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Summary: My coworkers use a lot of slang (mostly internet-based) that I do not understand. It makes me feel excluded. How can I learn that "language" or is it a lost cause?


Last year, I got a new job with the help of my friend in the software industry. I am currently an older man on a H1B in the US, which if you can already have guessed, has been difficult recently so I took what I can get as the last company I was employed with was extremely hostile to people like me.

This new company, while much more relaxed, is far more young. Everyone uses all sorts of images with subtitles on them and smiley faces. In addition, some of my colleagues keep using the same catchphrases, but they seem to understand each other somehow (my English is fairly good). I do not relate to any of this at all. I've been given suggestions in the past to just ignore it and do my job, but I've not only grown extremely lonely, people have been forgetting I exist! Just last week, I joined a video call and someone asked me where to find something and a bunch of people just all replied "BASED!" non-stop and then someone replied with "SLASH F F" and then everyone left. How do you even reply to that?

Should I even try to fit in and learn these jokes or am I too old for this and I should just continue to be lonely with my "existence". I did download TikTok and Instagram, so I can immerse myself in the meantime. Thank you.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Jun 12 at 23:17
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It's been said a few times in the comments, but it really deserves its own answer: When a new thing comes up for you, just search for it on Urban Dictionary.

There's no need to spend weeks or months immersing yourself in TikTok, Instagram, or massively multiplayer video games. Just look it up on that site and in a few seconds, you'll know, and can move on with your work.


Commentators point out, correctly, that Urban Dictionary is frequently profane, sometimes ambiguous, and even blocked at certain workplaces (in which case: use your phone or home computer). Nonetheless, I find it to be the quickest way to get an on-target answer for my purposes. Other options include:

As a test case: Urban Dictionary immediately gives a valid definition to both the OP's questions on "based" and "/ff", whereas none of the other options here do.

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  • Just to note: urban dictionary is not always correct. Other times, certain slang has different meanings in different regions.
    – zmike
    Jun 8 at 4:49
  • UD can also be extremely NSFW. P.S typo on you'll now it's missing a "k".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 8 at 5:04
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    I’ve upvoted, because even though urban dictionary is a unreliable and often repugnantly vulgar resource, the idea behind your answer (learn the lingo) is good advice. I think if asked, many of Rimbo’s coworkers couldn’t give an exact definition of the terms they’re using; they just know from experience which situations they can be used in.
    – ColleenV
    Jun 8 at 11:32
  • Just tried Urban Dictionary and Know Your Meme. Unfortunately they are both blocked by my company. Jun 8 at 13:49
  • @BBAnderson OP might be able to make a case for unblocking, if they actually need UD to understand their co-workers! Jun 9 at 0:34
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If you want to engage with your coworkers, you could ask them what they mean when they say things you don't understand. This is a good habit anyway, since they may be talking about something important even if it sounds like nonsense. They may try to explain what they're saying enough so that you at least understand what they meant, or might realize that they're excluding you and try to limit their use of GenZ vernacular (most likely a bit of both). The worst case is that they are annoyed that you are interrupting their vibe and make fun of you or just avoid you, but in that case you probably don't want to be part of their clique anyway.

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    Yes. Just ask, be happy to admit ignorance but be also enthusiastic to learn the new "jargon". There's no need to participate on online multiplayer games in order to familiarise oneself with the nonsensical slang.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 8 at 5:10
  • UD is often better advice. Some terms are surprisingly non-trivial to properly explain even for their users. Part of the meaning is conveyed only in the context of many-participant conversation - the place that justified them as separate expressions in the first place. I would certainly do worse than a dictionary of contemporary language while putting into words what I have only learned through examples. E.g. there could be a huge difference intended & understood, between a single /ff (more of a question) and multiple team members echoing (a final decision)
    – anx
    Jun 12 at 20:00
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Consider the memes as part of the local dialect - are you required to learn it? Nope. Should you learn it? It probably is in your best interest as it could allow you to communicate with the locals in their own language.

If someone said something you don’t understand, then ask them what the meme means if our old friend google doesn’t give a straight/disambiguated answer.

There are local “dialects” everywhere… some are generational, some are location based, some are movie references, etc - google usually does a good job of decoding those, but not all the time.

Here are a few “dialect” examples that weren’t taught in English classes…

how’d you like em apples?

shotgun (when walking towards a car)

so you’re saying there is a chance?

make a “u-e” at the light

The Cadillac (when referring to things that have options)

bamboozled

And specifically for your situation

When in Rome

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Memes are a more modern take on proverbs, idioms and sayings. using a meme in casual conversation is no different from saying something at work like:

  • Can't have your cake and eat it too
  • He's an Einstein
  • When in Rome...
  • What's good for the goose...

Not everyone knows every saying either.

Should you learn proverbs to communicate at work? It's not a requirement, but it definitely contributes to your ability to communicate efficiently.

