Several years ago, we began a mentoring program in my business school. Students requested an alumni mentor, and we had a stable of alumni volunteers. We paired the student with someone in an area of the student’s interest.

It was up to the duo to figure out how they would meet. Many mentors were not in the local area, so most communication occurred via phone and email. But not always.

One day I ran into a local alumnus who had been matched with a student. I asked how it was going.

“It’s not,” he said. “When we had our first email exchange, I suggested that we meet for coffee, since I was local. She said that wouldn’t work. I don’t know what’s going on.”

I suggested that he let me follow up with her. This is what that conversation sounded like:

Me: “I ran into your alumni mentor in town recently. He mentioned that he had suggested you meet for coffee and that you declined. Can I ask why?”

Student: “I don’t drink coffee, so why would I want to meet him for coffee?”

Alrighty! So now I had something to work with.

Me: “I don’t drink coffee either, but I meet people for coffee, often.”

I then explained to her that “meeting for coffee” was code in the business world for getting together. It did not mean we actually had to drink coffee, or anything else, for that matter. She just didn’t know.

This reminded me of how often we use lingo or jargon in our workplaces. Many times, the people we’re dealing with don’t understand our terminology.

For example, in a university setting, faculty share their office hours with students and post them on the office doors. To a freshman who has never heard the term, do they understand that office hours is the term for the time each week that a faculty member will be sitting in her office waiting for students to visit?

A couple of years ago someone asked me why they would understand the term, as they never had high school teachers who had office hours. Good point. We just assumed they understood and wondered why they never visited.

Similarly, parents run into new language when their children attend college for the first time. For most parents, FERPA is a new term. We in higher education bandy it about as if everyone knows what we’re talking about, but they don’t. And most parents, like most people, will not ask because they don’t want to seem like they don’t know. But FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) is important for parents to understand as it addresses what we in a university can and cannot talk with parents about regarding their student. So we need to intentionally address FERPA and its nuances and ramifications early and often in our communications with parents.

I’m guessing you have language in your industry and company that is important for employees and perhaps customers to understand, but it may not be intuitive to all. Several years ago, I created a list of terms for incoming faculty and staff, but have not done so for our students. I guess I need to do it.

Do you consciously consider how to make your stakeholders aware of these particulars? You’ll be doing them a great service if you, do as most will not ask what something means when they don’t understand.

Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.

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