Jargon, Protocols and Uniforms as

barriers to effective communication


Some thoughts and experiences

by Stefano Baldi and Ed Gelbstein


There is no doubt that the world has become “smaller” through the use of information and communications technologies. In December 2003 it was reported during the World Summit on the Information Society that there were over 750 million people using e-mail on a regular basis.


One consequence of this has been that international relations now involve many parties besides diplomats – such as regional and international organizations, multinational businesses, stock markets, non-governmental organizations, politicians, the press and other media, other civil society players as well as uncivil society in various forms.


We have accepted a few languages as lingua franca of our times and while this undoubtedly helps, even with the assistance of translators and interpreters, effective communication remains a challenge.


It is worth remembering that this challenge was recognized a long time ago – let us take for example this quotation from the Book of Genesis, in the Bible, telling the story of the construction of the Tower of Babel:


"If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other."


Any study of human history will confirm that this “confusion of our language” in the pre-history of humankind was totally successful. So much so that it is also true in societies sharing a mother tongue.


We would like to explore here case studies (from which the identities of the parties concerned have been removed) to discuss the role of jargon, protocols and uniforms and some pointers concerning what can be done to improve communication.


The authors are conscious of the fact that in the five thousand years of recorded history, extensive research in philosophy, biology, sociology, psychology and other disciplines has offered few answers to the issue of effective communication across cultures and professions, and we will briefly discuss measures that work – when there is a will from all parties for them to work.


Case Study # 1: Responding to international crisis situations


While international crisis situations have always existed, the availability of “real time news” through e-mail, fax machines, satellite television, websites and many other mechanisms means that a much larger percentage of the world population is now aware of these crises and can follow their development as they unfold.


At the same time, the international community has become much better at responding in an increasingly coordinated manner.


These international crises exist in two substantially different forms:


·         Those arising from disasters either natural (earthquake, flooding) or man-made (forest fires, industrial accidents) which raise the need for urgent humanitarian assistance


·         Those arising from political, religious or economic conflicts and the use of force within a particular state or across borders


This case study is based on a composite of recent events related to the second category, involving several stages of intervention, some of which occur concurrently, each with their own communications challenges and headaches:


1.      Peacekeeping: Intervention by military forces from one or more countries often under the coordination of an International Organization

2.      Humanitarian assistance: provided by international organizations, non-governmental organizations and volunteers

3.      Interim government and governance

4.      Withdrawal


We do not intend to discuss the political and diplomatic aspects of the background against which military and humanitarian aid are deployed, but instead will focus on the problems that are known to arise in these situations which involve information, communication and coordination.




During crisis situations information is a scarce resource. Whatever is available may be of doubtful quality since it may stem from from unreliable or at least unverifiable sources. In many situations, players with malicious intent will feed false information into the process simply to cause confusion and undermine the credibility of the parties responding to an emergency.


The collection of information from multiple sources some of them unverifiable, almost always leads to inconsistencies in information and to potential confusion. Using this information to support meaningful actions and decisions is a major challenge for which we are generally poorly prepared. Working against tight and unpredictable timetables aggravates the problem.


Unfortunately, having to take action on the basis of such information is often inevitable and the risk associated with this is a potential loss of credibility.




Effective communication requires the parties involved to have a shared and clear understanding of the various definitions and parameters about which information (and data) are being exchanged – in other words, are we talking about the same thing?


Here language, and in particular jargon has a key role to play. Assuming that all the parties have a reasonable command of a common language – let’s take International English for the sake of an example – there is a high probability that the same words may have significantly different meanings to people from different parts of the world. For example “command and control”, “coordination”, “security” and “integration” are always problematic for this very reason.


(International English differs significantly from the English spoken in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and other anglophone countries: it has few grammar and syntax rules and any mistakes in either are ignored by all parties during exchanges. The vocabulary often includes many non-dictionary words made up to meet specific circumstances). 




Assuming that information is available to the various parties involved and that communication has been established, we come into the world of protocols and uniforms which is best described by the answers to three simple questions:

1.      Who is in command?

2.      Are you entitled?

3.      Are we compatible?


The first of these questions addresses the issue of authority – who has the right to release information. In crisis situations most of the information in question is privileged (i.e. not public domain), involving details of military activities and locations, logistics of transport and deliveries, field and other intelligence. . Some of this information is held by non- governmental organizations (NGOs) or other institutions which are active in the field. One specific example is the Catholic church in Africa.


In most crisis situations there are large numbers of civilians involved – such as victims of a disaster, displaced people and refugees. The issue of human rights and refugee protection becomes particularly complex when the military is required to search among them for known activists, suspects or other individuals, as the majority of the displaced would normally not have documentation and require secure shelter.


