On saying what you mean

Gender-based violence. Those words are powerful. Say those words to someone and they mean something, even if they have never heard the term before. Female genital mutilation. These words conjure up images of brutality, of violence, of pain, of discrimination and sexism. Even sexually transmitted disease, maybe something you’re more used to hearing in its abbreviated form STD, is more powerful when spelled out.

If you work in global health or international development you’ve probably called gender-based violence “GBV” and female genital mutilation “FGM”.  You’ve probably written PMTCT, short for prevention of mother-to-child transmission (of HIV), and heard SAM (severe acute malnutrition), SRH (sexual reproductive health), FP (family planning), MCH (maternal child health), NTDs (neglected tropical diseases), NCDs (non-communicable diseases), OVC (orphans and vulnerable children), DALY (disability-adjusted life-years), my newest one is EVDS (Ebola virus disease survivors)…the list goes on and on. This alphabet soup is endemic amongst institutions working in social impact, government, and policy, so even if you aren’t familiar with these specific to global health, I’m sure if you work in this space you can come up with laundry list specific to your field.

There’s the obvious argument that using these abbreviations alienate people who aren’t in the aid, development, human rights or health fields and don’t know the wonky lingo and so by its nature acronyms are elitist and pretentious, and I would agree with that. But there’s something even more important – we dilute the meaning of these words and phrases by bunching them up into comfortable little packages of letters. We start to forget what they really stand for. This shorthand stands for words that articulate inequity, describe human rights violations, elucidate real issues that need to be described with real words. These letters represent circumstances that describe the trials of being a human being in the face of injustice and the work being done to try to solve some of these pressing issues. This isn’t LOL and BRB and IDK.

As a leader, it is so important to say what you mean. Language is essential, not only because it is the vehicle for people to understand what you mean but also because the words that you choose communicate your values. And while I’ll talk more about communication in another post, the first part of communication is being intentional with your words.

So, while I might vaguely understand people’s desire to shorten things up, I would advocate that it’s important to take the extra few letters, take the extra breath and say the actual words. They mean something. And isn’t it so much more powerful to call things out by their names?

This post was modified from it’s original post “Alphabet Soup” in January 2014 on my other blog themoreisee.org 

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