How to pretend to understand all the weird language clichés your coworkers use at a new job

Greenleaf Book Group; Illustration: Joseph Lin / Ladders

The following excerpt is reprinted from the forthcoming “Flip-Flops and Microwaved Fish: Navigating the Dos and Don’ts of Workplace Culture” by Peter Yawitz, which will be released on January 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission of Greenleaf Book Group.

It’s finally here: your first official day at a new job. Your heart is pounding with nervous excitement, and you can’t wait to get to work. You spend your first few hours—or days—filling out paperwork with Human Resources and sitting through mandatory training about what you legally can or can’t do or say in the office. During your training you might watch short videos that you’re pretty sure were filmed in the 1980s since all the people in them have wide ties, crazy shoulder pads, and big hair. Their collective acting ability stinks.

Eventually, you get your ID badge and official photo and learn about systems and processes. So far, so good. Sure, earlier that morning you accidentally opened a door, causing an alarm to screech, and then had to deal with a lengthy interrogation from some burly, humorless guys from Security, but hey, at least no one threw you out in the street (not yet anyway) and said, “Sorry, we made a big mistake hiring you.”

Finally, after what seems like an eternity, you get settled at your new workstation, ready to be welcomed by the team you met during your interview process. Some of your new coworkers see you and with big smiles start walking over to greet you. No one, you notice, has big hair.

But suddenly you panic. Where you grew up, men and women who know each other go in for bear hugs. You’re almost positive that people aren’t supposed to hug and kiss at work, but these excited-looking coworkers are rushing toward you so fast that you’re reminded of your family reunions, where crazy Aunt Minnie always bounds over for her annual unwanted slobber. The videos on harassment warned everyone that unwanted affection at work is a big red flag, but you’re scared all of a sudden that you’ll be forced to deal with a harassment suit within your first five minutes of working here.

Now that you think about it, these coworkers did send you some overly friendly emails (“Can’t wait to have you join our team!!! Yippee!!”). Maybe bro hugs are the norm here.

Now it seems those coworkers are walking toward you in slow motion— coming in for a very cheery welcome. As they close in, you wonder if they can see the sweat mustache forming over your upper lip or the circles of perspiration appearing under your armpits. Your mind is racing. Pucker up, bear hug, or handshake? Pucker up, bear hug, or handshake? You feel your body shaking in anticipation. You’re pretty sure you’re doing something weird with your lips, and the sweat mustache is starting to drip.

Finally, as your coworkers reach you, they extend their hands. Of course they do; what was that stupid stuff going through your mind? Though your palms are drenched, you gratefully return the gesture. Better a squishy handshake than an inappropriate smooch. That would have been embarrassing. You make a note to yourself: definitely no kissing, no hugs. You wish you had known someone to ask for advice about that beforehand.

Later in the day, you’re sitting in a colleague’s office with the rest of the team, and you notice that one of your coworkers seems to be staring at your feet. You look down also, wondering if you’d stepped in something. But everything looks normal—your shoelaces are tied, your socks aren’t slipping down. Maybe your pants are a little short compared to everyone else’s.

You also observe that in comparison to the dark or fancy striped socks your coworkers are wearing, your white cotton athletic socks really stand out. In fact, they are almost blindingly white. You were told to dress in “business casual,” but there was nothing in the welcome manual about appropriate sock type, material, or color. You feel your whole body and persona are screaming to the team, “Outsider!” You try to pull the legs of your trousers a little lower to cover them in case other people start to notice them too, and you wish your mother hadn’t sent you a 12-pack of them. Maybe your socks look inappropriate, and maybe, quite possibly, you look inappropriate. Did I dress all wrong for work? you wonder, feeling uneasy. If only someone had given you advice on this beforehand.

You also notice that your coworkers are using sayings and expressions you’re not familiar with. “I’ll be out of pocket (What?), so don’t boil the ocean on this (Huh?). But remember, we need to play in the sandbox with them (Sandbox?).” Suddenly, you feel like more than just an outsider—you feel as though you’ve entered an alternate universe. How are you ever going to know what people are talking about here?

A Note from Dad on Weird Language

Don’t panic! Sometimes, even the people using the clichés and expressions don’t know what they mean. And some phrases are used more than others in different workplaces. Read on. I’ll explain some of the more common sayings later in the book.

Your anxiety level is at the near-explosion mark on the stress meter, and you realize that you’re much less prepared for working in this office than you thought. You are starting to feel like an imposter and wondering why you were hired.

Whom can you ask about some of this stuff so you’re not embarrassed and don’t look like you have no idea what’s going on? Who can help you figure out what you don’t know and communicate effectively in this bizarre new world? Who can reassure you that you do belong?

You could ask your dad, you think, but he’ll give the same “just-be-a- team-player-and-keep-your-mouth-shut-and-by-the-way-did-you-talk-to-my-college-bud-Ed-about-working-for-him?” speech he’s always given you. Thanks, Dad, talk to you soon. Bye.


peter yawitz
Peter Yawitz; Photo courtesy Greenleaf Book Group

Peter Yawitz founded Clear Communication in 1991. He specializes in communication and marketing strategy, training, and one-on-one coaching for global organizations in a variety of disciplines, including financial services, manufacturing, economics research, technology, consumer products, and marketing. He helps people understand different audiences, break down barriers, and communicate effectively and clearly. He conducts seminars on effective communication around the world. The questions he has received from global participants of all ages and levels became fodder for Advice From Someone Else’s Dad, this book, and all the information at his website www.peteryawitz.com.

Born and raised in Manhattan, where he still lives, he received an undergraduate degree from Princeton University and an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.