A colleague consistently uses slang terms and I find it hard to understand them.

At first, it was somewhat amusing within the office and I think they play up to it now. But it's got to the point where my colleague's inability to adequately communicate their meaning/my inability to understand what they're talking about could affect the job.

In one recent example, the colleague used the term aired to mean ignored, when I took it to mean expressed/presented/something along those lines. The conversation went something along the lines of:

Colleague: Has [the customer] aired [the remote session] again?

Me: No

My colleague took this to mean they had sent through a remote session (because in my colleague's view, the question was "Have they ignored it?").

Whereas I understood I'd been asked if the customer had sent the session details through, so my negative response indicated they hadn't.

In terms of background, the colleague is in a different team to me, but their team is designed to support the activities of my team.

In the example above, I vented my frustration directly to my colleague in an unprofessional manner when I realised the mistake, which I feel was a mistake in itself... Should I take the time to make my concerns clear in a more professional manner to my colleague? Should I raise it with his manager? Should I just make an effort to double-check meaning when we communicate? Any other suggestions?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Jane S
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 3:50
  • Was this written or spoken? Is it possible he was using a word that sounds like "aired" such as "erred"? Not that either one makes a ton of sense...
    – Kat
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 4:31
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    I suggest also you take a look at "The Urban Dictionary". It's a website explaining a lot of slang terms. I tried searching for "aired" in it and it found "ignored" urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=aired
    – Cris
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 13:38

5 Answers 5


Since you know you might not understand this person correctly, I would avoid yes/no or other terse answers. Constantly checking to see what they mean before answering is exhausting. But

Colleague: Has [the customer] aired [the remote session] again?

Me: They have not sent the remote session even though I reminded them this morning first thing.

Whether you both think aired means sent, or whether you think it means sent and colleague thinks it means ignored, the question is answered. And you've even answered the next followup which will be "have you asked for it? how many times?" etc.

It's a good habit even with people who make perfect sense, to say "No, I don't have the report format from the customer yet" instead of just "No." In this case, simply drop the yes/no since you don't actually know the correct answer, and give them a sentence that includes the information they want.

Should they then come to you and say "why can't I ever get a straight yes/no from you, why is it always a whole speechy thing?" you can say

I sometimes am not familiar with the connotations of some of the words you use and am honestly unsure whether the answer is yes or no, so I tell you what I know. I want to be sure we both understand each other.

Perhaps that would bring home that language, especially in the office, has a primary purpose of transmitting information. It's fun to enjoy wordplay -- just not to the point where information is no longer correctly transmitted.

  • 75
    This looks like a good answer. However, I would still say "No, they have not sent the remote session [yet]" so the colleague gets that I did not understand the question the way he wrote it. And this would be clear enough so that he won't come and ask why I don't simply answer Yes/No.
    – Rafalon
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 12:44
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    This. Not only for clumsy native language abusers, but with a wealth of experience working with ESL coworkers I have a ruthless habit of doing this. Anything anyone says that could be even remotely unclear I rephrase into simple, clear English and repeat back as a question for confirmation. It takes an extra few seconds in the moment, but the time it saves in the long run is immeasurable.
    – J...
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 13:18
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    This answer solves each issue as it arises but it's unlikely to improve the solution long term since it isn't proactive in informing the colleague that their style of communication is causing problems. Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 15:13
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    @KonradRudolph-Communication has 2 sides. The sender and the receiver. Don't just put the blame on the sender. The receiver is responsible for ensuring they understand what they received, Otherwise they need to send a NAK ...I mean the need to do exactly what Kate suggested. This is not just a slang problem. This is an English language problem that happens often even when perfect English is spoken and even more so when written. I think the long term solution is to follow Kate's suggestion because it is a good habit to develop. Getting this person to change doesn't help you for the next person.
    – Dunk
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 15:35
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    For the record, I am a lifelong native English (Canadian) speaker and this seems to me to be an entirely idiosyncratic use of this expression. I would take "aired" to probably mean broadcast, expressed or explained (it's from "over the air" as a way of referring to radio waves, which of course don't use air at all); to "air one's laundry" means literally to hang up clothes in the fresh air, and by metaphor to present information in public. So basically this guy is using words oddly and you should probably ask him what he means, with pretty much everything he says!
    – CCTO
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 15:47

I would suggest two approaches:

  1. reflect the question back to himn

Colleague: Has [the customer] aired [the remote session] again?

Me: Do you mean if [the customer] had sent the session details through?

With that approach you play the ball back to him and he needs to verify if you understood it correctly or not. Rinse and repeat as needed. And he will maybe understand, that his slang terms can be hard to comprehend and therefore adjust.

  1. Talk to him straight about the misleading communication style of his. Make it a friendly talk without any accusations but try to get your point across.

