Academic Commons

Theses Doctoral


Brown, Zachary

This dissertation chronicles the plight of the lower status professional group member and their attempts to get recognition by using insider language or jargon. Specifically, it explores jargon within the broader context of status signaling, language, and hierarchical relationships. It seeks to understand how language is used as a way to both gain and infer status. Chapter 1 accomplishes two goals. First, it discusses features of human status systems and status signaling processes. Second, it defines jargon and identifies its functions. In doing so, I incorporate linguistic and social psychological theories to argue that jargon is a marker of status or a status symbol. I differentiate jargon from related linguistic concepts of slang and technical language, and I differentiate jargon from other status signals due to the social costs incurred through its use.

Chapter 2 focuses on one social motivation for using jargon, arguing that status threat increases jargon use. It proposes that because jargon is a status marker, it is strategically used by those experiencing low status. Across 10 studies, using both archival and experimental methods, I link low status to jargon use because lower status motivates impression management goals. Chapter 3 explores how the effects of both local and global sources of status threat independently contribute to compensatory and performative jargon use. It replicates findings from chapter 2 while highlighting how multiple sources of status threat combine to provoke status signaling behaviors.

Chapter 4 explores the consequences of jargon use, drawing on prior theory in linguistics and social psychology. It begins by showing that high jargon use imposes a cognitive cost upon an audience, which then may then disengage from the speaker’s message as a result. It then shows how high jargon may increase audience appraisals of speaker competence but reduce interpersonal closeness and ratings of warmth. The chapter argues that that high jargon use is particularly interpersonally costly for low-status speakers because they are seen as annoyingly reaching above their station. I also show that extremely low levels of jargon, i.e., flamboyantly colloquial language, also hurt evaluations of a speaker. These results suggest a goldilocks phenomenon, whereby there is a ‘just right” amount of jargon necessary to optimize audience evaluations across warmth, competence, and status. The final chapter five of this dissertation highlights a number of interesting patterns and unanswered questions, paving the way for further studies and lines of inquiry.

Overall this dissertation takes a deep dive into the antecedents and consequences of hyperbolic circumluoquationaness, sesquipedalianistic poeanoisms, and professional jive talk, to expand our understanding of how language functions in performing, negotiating, and affecting social relationships with others in everyday life.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Galinsky, Adam D.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 16, 2021