The second of these questions is related to the relationship between the parties that need to work together. In fact, the person who can authorize the release of information must decide if the party requesting is actually entitled to receive this information under the “need to know” protocol.


Military operators, as well as police and other emergency service personnel have a strong culture of confidentiality and a substantial part of the information they deal with is described as “classified” It can therefore only be shared under very specific circumstances and with the proper authority to do so.


This is not the case for NGOs. Their nature and objectives lead them to share whatever information they have. For a real example of how this information sharing is conducted, see for example the website of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) at  http://www.reliefweb.int. Some of the information on crisis areas in this website is provided by NGOs active on the field.


The last of these questions is the only one that has a technical component – that of compatibility of data formats and technologies. If the map references used by the information source are different from those used by the recipient, this incompatibility will render the exchange of information largely useless, if not impossible. The same is true when different actors use incompatible radio communications equipment, operating in different frequency bands or using different encoding mechanisms. In these cases, communication between the parties will not be technically possible.


In a world where these situations arise with unfortunate regularity and involve the simultaneous participation of U.N. peace-keeping forces, the Organization for Security Coordination in Europe (OSCE), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Program (WFP), and many other bodies, the problem of interoperability and information interchange has become a major issue.


Because of this, the international initiative for Information Technology in Crisis Management (ITCM) was launched by the former President of Finland. For more details on this initiative please see the website at http://www.ahtisaari.fi



Case Study # 2: Diplomacy and the media


Traditional diplomacy was conducted by career civil servants and that continues to be the case, except that many other players are now present in this field. Diplomacy is a discipline characterized by discretion and the careful consideration of how language is used and many formal protocols concerning what is disclosed, when and how.


Diplomacy has, at its heart, the national interest of the parties involved and its success is determined by the long-term credibility and accuracy of its outcome. The documents produced by diplomats are primarily intended for their national Ministry of Foreign Affairs and are seldom intended for mass readership. Press releases are issued to allow the media to report, in their own ways, on the progress and outcome of diplomatic negotiations.


These two worlds are fundamentally different and have objectives that may not always be compatible: the media is primarily interested in breaking news – ideally each news agency or correspondent would like to have an “exclusive” before anyone else.


Depending on national legislation concerning defamation, libel and other responsibilities, the media is primarily concerned with gaining mass circulation with time-critical information and shaping public opinion. In order to do this, the media may simplify and even oversimplify issues and resort to the use of wording and soundbites for maximum effect.


One example of this, from 1989, was the plan of the European Union to introduce a monetary system with a European Currency Unit (the ECU) that would gradually displace national currencies (as it did with the introduction of the Euro (€)).


The position papers and press releases from Brussels at the time were written in the careful language of politicians and administrators and targeted to civil servants in the countries involved who had equivalent backgrounds and functions and who were familiar with the issues.


With regard to this matter, the UK’s Sun newspaper used a more colloquial approach, even using on its front page a picture of what is possibly the rudest gesture in the UK.


Its readers would have had different backgrounds, cultural levels and knowledge of the subject matter, and this front page achieved such notoriety that it became a classic that to this day remains quoted on various websites.


The information flowing between diplomatic sources and the media is fairly complex. In reality, it is more complex than the illustration because there is a third player to consider: the politician. This discussion deliberately excludes the role of politicians; this example is designed to illustrate the roles of jargon, protocols and uniforms in effective communication.

The figure above shows the relative amount of information that diplomacy and the press produce and how this is influenced by the targeted final recipients of this information.


In diplomacy most of the information exchanged and produced is intended for internal use and only a small amount is intended for external recipients. Typically these include press releases, official statements and off-the-record briefings.


For the press the situation is virtually the opposite. Most of the information is destined for the (external) public and only a very small amount is kept for internal purposes. Of course, diplomacy invariably will be found among the external users of the information produced by the press and this creates a kind of circular information flow.


In the specific case of the relationships among diplomacy and the press and other media, this information flow is asymmetric. In fact, the amount of information provided by the press (news agencies, newspapers and magazines) and used as a source by diplomats, is considerably greater than the amount of public information produced by diplomats intended for use as a source by the press.


The important issue concerning these communications is that the press and other media are now major players in the world of diplomacy, much of which is played out in the court of public opinion. Politicians are thought to be more sensitive and exposed to public opinion than diplomats and civil servants.


Types of relationship


Before exploring the factors that make the difference between effective and ineffective communications, it would be useful to examine some aspects of human nature: the human species (of which more later) is a social one, with the apparently unique traits of having sophisticated language capabilities and and an ability and willingness to trade.


