Communication – What Does Your Alphabet Soup Spell?

Acronyms and abbreviations are everywhere in our lives. But how do they impact our ability to communicate clearly?

My husband has a retail facility as part of his water feature business. This week he needed me to cover the shop while he made some deliveries. While I usually help out at his annual sales, I am not completely familiar with his product lines so working there always involves some type of learning curve. This time a customer came in to purchase fish food. The cash register is set up so I can just type in the first few letters of the product and then select from a drop down list. First I looked at his price book, oh no, multiple brands of fish food in 40# bags including private labels. I called him to find out which price to use.  “It’s XYZ Growth,” he said. But the only XYZ Growth I found was XYZ Growth med. I told him, “There is only XYZ Growth medicated on the list”.  “No, it’s not the medicated food. Just XYZ Growth.”  This conversation went on for a few minutes before he said “That’s the only one (as it was the only XYZ listing 40# bag). I rang it up even though the abbreviation med (medicated) was included in the description. After the customer left, I asked why it said “medicated”.  At that point he informed me that medicated food is no longer on the market and med stands for medium pellet.  My frustration and the whole scenario could have been avoided if the word medium had been spelled out.

Part of my career included employment by a family law practice. One of my first days on the job the senior partner called me on the phone and asked me to pull the “quadro” from Mrs. Smith’s file. I had no clue that a QDRO was a Qualified Domestic Relations Order and the attorney assumed that I knew what this document was and wasn’t forthcoming with what the acronym stood for.

All industries have their own terminology and collection of industry specific acronyms. Our government churns out acronyms at what seems to be the speed of light. Texting is full of abbreviations and acronyms. They are everywhere!

Of course, everyone knows what CIA stands for – Central Intelligence Agency. But if you are a chef the CIA may be your alma mater – Culinary Institute of America.

Where would you go to get a CD – a bank or a library? Is a DOE a deer, a female deer, or the Department of Energy?

Acronyms and abbreviations aren’t going to go away so how can we ensure our communications are delivering the entire message?

  1. Remember your audience. This is particularly true with verbal communication. When speaking with someone outside your specific industry, make a conscious effort to replace acronyms with the actual term. If you are trying to educate someone about your industry, state the word or phrase and then add something like “We call the Veterans’ Administration the VA. So if I say VA, that’s what I mean.” It has been my experience that your listener will appreciate this, because people really don’t want to show they don’t know something that seems so obvious to you.
  2. In written communication, even within an industry, it is a good idea to always reference the first use of an acronym within a document by fully spelling it out and placing the acronym in parenthesis – ie. Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). Subsequent instances of the phrase in the document can then use the acronym because the reader has a point of reference.
  3. If using an abbreviation in a written document, question whether this abbreviation will possibly be interpreted as something else. If you have any doubt, spell it out.

Try these three simple steps the next time you have a mouthful of alphabet soup – I think your rewards will be appreciated.

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