire County Council in England with a particular focus on supporting newly qualified social workers.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGambrill
Keep an eye on www.scopt.co.uk/thunking