To give some context to this question, I am an Information Security specialist. I frequently work with people who are IT specialists (developers, sys-admins, project managers, etc.) but who are not security specialists.

It's quite common that these people use security jargon, in a way that is nearly right, but slightly different from the proper meaning. Or the jargon may be technically correct, but give a misleading impression. To give some examples:

  • "Passwords are transmitted in plaintext over HTTPS". This is misleading because HTTPS provides encryption, so passwords do not traverse the network as plaintext.
  • "We protect passwords with one-way encryption". Technically, there is no such thing as one-way encryption, the process is "hashing". However, in this case the meaning is clear.

There are a few ways to deal with this:

  • Always correct the person and explain correct terminology. However, this can lead to unproductive semantic arguments.
  • Don't correct the person, but use correct terminology myself. However, this can lead to confusion.
  • Don't correct the person and attempt to use the words in the way they understand them. However, this doesn't help improve their use of jargon.

And as a compromise:

  • Correct the person when the meaning is unclear. If the meaning is clear, use the jargon as they understand it.

Further suggestions would be appreciated. To be clear, the question is: How to constructively deal with non-specialists using jargon incorrectly?

  • 7
    "Password are transmitted in plaintext over HTTPS" is perfectly correct - it means that the password is safe while in transit, but not before and after that. That is very different from "passwords are encrypted, then transmitted over HTTPS". If you told me it's the same, I would be very, very worried.
    – gnasher729
    Oct 22 '16 at 11:57
  • 3
    What is the context/situation of these statements? Are you passing by the hallway and overhear colleagues saying passwords are transmitted in plaintext over HTTPS and are debating whether or not to try to step in and correct their usage of jargon? That is one situation. Another might be someone asking you directly Passwords are transmitted in plaintext over HTTPS. What is your opinion? In the one, you should let it go, and in the other, you were directly asked for your opinion.
    – Brandin
    Oct 22 '16 at 12:26
  • 1
    @paj28 It could just be a misunderstanding, unrelated to jargon. If the conversation allows, you could simply ask "Why do you say the passwords are transmitted in plaintext over HTTPS?". Then you will discover the motive behind the statement.
    – Brandin
    Oct 22 '16 at 13:05
  • 1
    You didn't say "transmitted plaintext" vs. "transmitted encrypted" - you complained about "transmitted plaintext via https" which is absolutely clear both in its meaning and in its consequences to anyone who knows what https means. And it's not jargon, it's using the correct technical terms.
    – gnasher729
    Oct 23 '16 at 1:14
  • 3
    And you are trying to shift the goalpost here - you were complaining about "incorrectly used jargon", but now you are complaining about "correctly used technical terms that could be misunderstood by a non-technical person".
    – gnasher729
    Oct 23 '16 at 1:16

You know what they mean, so there's no need to be arrogant or intentionally misleading, or play the "I gave them what they asked for" games that some IT people like to play.

Instead, here's an example:

I'm not a Whiskey drinker, but I went into a specialist Whiskey shop to buy a gift once. I knew that I wanted a "sweet" one, not a "peaty" one, so when asked those were the terms I used.

Salesguy knew exactly what I meant but did not use Sweet or Peaty. Instead he clearly said "light" or "smokey" and it was pretty obvious. He did not talk down or look down his nose.

That's the kind of gentle correction and steering which is appropriate, without getting anyone worked up, regardless of the industry.

  • 1
    That's a great analogy. I worry a little the conversation could go: "sweet whisky please" "here's a light one" "I want a sweet one" with whisky that's not gonna happen, but IT can be different. Especially if you're dealing with, say, an account manager reading a client spec. Any tips for dealing with that?
    – paj28
    Oct 23 '16 at 9:22
  • Can I ask what you'd recommend in this example?
    – paj28
    Oct 24 '16 at 14:51
  • @paj28 its not my field of knowledge sorry.
    – Criggie
    Oct 24 '16 at 19:17

How to constructively deal with non-specialists using jargon incorrectly?

Provide a correction only when it really matters.

If you are just having a conversation, and you actually understand what the other party is trying to say, then there is no need for a correction.

On the other hand, when it is your job to edit marketing materials and you see jargon used incorrectly, then you absolutely must correct it before the materials go out.

In casual conversation, correcting others tends to be viewed as rude and there is no need for corrections. During an internal presentation, interrupting the presenter with corrections is rude and you shouldn't interrupt to correct them. Correcting others in order to show off your superior knowledge is rude - don't over do that. But correcting jargon prior to an external presentation is just smart.

  • Thanks for the answer. Correcting others in conversation might be considered rude, I agree - but what if it's a correction that really matters?
    – paj28
    Oct 22 '16 at 12:08
  • Could be a hallway conversation, phone call, or something more formal, e.g. a design committee.
    – paj28
    Oct 22 '16 at 12:12
  • I worry about future misinterpretation. e.g. I say "plaintext passwords over HTTPS is ok". They later say "you said plaintext passwords are ok". I guess I can always challenge the later interpretation. But enforcing proper use of terminology would avoid a number of these misunderstandings.
    – paj28
    Oct 22 '16 at 12:21
  • 2
    @paj28 I see a greater risk for you than people thinking "plaintext passwords are ok" because you said "plaintext passwords sent over HTTPS are ok": the risk that people start ignoring you because they feel you are a pedantic nitpicker who needs to put others down by "enforcing" terminology you consider correct even though you perfectly understood them the first time. I've had colleagues like that in the past and seen work relationships implode because of it. It can get really unproductive. On the other hand none of the examples in your OP would strike me as particularly problematic. Oct 22 '16 at 15:01
  • 2
    @paj28 You don't have to copy their terminology. I think the point of this answer is that if you shouldn't step in unnecessarily to correct someone when it doesn't matter too much. "Wait, did you say one way encryption? That terminology is so wrong and if you use it you risk sounding ignorant. You should actually say it like this..." (ok, you probably wouldn't phrase it like this, but if you're too pushy it may come across something like that to the other party). But at the end of the day just use whatever term you normally use.
    – Brandin
    Oct 23 '16 at 0:40

For casual conversation, and probably for substantive conversation, it depends on (your assessment of) the other party's understanding of the term. Someone who thinks passwords are vulnerable to sniffing when transmitted by HTTPS should be gently corrected. You might say something like, "Only if the adversary can defeat the TLS encryption." You acknowledge that it may be possible to compromise a password that way, but only by defeating the encryption. If the other party says, "What do you mean, encryption?" you have the opportunity to explain about TLS and negotiation of algorithms. If not, you're done!

It is much more important when written material is involved. I'd be embarrassed to be associated with a document that talked about "one-way encryption." Once again, be gentle. Say something like, "We should probably be precise and call that hashing. And, since the type of hashing algorithm is important in this case, we probably want to mention that, too."

Edited to add: Don't adopt incorrect terminology just because someone else uses it. Use the precise terms yourself even if the other party does not. Example re one-way encryption: "Yes, we hash those passwords to make them difficult to obtain if the password table is compromised."

  • Sounds about right. One question though: if you're responding to someone using different language to what they used, how do you avoid that sounding confusing to them?
    – paj28
    Oct 22 '16 at 20:05
  • @paj28 At worst, people will assume you're using a synonym. At best, they'll learn something, and without having it shoved down their throats. At very best, they'll ask.
    – Bob Brown
    Oct 22 '16 at 22:13

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