Only after those approaches failed I would bring it to your manager.

  • 10
    With #2, it could be a friendly response when he says something completely unintelligible: (with a laugh and a smile) "Okay, you're going to have to translate that, because I have absolutely no idea what you just said."
    – David K
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 12:06
  • 2
    The problem with #1 seems to be, that he uses slang terms that are not common, basically requiring OP to verify every single sentence, even if OP thinks he understood.
    – Theolodis
    Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 6:13
  • @Theolodis - #1 is a solution for when you are about 50% unsure. #2 is for when you have no idea. Kate's suggestion works when you think you understood but just want to be certain. In all cases the idea is to indicate that there's a problem, and to demonstrate more appropriate words. Commented May 29, 2019 at 8:18
  • Instead of "use your words" it is: "use MY words." Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 2:34

This may sound odd, but it makes a big difference where the slang comes from. The social function of slang is to create "in-groups" and "out-groups." It isn't meant to be understood by everyone, but its shared use and understanding can help create social bonds and communities.

If the slang is personal to your coworker (words he's just making up) or relative to a group that has nothing to do with the workplace (i.e. his frat brothers), then it's unprofessional and needlessly alienating for him to use it constantly in a work setting. In that case, you're well within your rights to ask him --politely!-- to stick to standard English at work to minimize confusion.

On the other hand, if his slang is actually "jargon," work-related terms that are in common use in the industry, or by other people in your workplace, then really, it might be on you to take the time to learn them. Nearly every job has at least a little of its own characteristic slang, and learning it is a part of the standard workplace socialization process.

  • 3
    Somewhere in the middle, and I think the difficult case to deal with, his in-group that understands the slang could be huge. In extreme cases it might be, for example, "80% of under-30-year-olds and maybe 10% of everyone else". He won't necessarily realise that this particular word is part of a conspiracy by young people to evade surveillance by old people, so he won't necessarily know that, for example, using "aired" in this sense is "unprofessional". Especially if using a word that old people know and young people don't is considered "erudite" or something. By old people like me ;-) Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 11:23
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    @SteveJessop - Probably not the most professional response, but it would be fun to counter his slang with slang he might not recognize. "Did he air on the remote?" "Word, it was totally bogus." Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 16:00
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    Or read up on the slang of the Victorian east-end of London, or the 17th century criminal underclass, or Yorkshire farmers 1750-1780, or something. There's no danger of ever running out. "The client's been touched for his bit of land piracy, so it's between his puzzle-case and the beak now whether he'll be stretched". Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 18:18

I know that when some people speak, and depending where they grew up or lived for a while, their dialect could make one word sound like another or the words chosen to use are common where he is from. Such as could be possible while overhearing or listening to the conversation.

What if instead of saying "aired" he was saying "erred" (as in made a mistake) from the term err. Would this make a difference in the perception of what was said?

  • For example, the word 'tabled' means opposite things in British vs American speech. This can cause some consternation during important meetings. Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 0:19

Professional slang serves two purposes:1

  1. Brevify terms that you use too often to warrant pronouncing them fully each time.
  2. Invent new names for things that don't (yet) have an official name (and you would have to describe the thing each time otherwise) or if that name isn't catchy enough to convey the meaning well.

You can probably see that these purposes are actually one: to convey information more efficiently.

If a slang term becomes ambiguous (whether completely, or in context), it thus stops fulfilling its sole purpose for existence, so you should immediately, without further prompt, fall back to using official, unambiguous terms.

How specifically you would do that is completely up to you. The key point is, you choose any wording that would convey your part of the conversation unambiguously. The other answers gave some specific ideas:

  • "No, <describe the situation in official terms>" instead of just "No." -- because just "No." is a shorthand for "No, [the customer] hasn't aired [the remote session] again.", an ambiguous wording.
  • "What did you mean by <ambiguous term>? or "By <ambiguous term>, did you mean <one official term> or <another official term>?"

Choose whatever you like, e.g. whatever you think would result in less back-and-forth to reach the conversation's goal.

1Of course, there are others. I only count what is directly relevant to the OP's case (i.e. regular communication on tech topics).

  • 1
    I would say that the two purposes you listed are only a tiny subset of the purpose of slang. Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 20:45
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    Even in that setting, a major purpose that comes to mind is deliberate obfuscation from outsiders. I think that's much more relevant than the reasons you bring up here. Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 20:51
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    I feel like you're oversimplifying to the point of ignoring things that are relevant to OP's case. Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 20:54
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    "What did you mean by <ambiguous term>" - from the OP's POV, the term in question was not ambiguous. Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 9:08
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    @ivan_pozdeev: In the statement you cite, I see no indication that the OP was even theoretically aware that to air can have another meaning beside the one the OP assumed, at the time of hearing the statement from their colleague. To be sure, I have asked the OP for clarification. Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 12:28

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