Looking back into our history and into the work of philosophers and psychologists over the years, it is clear that our relationships are strongly influenced by the closeness that we may be able to develop with others. The pyramid in this paper illustrates a set of levels that should be familiar to the reader.


The first four top levels are obvious. Professional fellows is intended to describe people who share with us a certain level of education, comparable activities, and other characteristics that make them and us have enough in common to be able to associate without difficulty. Diplomats stationed in a particular country will consider the diplomats from other countries at the same location as “professional fellows”.


Socio-cultural activities move further away from our close circles and professional work to areas such as liking opera or supporting a particular football club. The pyramid continues to expand, having at each level a much larger number of people with whom we have less and less in common beyond our humanity.


In ideal circumstances we now have the means to communicate directly with a substantial part of the world population (750 million people used e-mail regularly towards the end of 2003 and over 1,700 million telephone lines exist in the world, according to ITU data available at  http://millenniumindicators.un.org). The view that there are only six degrees of separation between any two individuals appears to be widely accepted – as in “I know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody, etc until you have a link to another identified individual).


In reality, effective communication is difficult at all levels judging by the the all-too-common occurrence of family conflict and the fact that in most murders the victim and the assassin know each other!


Although totally different in their nature, both case studies illustrate relationship scenarios which can take one of five different forms depending on the players, circumstances and the degree of trust that exists among the parties.


This paper considers five types of relationship scenarios. These are: Collaborative, Negotiative, Competitive, Conflictive and Non-recognition. The diagram above illustrates how these are linked to each other and how these relationships are potentially unstable, as a result of which a relationship can develop from one type to another either to improve the effectiveness of communication (the positive development path) or slide into a complete breakdown of communication, a situation that, regrettably, international relations see only too often.


Two of these relationships present a fundamental obstacle to effective communication.


Non-recognition, which can be done brazenly and aggressively as Slobodan Milosevic continues to do at the International Criminal Court, blocks any meaningful exchange by refusing to acknowledge that one or more of the players in the desired exchange has no rights whatsoever.


Conflictual is a situation in which the parties recognize each other but are no longer able to work towards a win-win result and resort to verbal abuse and physical violence instead.


The other three relationships are often of an unstable nature in the sense that a change in the relationship can be triggered by a relatively minor event – even just one word that is inappropriate at the time - and this can happen very quickly.


In the collaborative relationship the needs and positions of all the parties are clearly defined and understood and everyone involved shares the will to succeed, as well as information, equipment, accommodation and logistic arrangements, for example.


The negotiative relationship has much in common with the collaborative scenario except that some needs and positions may not have been defined clearly enough and require discussion and trading to reach a mutually acceptable outcome.


Collaborative and negotiative relationships can quickly become competitive when one of the players needs to (or decides to) play a role different from that which was originally agreed upon. This new role could also result in some form of overlap with the responsibilities of others. Another kind of competitive relationship occurs when a “new player” joins an established effort and expects to obtain rights, privileges and concessions from other players.


Competitive relationships can, if not properly managed, quickly deteriorate into non-recognition, conflict and exclusion.


At this point, the concepts of credibility and trust become important. Without either of these effective communication is simply not possible. Neither credibility nor trust are automatically and instantly given – they need to be earned and this is why communications with family and friends are that much simpler than that with a total stranger.


The diagram below attempts to show how credibility and trust develop over time. At the early stages of a relationship our own character will determine whether we assign the person we are dealing with an optimistic profile of credibility and trustworthiness (as we would normally do with a doctor of medicine) or a cautious profile (as we would do with a door-to-door salesman).


As the relationship develops over time it can follow many different paths – the diagram pictures a happy situation where the credibility and trustworthiness of the person in question actually increases after the early relationship (if only this were the case all the time!) until it reaches a high level denoting a mature and stable relationship.

An alternative expression for “verification and affirmation” popular in some circles is “Walk the talk”.


The one curve that matters in this diagram is the one showing the catastrophic loss of credibility or trust, which is almost always irrecoverable, as this implies the end of any meaningful and effective communication.


Nature and nurture


Whether we like it or not, nature and nurture play a major role in the way we associate and communicate. Scientists reckon that the ascent of humanity started about 5 million years ago when a new species emerged.


Analysis of our DNA reveals that nearly 99 percent of our DNA is shared with the bonobo (miniature chimpanzee). This one percent difference has given us spoken and complex language, a larger cerebral cortex, and the ability to codify and record our knowledge (although the invention of writing only occurred 5,000 years ago).


