Unpacking

Submitted by M. Emma Hixson, J.D., Executive Director Employee Relations Department, Minneapolis Public Schools

M. Emma writes:
A jargon I hear a lot is “unpacking”. Everyone wants to “unpack the teachers’ contract”. They use it to say they want to analyze or dissect what’s in the contract. ( What they really want to do is change it.)

Tony Responds:
The popularity of the peculiar verb “unpack” (as in “we need to unpack theconcept of access-to- health-care if we hope to devise better ways todeliver medical services”) is not merely a case of a new jargon juggernaut. More interestingly, it’s a case of jargon feeding on jargon.

Here’s what I mean. Why do you suppose people have lately become so fond of a term that, in its trendiest usage, seems to mean “disentangling all the jumbled ideas lurking behind some vague, catch-all word or phrase”? Might it be because we are using so many vague, catch-all words and phrases? People evidently feel a need for a sleek, new way of pleading for clarity. They have my sympathy.

The idea of “unpacking” dense or tangled ideas is an excellent one. In fact, if we ignore the epidemic overuse of this too-trendy word, I think we need to give it high marks for vividness. When I hear health experts (for instance) talking about “access” problems, I actually do picture an overstuffed suitcase, fit to burst. Do they mean “there aren’t enough clinics”? “Too few people have insurance”? “Health professionals don’t want to work in poor neighborhoods”? “There aren’t enough specialists in disciplines that poor people need”? “Transportation in [pick-a-city] doesn’t easily get people to suitable care?” “Not enough professionals speak Spanish [or Portuguese, or Urdu, or pick-a-language]”? What kind of “access” — by whom, to what — are they talking about?

Ask a health expert that question and, in my experience, you’ll get the following answer nine times out of ten (that’s not hyperbole; I’ve actually kept count): “Well, we mean all those things! And more!”

There are, of course, two colossal problems with that answer. First, how can an average reader or listener — or anyone of even above-normal intelligence — grapple with all those disparate problems in a single thought? Or, for that matter, a single conversation, or even a single 500-page book? There are so many big ideas jammed into that little suitcase (two syllables, six letters, 25 possible doctoral theses) you can almost hear the groan as the seams begin to pull apart around the edges and the teeth in the zipper start to disengage.

The second problem is that the expert isn’t telling the truth. Whoever wrote or spoke the word “access” in that instant wasn’t really thinking of that whole, sprawling galaxy of ideas. (To repeat: most people aren’t capable of such encyclopedic thinking all at once.) The person was almost certainly referring to one or two particular problems that apply specifically to her own city, or her academic specialty, or some group of patients about whom she is especially worried. But like travelers who hate to part with any of their favorite clothes, and thus pack 20 outfits for a five-day trip, this person reached for a word that seems to say it all, and thus didn’t have to worry about accidentally leaving anything out.

So her listeners and readers, forced to grapple with an overstuffed term, have to beg her to “unpack” it to help them see what she’s really talking about.

Yes, “unpack” is too trendy by half. I’m tired of hearing it, and evidently so are a lot of other people. But I’m even more tired of the reason why I’m hearing it: Far too much of what I read and hear in the policy and public-interest world needs “unpacking” — because it consists of big, bulging, grab-bag words whose real meaning lies buried, somewhere, under compressed layers of other, superfluous, ill-defined, and unexamined notions.

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