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People-related abbreviations are considered harmful

I think that abbreviations related to people bring more harm than good. The only benefit is that they save you some typing. The downsides are plenty.

People come up with abbreviations to name things that otherwise would be too long to explain. In programming we deal with this problem all the time — naming is one of the two biggest problems in computer science, as the saying goes. Same as class and function names, abbreviations are simply abstractions, and they entail complexity.

Complexity is a great tool when you want to cheat.

Here’s the thing. When we’re using abbreviations in our organizations, we abstract our language away from the level of relationships. We can refer to a co-worker as a “person”, a word that is loaded with importance, human value, individual privacy and empathy. Or we can refer to a co-worker as an “FTE” — a Full-Time Employee, a term that means a position in the need to be technically fulfilled. An empty box in a system for which someone can be hired or fired. It’s a neutral word that is void of emotions and moral implications.

Terminology can change the way we think about a phenomenon. Abbreviations elevate it to the next level, which is even more disconnected from the human interaction.

Can I fire a FTE? Sure, I won’t think too long. I have goals to reach and work to do. Hiring and firing FTEs mean pushing buttons on my computer. They are percentages, numbers, spreadsheets and graphs.

My parents didn’t say “FTE” at home when I was a child. My friends perhaps don’t even know what it means. Thus I haven’t had time to build an emotional connection to it. So I don’t care.

But can I fire a person, a mother or a son? Oh, here where the question becomes loaded. There’s an instant feeling of responsibility rising.

Organizational abbreviations and slang are especially hideous when spoken out loud.

You can probably tell I’m reading “1984”. I’m utterly fascinated by Newspeak.

When speaking inside a team, I’d encourage you to think about your team not as if it’s a soulless function of money and time to produce a result, but about as of a group of people. Try using the usual empathetic every day language that people grew up with and that they are familiar with.

Last edited on Mar 21, 2019