The near 99 percent represents a major legacy from nature and although most of us rarely think about it, it has a great impact on the electrochemical activity in our brain. Current scientific understanding of our brain reveals that there are in fact three major components:


The reptile brain, that drives survival, territory (or dominance) and reproduction;

The limbic brain, that drives association, bonding and the raising of the young;

The cortex, divided into two halves (left and right) where language, thinking, logic, creativity and all other conscious activities take place.


The first two are thought to be autonomous and capable of taking over rational thought if they sense that any of the activities they drive need to be invoked. Scientists believe that these characteristics are independent of culture.


The characteristics that are defined by the culture and environment in which we live are described as “nurture”. The elements most often associated with nurture include language, values and traditions, body language and other non-verbal cues.


There is some good news: the amount of material available on this subject is not only large but also very helpful, ranging from humorous and accurate booklets in the series “The Xenophobe’s guide to ….(nationality)”, the book “Kiss, Bow or Shake hands”, and many more on, for example, body language and gestures, such as the “Supplemento al Dizionario Italiano”.


Anyone exposed to intercultural exchanges will soon realize how important the aspects of nurture are and how the lack of awareness of each other’s beliefs of what is right and proper can lead to diplomatic blunders or worse. This relates to the credibility and trustworthiness curve described earlier, so beware.


Jargon, Protocols and Uniforms


Jargon is simply an abbreviated form of language that encapsulates tacit knowledge. It is very useful in a community sharing a common interest as it removes much information redundancy. At the same time, it represents a barrier to those unfamiliar with it and makes it possible to quickly identify the “outsiders”. At the same time the “outsiders” will feel excluded as long as they are unable to learn and use effectively the jargon used by specific group concerned.


After a time, jargon that has proven its usefulness becomes incorporated into what is best described as mainstream language – once upon a time, “Internet” and “e-mail” were jargon words.


Here are a few examples of jargon, some familiar and some likely to be totally unfamiliar:





The above is typical of the Short Message Service (SMS) now available in mobile phones. Here is a close translation: By the way, please forgive me for being a pain in the ****, if you know what I mean. See you later.


Patient complains of pruritus in LLL


Note made by a doctor about a patient with an itchy leg.


Doubleclick the icon on the system tray and change the defaults.


Instructions from a Help screen in the Windows operating system.


The perp’s MO has been noted by the SOCO


UK police jargon: translated it says that the suspected criminal’s modus operandi is familiar to the Scene of Crime Officer.


17 diplomats from country XYZ, having engaged in activities incompatible with their status, have been asked to leave the country within 48 hours


Diplomatic-speak which a newspaper would publish as 17 XYZ Spies expelled.


Friendly fire


Military-speak to describe a situation where military personnel were attacked by their own colleagues or allies.




Jargon goes beyond styles of writing – there is a standard language for making queries on a database – Structured Query Language or SQL. Non-programmers are most likely to refer to it as Ess Que Ell, whereas database professionals refer to it as Sequel.


There are many cases where jargon, which had started as being exclusive to a group of people, became part of the common language of inter-professional communication. For example in the case of the relationship between diplomacy and the press, several terms and acronyms which are not yet found in the dictionary – such as G8, G77, equitable geographical distribution, Intifada, golpe, embargo and more, are now extensively used by all parties with the same meaning, even though sometimes in a different context.


Interestingly, in many instances, it is not possible to ascertain whether the expression or acronym originated from diplomatic or editorial usage.


A protocol is a code prescribing the correct etiquette and precedence in specific circumstances. Protocols are very well established in diplomacy, the military, social life, formal meetings and virtually everywhere else. As with jargon, lack of awareness can lead to, at the very least, embarrasment.


Protocols are usually a set of simple rules and exist in nature – in the animal world, for example such protocols are referred to as “instinct” - a school of fish or a flock of birds flying in large numbers in astonishing formations both use very simple protocols such as “stay close to one like you but don’t touch him”.



Examples of protocols more closely related to the subject of this paper include:


Do not interrupt: a protocol usually observed in conferences and presentations, where the audience will wait until the Question and Answer session to interact with the speaker.


The chain of command: key protocol of the military and law enforcement – orders given by a higher ranking officer must be complied with. Negotiation or argument is not permitted.


The press conference: an important protocol for politicians and diplomats dealing with the press and the media. This is a formal event where a prepared text will be delivered, question and answer sessions will be managed and all the statements will have a clear attribution.


Off-the record briefing: an even more important protocol for placing information with the press and the media without attribution. Typically the media would refer to “a highly placed source”


Geneva convention: a set of detailed arrangements for inter alia the Treatment of Prisoners of War (adopted on 12 August 1949 by the Diplomatic Conference for the Establishment of

International Conventions for the Protection of Victims of War)



The consequences of not respecting a protocol can be significant.


