The words I use to communicate with other people have been shaped for most of my life by three principal groups: my family, my friends, and rappers, whose ability to make music has arguably taken a backseat to their all-important role as curators of what is cool for suburban middle school kids in the throes of their formative years. If you didn’t wrap tinfoil around your teeth and walk through the mall shouting “GRILLS” at no one in particular even one time between 2003 and 2007, you either 1) are a liar or 2) have never known what it means to be cool, and I will happily overnight you my copy of “Nellyville” (on MiniDisc) free of charge.
Added to the mix for the first time, however, is a unique group of people who I had never encountered before, but around whom I find myself suddenly spending a jarringly significant chunk of my daylight hours: co-workers. And unlike family and your friends, with whom I developed deeply held values, shared similar belief systems, and enjoyed formative life experiences over longer periods of time, I’ve found co-workers are a very diverse group of people with one common thread, really: the signature on their paychecks. When I think about all the different backgrounds, life experiences, and perspectives that are jammed under the same roof, my co-workers may actually be the most heterogenous group I’ve ever added to my life all at once. Sure, people can and do make new friends in the workplace, but those tend to be the exception, not the rule; work is an obligation, and friendships that arise out of it are bonuses, like a plate of catered sandwiches that still has some of the good ones (in order: chicken breast, turkey, roast beef, roasted vegetable and mozzarella, chicken salad, going hungry, tuna, and ham) left after a client meeting.
One thing that probably characterizes your hopefully super-healthy relationships with your family and your friends is a certain level of directness in your communication. As repeatedly demonstrated by petulant teenagers since the dawn of time, you can get away with saying any number of offensive and disrespectful things to your family members and still sit down with them for dinner later, however awkward and silent that dinner may then turn out to be. Similarly, your history of completely ignoring the game in progress and instead sitting down and playing in the sand together in the Little League outfield as your parents look on in dismay gives you the right to pull no punches with your peers, even later on in life and into adulthood. When you’ve been through everything with someone, you can say everything, too. Familiarity breeds directness.
You don’t have those foundations with your co-workers, though. Your office is a lot of different people plucked out of different Stages of Life and expected to figure it out on the fly. And most people, even the most senior authority figures, just aren’t comfortable speaking to even the lowliest of their colleagues they same way that they talk to their golf buddies or wayward teenage kids. So they turn to a series of hilariously complex, multi-layered aphorisms, the subtexts of which could fuel dozens of sociology dissertations. A mandatory crash course in navigating this brave new world would be an invaluable resource for every new entrant into the workforce, and certainly much more so than the countless mandatory trainings about document management systems fall on deaf ears and are best used as for trying to buy a new MiniDisc player on eBay. Come, let’s explore the banality together.
What you hear: “Let’s have a conference call to discuss.”
What it means: A punt to any other medium is still a punt. This adage is just short for “I am totally unprepared to provide an accurate response now, and it is my fondest hope that, by the time we can find a time to all get on the phone at the same time, I will have either figured out the answer or, more likely, I be able to sound like I know the answer while someone else on the call (since I will circulate conference call dial-in information to 30 people, many of whom you’ve never heard before) can provide a substantive response.”
What you hear: “Let’s circle back by email.”
What it means: This is the asinine yin to the previous entry’s inane yang, and it most often appears in the wild in the form of people who were just asked a question while they were carefully composing a witty Facebook status with the call on mute.
What you hear: “Let’s put a pin in that.”
What it means: Wait, does this mean the issue a is now a live grenade? Yikes. Why did we take the pin out in the first place? Generally, I want to keep the pins in the grenades. Can you even re-pin grenades? People are just so cavalier about pinning and de-pinning these days.
What you hear: “Will you ping him this week?”
What it means: “Email him.” That’s it. It’s not any more complicated than that. There’s no sonar or radar or table tennis involved here. It’s just email. Why? Why?!
What you hear: “Thanks for your reply.”
