Image by Nathaniel Shuman

An Epic Email

From time to time, Elon Musk will send out an e-mail to the entire company to enforce a new policy or let them know about something that's bothering him.

One of the more famous e-mails arrived in May, 2010 with the subject line: Acronyms Seriously Suck

acronyms seriously suck

At Standups, we agree and we have an internal no acronyms policy which has already had a big impact. Why?

Let's go through some of the main reasons why acronyms can have unintended negative consequences at work.

Acronyms require one to learn a new language

If there are one or two acronyms, then sure, that's nbd (no big deal). But if each person in a big company is making up acronyms as they go, as a company scales... so does the number of acronyms! This means companies have to create an internal dictionary defining all the acronyms used (I've seen these before).

Therefore, someone reading an acronym has to learn a new language, and then translate it back in to meaningful words. Seems like a backwards process.

Acronyms make it tough on new employees

We've all been there before. You're in a meeting and a term is mentioned or a phrase is used which you don't know. The speaker says, "Any questions?" Do you raise your hand and ask?

Whether it's in a college lecture, at work, or a presentation of any kind, often times, people don't want to ask a question to seem dumb. So they sit there in ignorance. This issue is especially hard on new employees who need to learn what a specific term means more than anyone else!

Acronyms can create an "in group" and an "out group"

Those who know acronyms are "in" and those who don't are "out." While this in some contexts (ie social groups outside of work, more on this later) can be a way to bond, at work, it can create a non-inclusive culture. This relates to the point above which makes it hard for new employees when they start (ie in the "out group") to fully become a part of the company ("in group").

So when should one use acronyms?

I don't think the answer is acronyms should never be used in any context.

I do think the answer is "it depends."

Depends on what, exactly?

I like the question Elon asks when determining whether or not they should be used:

The key test for an acronym is to ask whether it helps or hurts communication

At work I think the less acronyms used, the better. While an acronym could make communication easier for a few people, it can hurt communication for the company as a whole, or new employees.

However, if there a handful of acronyms which are truly known outside of the company by many, then it's okay to use them.

In the SpaceX case it was GUI = graphical user interface, in your companies case it could be DAU = daily active users or MRR = monthly recurring revenue.

dilbert on acronyms

However, socially, outside of work, I'm personally all for acronyms! For example, in a pure social context, acronyms can serve as:

  • A much easier way to text (lol, sgtm, np!)
  • A fun way to bond (does your friend group have made up acronyms they use? YM? WTJ? DYYMYY?)

lol talk to you later acronyms

What do you think?

I asked the following as a poll on Twitter and at least for the Twitter audience who saw this, the results were lopsided: "True: Acronyms Seriously Suck."

twitter poll on acryonyms

Do you agree?

In what circumstances can acronyms be valuable?

Are you Team Acronyms? or Team Acronyms Seriously Suck?

Lmk (😉) what you think on Twitter @arjawn!