Ignoring the chain of command can result in a dishonorable discharge or even a court martial. Non-compliance with the Geneva convention is considered as a major breach of human rights and of grave concern to the international community.


Similarly a journalist who chooses not to respect the off-the-record nature of a statement and reveal its origin, is highly likely to be excluded and ignored by the source he has disclosed.


Uniforms consist of a form of dress of a distinctive design worn by members of a particular group as a means of identification. This identification can serve two purposes: an indication of profession (judge, nurse, garage mechanic) and/or an indication of status (priest, bishop, soldier, brigadier-general).


A uniform confers authority on the person wearing it in the environment in which they operate. Here is an example in a context where the concepts of “uniform” and “authority” are not the usual ones:

The four members of a string quartet are wearing formal evening dress, tuxedos for the men, a little black number for the woman. As virtually all concert performances in classical music require this kind of clothing, it may be regarded as a uniform.


When prior to the beginning of the concert, one of the musicians addresses the audience to request that all cellphones should be switched off, this is in fact an order given in the most polite terms using the authority implicit in the “uniform”.


Even a person wearing the same type of clothes as everyone around him may be in fact wearing a uniform. If you were to see a couple of people approach you with a microphone and a TV camera, these accessories perform the role of identifying them as reporters, and therefore a “uniform”.


The indication of status may require a measure of insider knowledge to decode. For example the United States of America Armed Forces have 43 different insignia to denote rank. (11 each for the Navy, Army and Air Force and 10 for the Marines).


Similar complexities exist in other armed forces, police forces, churches of various denominations and elsewhere.


Effective communication in the real world

The picture below summarizes the points made in the preceeding pages:

Effective communication is no more and no less than a complex balancing act (for which regrettably there is no safety net):


Many other factors combine to make effective communication in an international and intercultural environment a major challenge. In 1580 Michel de Montagne accurately stated that “the most universal quality is diversity”.


These factors include cognitive styles (how individuals organize and process information). Cognitive styles are strongly influenced by cultural orientation and in general, it can be said that people are either open-minded or and closed-minded.


Open-minded people can see issues in relation to their context and admit that they do not know (or that there may not be) answers to the many questions that arise and need to be explored before coming to a conclusion. Closed-minded people operate on the basis of dogmatic answers, which are rigid and non-negotiable, to issues.


It is interesting to note that most closed-minded people would describe themselves as being open-minded.


Value systems – those factors that define what is “right” and what is “wrong”, what is the “truth” and what is accepted as evidence, also differ around the world. Lack of awareness of these value systems will invariably make communication among different groups difficult if not impossible.


Without an appropriate level of trustworthiness and credibility, communication will be severely limitated – and this is true for all the parties concerned. While credibility may be gained by a person’s track record and reputation, trustworthiness needs to be earned by actions and subsequently maintained.


Our inheritance from nature and nurture, jargon, protocols and uniforms are all factors that raise the level at which we are performing this balancing act, and it is only through our own understanding of what we know and don’t know, and the willingness to learn, that we can hope to succeed.


Leaders have the responsibility of facilitating the removal of barriers to enhance the effectiveness of communications, the sharing of information and coordination of activities. The concept of the Chain of Command, which is not exclusive to armed forces and law enforcement, implies that only the leadership can initiate such a top-down process.


Whenever there is a need to make a choice between inconsistent or incompatible solutions, implementers must be willing to abandon the “Mindless Pursuit of Perfection” syndrome that causes so much time and energy to be dissipated for, often, little return. The concept of “Good Enough” has much to commend it and yet is frequently ignored in the search of something “better”.


Why we have to succeed in improving inter-professional communications


Effective communication is doomed when there is no will to achieve it by one or more of the parties involved. In our complex, networked and interactive world the consequences of failed communications are usually disastrous in times of crisis.


There are many examples of crisis situations where effective communications proved problematic for a variety of reasons which could be attributed to jargon, protocols and uniforms.


In New York, on 11 September 2001, a New York Police Department helicopter flying over the twin towers determined that their collapse was imminent.

The radio message from the helicopter to evacuate the building was received by police officers who in fact started to do so. The officers of the New York Fire Department relied on a different radio system incompatible with that of the police and failed to receive the message.


During these moments, the situation saw police officers evacuating the building while fire fighters were trying to work their way in. Because of their different uniforms and different chains of command, fire fighters could not and would not accept instructions from police officers.


We all know the tragic consequences of this inability to communicate and all of us concerned with inter-professional communication, particularly in crisis situations should never forget the enormous responsibility that we have for the life and security of others.


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