As a northern New Jersey native, I am pretty familiar with a geographical version of Yiddish slang. Of course, as with any slang, there are groups of people who immediately understand you, and others who have no idea what you’re saying. This particular slang isn’t really known in the Mid-Atlantic region, where I currently live. (I had a particularly uncomfortable interaction when I had to explain to a colleague that the word “mensch” didn’t mean what this person thought it meant.)
A very good friend of mine grew up in an Italian American household in a different region of the country. Her household had a slang all its own that is completely unfamiliar to me. But over the years, through her stories about her family, I have learned some of that slang, and even incorporated it into my own vocabulary.
One of my favorites is “scustumad.” This word is broadly defined as someone who is greedy. In my friend’s house, a scustumad is a very specific type of person – it is a person who refuses to wait his or her turn, or who takes more than his or her fair share. Essentially, anyone who is greedy and exhibits bad manners, especially when those manners relate to social niceties or group activities, can be labeled a scustumad. If you have guests for dinner but serve yourself first, you are a scustumad. Conversely, if you are a guest and don’t wait for your host to invite you to start eating, you are a scustumad.
Why am I telling you this? Two reasons: First, because in some way I feel like a scustumad writing this post before my virtual host Brian Lemma, the current chair of the Technology and Communications Committee, has had an opportunity to share his own thoughts on this blog in his capacity as chair. Second, and actually my point, is because I think a lot about language. I see a parallel between the way slang functions, and the jargon-heavy industry in which we work. Ours is a language that is not immediately understood by those outside the culture aid administrators, and this can create problems and confusion. One woman’s scustamad is another woman’s misunderstanding.
As aid administrators, the language we speak is externally dictated; terms like FAFSA, COA, EFC, DRT, and PPY are foist upon us. It all makes sense to us, because it is a language we are necessarily immersed in as a function of our jobs. But, it’s a language that is largely a mystery to our students and their families – at least initially. When my friend and I first met, if she were to say to me, “Don’t be a scustumad,” I would have been clueless about what she meant. I understand that admonishment now, even if I can’t quite pronounce the word correctly. (I am not alone in this example of “I know what you mean, but I can’t pronounce it”. How many times have you heard a student or parent mispronounce FAFSA? Or call a Stafford loan a Stanford loan?) The same goes for my communication with students. If I employ the language of an aid administrator without explanation or context, they are not going to understand me. I can’t say, “When you fill out the FAFSA, make sure to use the DRT” without at the very least defining my terms.
Aid offices are sometimes seen as a hindrance to higher education. Miscommunication and misunderstanding are at the center of many conflicts; it’s easy to lose track of the fact that others don’t speak the same language we do. All we have to do is read the comment section of any financial aid related social media post or news article to know there is often a high barrier between our processes and people’s experiences with and understanding of our processes. The question is, how do we best remove these barriers? How do we best explain ourselves without relying so heavily on the terminology – the slang – that our profession necessitates?
I know this is the part where I am supposed to offer an answer, but after years of careful thought, I don’t really have one. If anyone reading this could offer me a solution, I would appreciate it. Be a mensch, and help us out.