The curse of education

I’d like to thank higher education and big business for my career success. Not because they taught me how to write clearly and effectively, but because they’ve rendered so many people unable to do the same, creating plenty of work for me.

Economists and psychologists have given the name “curse of knowledge” to a phenomenon I’ve long observed. In simple terms, it’s what happens when we fail to recognize that others may not know the same things that we do. So we use highly technical language, industry jargon, and obscure abbreviations, and then wonder why we get blank stares in response.

An example I use when presenting workshops is what happens in elementary school parent-teacher conferences. The teacher smiles and says, “Johnny ranked at the 74th percentile on a norm-referenced summative assessment.” The parents have no idea what this means. Should they host a party? Or do they need to sneak out of town?

To the teacher, who has attended many hours of Master’s-level classes and engages in daily conversations with similarly educated colleagues, the statement makes perfect sense. Johnny scored better than nearly three-quarters of kids his age on a test that measures what they learned. Since the adults who surround the teacher are equally versed in educational jargon, she assumed the parents would grasp it, too.

You’ve probably been through similar situations when your accountant, attorney, doctor, or that guy in IT shared some important information with you. Professionals in those fields are among those most afflicted with the curse of knowledge. They inform you of something, and you have to stifle your instinctive response, which is to ask whether what they said is a good thing or a bad thing. You don’t want to appear to be stupid, so you ask a sideways question in the hope that their answer will clarify the meaning.

The curse of knowledge hurts both sides. Professionals become frustrated because their audiences never seem to grasp or follow the counsel they provide. The audiences fail to understand what they’re being told and become intimidated. How many times have you heard a friend or family member tell you they can’t understand what their doctor told them to do?

The curse is common in the business world, particularly as businesspeople become better-educated. Instead of explaining things in commonly used language, businesspeople use jargon and complex terminology. It shows in their speech, but it’s even more visible in their written materials. From emails to proposals, the language is complicated and convoluted.

It’s even apparent in simple word choices. Those afflicted with the curse love the word “utilize.” You’ll see it in everything they write. But 95 percent of the time, their words would be more precise if they had instead chosen “use.” While people assume that “use” and “utilize” mean the same thing, they don’t. So why choose the fancy three-syllable word as a substitute for the more accurate “use”?

That’s where higher education comes in. Earning a college degree typically involves a significant amount of writing; a graduate degree even more. You might assume that all that practice would lead to better writing, but two mechanisms get in the way.

First is the academic world’s insistence on using a formal writing style that’s required nowhere else. Instead of being rewarded for crafting concise essays and using brevity to convey meaning, students get good grades by cranking out overlong documents packed full of complex constructions, lengthy introductions, and conclusions stretched to fill the required number of words. Because academics were required to write that way, they expect the same from their students, and those students keep using that style for decades.

Second is the students’ lack of confidence in their own intelligence. They believe big words and lengthy sentences will make them appear to be smarter, so they dig into the thesaurus and pad their papers with five-syllable monstrosities when shorter, common words would better explain their reasoning. That desperate practice becomes a habit that stays with them long after graduation. Show me a VP who writes incomprehensible emails, and I’ll show you a freshman who was terrified about failing English 101.

I don’t know whether you can exorcise the curse of knowledge, but there’s a way to work around it. Instead of writing at your peers’ level, try writing at the audience’s level. Use simple words and replace jargon with more common choices. You won’t give up any of your knowledge, but when people understand what you say, you’ll definitely look a lot smarter.