What it means: This usually appears when it’s just about the only thing for which the email recipient can meaningfully thank the sender, because the substance of said reply was so nonresponsive, inaccurate, or just plain wrong that it caused the recipient to close his office door so he could curse without startling the neighbors. If you don’t have anything nice to say, either don’t say anything, or purportedly thank the person while simultaneously giving them thirteen follow-up tasks. Emails that start with “thanks for your reply” should come with a Surgeon General’s warning for potentially carcinogenic levels of passive-aggressiveness.
What you hear: “We need to run this down.”
What it means: “You, do this, and right now.” The office environment breeds clinical precision with respect to use of the Queen’s “we.” If this were your buddy, your brother, or your fourteen-year-old refusing to put her dishes in the dishwasher, you would have no problem whatsoever with loudly and profanely telling them to shape up right quick. The office gives us this very particular form of sanitization in which collective suggestions should almost always be interpreted as unilateral commands.
What you hear: “Please find attached.”
What it means: This one is baffling because of the totally superfluous complexity that it insists on introducing to something that’s really, really simple. “I attached something, so…look at it.” I have no idea why we phrase it in a way that makes the attachment sound like the equivalent of Waldo, or why we then find it necessary to politely ask the recipient to find him.
What you hear: “Per my earlier request”
What it means: “I asked for this already, and you either ignored me completely or did not comply with my express instructions, so now I will now ask you sort-of politely but also remind you (and the thirteen other people cc’d on this reply-all email chain) of your previous failure.” People who are more comfortable with one another generally make this request accompanied by a lot more cursing. Bonus piping hot shame points if this one appears atop a forwarded email message containing the original instructions for all to behold.
What you hear: “Thanks, [signature]”
What it means: I get using this if your email was a request. But it’s gotten to the point where people use “Thanks” as their salutation of choice even when they didn’t ask for anything at all. This is especially bizarre when the sender uses it, as is often the case, to respond to the recipient’s request. “Here are the results of the task that you asked me to perform.” And…thanks? Wait, you just did something for someone else! That’s not how we learned to thank people in kindergarten! They should be thanking you! (And to be fair, they probably will, but still). Look, I understand deference to authority, but this brand of humility is a particularly interesting quirk of the way we communicate; it’s us going out of our way to show that, whatever the actual substance and structure of a given request, we are well aware of who wears the pants in this relationship. Lots of bonus points if the email opened with “thanks,” too. There is plenty of gratitude to go around in the workplace these days.
What you hear: “Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions or concerns.”
What it means: “Oh God, I hope I did this right, and if I didn’t I’m so so SO sorry and I will fix it right away, just please let me know first instead of replying all, and also please don’t fire me.” Note that these sentiments are magnified 10x if this is immediately followed by “Thanks, [signature].”
What you hear: “I will be out of the office Friday with limited access to email.”
What it means: Nah. It’s 2015! Everyone has a smartphone, which means (to your horror) that you in fact have access to email everywhere and all the time. But when you’re going on vacation and have no desire to work on said vacation, blaming that sentiment on access to email is the easiest way to convey that, even though everyone knows it’s not true. It’s a weird kabuki dance that allows people to enjoy their time off without running the risk of their BlackBerry turning into a high-priced skipping rock after it buzzes one too many times while you’re sitting poolside.
What you hear: “This is a draft for your review.”
What it means: “Draft” is great! People attach the “draft” label to things that are riddled with typos, devoid of citations, and/or just plain wrong. But hey, it’s just a draft! It’s the magic labelt hat lets you get away with figuring all of that stuff out later. Bonus points for “working drafts,”and double bonus points for drafts that you are also instructed to “please find attached.” It’s when you start stacking these aphorisms on top of one another that the fun really begins.
Look, all of this is, frankly, exhausting. It’s just that we haven’t yet figured out how to communicate what we really think, feel, or need to our co-workers quite as directly as we’d like, and hilarity ensues. And while simply thinking about them a bit reveals these communication quirks to be kind of absurd, I also get that anyone who has the audacity to speak to co-workers like a normal human being then runs the risk of being perceived as unprofessional, irreverent, or disrespectful, and no one wants that! I guess I don’t have an easy fix here, really, except that hopefully we can at least agree for now to stop signing our emails with “thanks.” The revolution starts here, people. We can build on this.