What Your Co-Workers Say (and What They Really Mean)

What Your Co-Workers Say (and What They Really Mean)

Communication at the office is a two-way street … one that often seems to take a sharp bend in the middle. What your co-workers are saying might not be exactly what they mean.

Even if everyone on your team has the best of intentions and is generally on the same page, the strictures of corporate etiquette make it difficultand occasionally inadvisableto say what you really mean. This offers plenty of opportunity for misunderstanding, and makes everyone’s job much harder than it needs to be.

The good news is that you can learn to understand the subtext of what your colleagues are saying, without turning your office into a hotbed of paranoia. It’s all about getting to know your teammates, and learning to read between the lines.

Here are a few things you might hear from teammates, and what they might actually mean:

He says: “I just wanted to touch base with you on X project … and oh, for mysterious reasons, I have cced our boss.”

He means: “I feel powerless.”

Is there anything more annoying than the passive-aggressive cc? The worst part is that it’s almost impossible to tell how malicious it is. At one end of the spectrum, you have a co-worker who wants to make you look dumb in front of the higher-ups; on the other, you have a guy who’s just afraid things are going south and that he’ll be blamed for mistakes.

What both these hypothetical co-workers have in common is that they don’t feel like they have the power to move things forward on their own. Placate them — or keep your enemies where you can see them, depending — by looping your colleagues into your communications going forward.

Don’t start a passive-aggressive email war of your own. Just assume the best and prepare for the worst. Hopefully, you’ll be able to defuse the situation by stepping up your own efforts to connect, but even if you can’t, at least you’re not bringing a confrontation to a head. And, as long as you’re not spamming anyone with useless information, no one can fault you for keeping everyone informed.

He says: “What do you think of the new boss?”

He means: “I’m looking for a potential alliance, just in case I need it — but I’m not sticking my neck out first.”

Rule of thumb for all office communications, either verbal or written: don’t say anything that you wouldn’t print out and hang over your desk. To (wildly) paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can make you look unprofessional without your consent.

Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that your colleague is a bad guy. Maybe he’s noticed something about your manager that you haven’t picked up on yet, or maybe he’s worried about his own place on the team. Whatever is going on, you can provide a listening ear without committing yourself to smack-talking the boss.

He says: “Can I pick your brain?”

He means: Any number of things, and you won’t know what he’s after until you know him better. This request could be a totally legitimate invitation to brainstorm — in which case, it’s a positive thing that might help both of you be better at your jobs and break up the monotony of your daily routines, as well.

Occasionally, however, this question can turn out to be the first volley in a siege on your time. In that scenario, this question is followed by a discussion about resource allocation, sometimes in such a subtle fashion that you don’t notice until you leave with a to-do list full of new commitments.

The best approach, as always, is to get as much detail as possible before you commit to the meeting. It’s totally legitimate to ask what’s on the agenda before you schedule any conversation into your already-overbooked day. Then you can plead busy if you don’t like the sound of the meeting, or prepare ahead of time to prevent any last-minute changes.

If you do find yourself in one of those meetings where the secret agenda is clearly to transfer your co-worker’s projects to your calendar, you’ll be ready to decide whether you can help out in order to generate some social capital, or whether you’d be better off making your apologies, and keeping your valuable time for your projects.

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  • April 25, 2022