Unpack This!

The other day my friend Beth—who works in the corporate world—tweeted:

“Unpack that” is getting to be up (down?) there with “robust” for business terminology that makes me want to scream.

Me too.

Unpack, my friends, is what you do when you get home from a vacation. (Followed by laundry. And sleep.) To my mind, it is not a substitute for explain.

It is jargon.

Why do I despise business jargon so? I love slang … and this is just corporate slang, right? So why does this sort of thing make me want to slap the person who speaks like this?

There are all sorts of highfalutin theories about it. This article in the Boston Globe says

we are unconsciously combining our negative feelings about work or “bosses” with our discomfort for new slang. “Different groups—and groups in different settings—do have different ways of talking and writing, and everyone knows this as a matter of personal experience,” says Liberman. “But ordinary people have reasons to dislike managers more than they dislike sportswriters or particle physicists.” Managers give us orders. They make us attend meetings. Occasionally, they fire us.

Maybe. Though in my case it’s usually a client, not a boss. (I’m self-employed.)

No, it’s that the speaker comes across as self-important or pretentious. Or even shifty, as if he’s trying to gloss over something. As if he’s hiding something behind the mumbo-jumbo. (Like calling a criticism an opportunity, or calling a corporate layoff a repositioning action. Seriously? Slap!)

The point of jargon is to make difficult concepts or words easier to understand, sometimes by painting a word picture, a metaphor. The point is not to infuriate the listener. To help you move out of the Slap Zone, I’ve put together a list of seventy-five words—good words, timeless words—for you to consider every time you’re tempted to use unpack when what you really mean is explain.

analyze                 elucidate            reappraise
annotate              enumerate         reassess
appraise               establish            reevaluate
assess                     evaluate            refine
authenticate        examine            reinvestigate
break it down      explain              relay
clarify                    explicate            scrutinize
classify                  explore               segment
clear up                 expound            show
confirm                  extract               sift
construe                 filter                  simplify
cross-examine     get across        solve
decipher                go over              spell out
decode                   illuminate         study
deconstruct         illustrate            substantiate
delve into             inspect               survey
demonstrate       interpret           take it apart
demystify             investigate       unload
determine            justify                 unravel
diagnose              lay it all out      unscramble
diagram               look into            untangle
disentangle        make plain        validate
dissect                  order                   valuate
distill                    probe                  verify
document           prove                  view

So stop, y’all. At best you’re using a hackneyed phrase that was maybe cool or interesting the first time somebody used it off label, but as user number one million and one, you sound unoriginal and pretentious and worse, though I am too much of a lady to spell it out for you.

Tweet: Unpack, my friends, is what you do when you get home from a vacation.
Tweet: Just say no to jargon.
Tweet: Jargon: this hackneyed phrase was cool the 1st time somebody used it off label, but not now.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. Alice says:

    The first time I heard “unpack” used this way was in a sermon. And yes, the word “pretentious” came to mind.

  2. Yes, sometimes pastors are trying to be hip. Pastors like to be liked, you know? At least, this pastor does. And ‘unpack’ has been used in church settings for a long time now, so it doesn’t feel like ‘insider’ talk to me at this point. I get your point, Jamie. I do. But this time, I’m not sure I agree. VERY unusual for me to disagree with you. :-)

    • Jamie Chavez says:

      LOL!!! You are a very likable pastor, friend. I am editing with Jimmy Dodd of PastorServe and learning so much about the stresses and difficulties of your job.

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