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Forgive the MS paint.

But as someone who often straddles two different domains of research and knowledge, how does one translate the jargon that is commonly found in one field and effectively communicate it to someone in another without coming off as a jerk?

Note: the intent was to use generally understood words within the field to communicate, not to come off as a jerk.

The example where my attempts to communicate between members of two different worlds and I received an earful was when I was tasked to develop a website with an existing member of a team who had extensive experience with the dept. but not with the technical details of developing a website.

Words like scrum, development cycles, production and development, were foreign to the individual. When I utilized them, I was called well... less than polite words.

After conferring with trusted confidants, I regrouped and re-approached the topic and design specifications while giving plenty of time to explain concepts that I perceived (through verbal, facial and vocal cues) that the individual did not understand. This resulted in a far better working relationship and the project was completed on time.

Now that I reexamine the subject, I can foresee that as a graduate student, inter-disciplinary collaboration with people from widely different academic backgrounds would be necessary, with differing depths of knowledge of necessary skills to complete a given research objective.

It is one thing to take the time to explain, which I don't mind if the person is willing to listen and learn. But at what point do I decide that the cost/benefit of additional units of effort expended results in diminishing returns? To put it more bluntly "you should know this already, I don't have the time to explain it to you".

  • Abstractify. I had a lot of difficulty with my PhD supervisor, who was a die hard analytical chemist while I myself was a mixture of computere scientist and biochemist. The thing that I discovered worked rather well was to explain what I was doing at an abstract level, which normally also gets rid of the jargon.
    – Bas Jansen
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 9:16
  • @BasJansen ... if you wouldn't mind, please consider giving an example as an answer?
    – Bluebird
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 9:53
  • I will in a while, when I should have some more time to write a proper answer if that's okay.
    – Bas Jansen
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 15:03
  • No problem. When you have time.
    – Bluebird
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 19:11

2 Answers 2


Whenever you are talking to someone from field B about a topic in field A, you are essentially engaging in science communication. If you get the chance to take a science communication or science journalism class, that can teach you how to talk effectively to people who don't have any background in the topic. But you will practice this every time you talk to someone anyway: After 7 years as a grad student, I've had to explain my research to enough people from various backgrounds that I can generally gauge where they come from in 1-2 questions and pitch the level of my explanation to match it - although I've mortally offended some people along the way too, e.g. by assuming a web developer would know what an ARM processor is...

The quintessential science communication advice is "avoid jargon" - you can generally explain a topic without using any field-specific vocabulary, even if that gives only a vague understanding. Whether to explain the words or just not use them in the first place will be a case-by-case decision, based on first and foremost whether the person will need an operational knowledge in the thing: If you are developing a website together, and expect them to have input on the timeline, you probably have to explain "development cycle" to them. If they just have to give you content or feedback by specific dates and you are fully in charge of the schedule, you can probably do without introducing the word "scrum" and just tell them "let's check in briefly every morning on where we are".

Of course, if you have time and they seem interested/able to pick up new vocabulary easily, you can introduce people more deeply into the topic even when it's not strictly necessary. Many scientists love learning new things!

  • Wouldn't 'dumbing down' the language itself be interpreted as acting superior? Or is manner of which you communicate (tone, body language) more important than the actual words being used here?
    – Bluebird
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 5:28
  • 1
    If you approach it as 'dumbing down', it will come across as superior! But there are non-dumb ways to explain without jargon, or put the jargon in enough contextual clues that people can infer the meaning. This point especially was a focal point of the last science communication workshop I attended, so highly recommend you look into those.
    – nengel
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 5:33

It feels like this depends on who the "person" is. If it is a student who is doing a three-week internship, you might just not care (as in: it's not worth it). Same for a PhD student who is not going to play a role in your project.

However, you will have to make sure that the important people in both disciplines understand what the other part is doing and talking about. But none of them, as far as I understand your situation, "should know this" - they do come from a different field, don't they?

  • 1
    Right, especially the last sentence. A major reason that the interdisciplinary person is valuable is because they can translate. So being indignant because you are asked to explain terms and concepts is ridiculous.
    – Dawn
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 3:15
  • 1
    My understanding is that there is no definitive 'endpoint' correct? Hmm, interesting proposition. I can see how if I were to become for a lack of a better word, a jerk, then I would effectively cease to be an effective translator and facilitator between different knowledge fields. Makes sense, at least in my mind.
    – Bluebird
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 4:52

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