However, memes originate from a place that has a much faster lifecycle on the spread of information. Before the internet, for something to get widespread usage enough that it becomes common parlance, it took some time, during which time the saying would also spread to most people, if not everyone. But the spread of memes is mostly online, and different communities spread them around at different rates.

You're at a bit of a disadvantage here as you don't frequent those communities. On a generational meme scale, I am inbetween what I infer you and your colleagues to be. I know a fair amount of memes, but most definitely not all of them. For reference, I frequent Reddit, but not many other online communities either. Twitch memes are consistently foreign to me and unless they bleed into Reddit's common parlance, I don't even know of their existence.

I don't know the source for every meme either, but I learn them just like I learned my proverbs and sayings: usage and context. Sometimes, I'll be interested enough to look it up. Sometimes I don't care and I'll either pick it up as I go, or not.
One thing to keep in mind here is that not everyone who uses memes knows their origin either. They just learn to use them based on their everyday experiences.

I would suggest you at least keep an open mind to this (to you) new form of communication, but take it as it comes.

Just last week, I joined a video call and someone asked me where to find something and a bunch of people just all replied "BASED!" non-stop and then someone replied with "SLASH F F" and then everyone left. How do you even reply to that?

For context:

  • "Based" is used to convey that you agree with what was said, or that it applies to you too. It's effectively as saying "same here".
  • /ff is a command to forfait a game. It's a way to communicate the end of a conversation/activity.

To translate what happened, everyone communicated that they didn't know the answer either, and then someone announced the end of the conversation. But more importantly, I didn't know much of this before reading your question either.

  • I've heard "based" before but never knew what it meant, and I hadn't yet bothered to find out. It took me all of 10 seconds to find the answer on google.
  • If you read the edit history, I was wrong about /ff. Shows how much I know, but that's sort of the point: not everyone can know the exact meaning, but you can make reasonable inferences and learn via trial and error and contextual clues.

How do you even reply to that?

There's a few ways to approach this, and the general vibe of the group really matters here.

You could respond the way you normally would, and people will learn over time that you are not part of the meme-ing group. However, as you've established, this can lead to some non-malevolent social exclusion.

You could ask for clarification, preferably approaching someone after the meeting instead of halting the actual conversation. While it may be awkward in the beginning, if you are willing to learn and participate, the future benefits outweigh the initial awkwardness.

You could lean into being "the old guy" and specifically respond about not getting it (in a casual, joking matter). Bonus points for Grandpa-Simpson-style rants about "in my day...". Depending on how inclusive the team spirit is, this could very much be welcomed as a similar way of being funny.
Similarly, you could take the anti-joke route, and always respond to things being said at face value. This can be done antagonistically (to specifically stifle the meme-heavy conversation - this is not a kind option at all and will cause social blowback), or comically (making yourself the butt of an "old man" joke).

While memes are something new to you, consider that when your generation first entered the workforce, you also injected some modernism that the "old folks" in that day weren't up to speed with. You are now in their position, so you can learn from what they did. Did they resist change? How did that turn out for them? Did them embrace change? How did that turn out? And so on.

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  • You seem to have missed this comment and the specific clue given within? Or you decided to ignore it to deliver a different translation?
    – Levente
    Jun 8 at 11:50
  • @ColleenV (and Levente) corrected this in my answer. My interpretation was purely contextual, which is sort of the point of the answer, but now it stands as a good piece of evidence that inferences can be wrong :)
    – Flater
    Jun 8 at 13:31
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Thanks to @IllusiveBrian's contribution, we have learned that many memes you encounter may originate from video games.

Most of these culture-forming games are played online, allowing a large number of participants to form teams and fight against an other team. They engage in live chat all the while, forming strategies, as well as basking in and inventing their culture at the same time.

They may — as spectators — even watch broadcasts of other peoples' playing, that are presented like sports events by celebrated "e-sport-commentators".

So, in order to gain an aspect of relevance , you could consider picking up playing some video game. If they find out that you do that, I believe that could be a massive step towards your inclusion.


Now, video games come in many forms and shapes. Nowadays it's a trend that games are being played online in teams, nevertheless one should be able to find opportunities to play as single-player, perhaps not even online.

Why does that matter?

I believe playing alone allows for avoiding the pressure to perform like a pro in the beginning, and also allows you to freely explore a few specific games at your own pace.

I expect not all games the youngsters play could capture your imagination and passion equally. It could be that they do, but I see a chance that in all honesty, you would rather find some other genre. I believe, it wouldn't matter in terms of belonging. Merely being a gamer, would still count as "one of us".

To get you on track, I would name a few different games that you could try your hands on to see if any of them meets your fancy: these could be "Red Dead Redemption", "Skyrim", "Minecraft", and "The First Tree".

From then on, you could look for further ones on your own, or ask for your colleagues' recommendation.


Updates / clarifications inspired by comments:

  • Indeed, a gaming rig can cost dearly, and I omitted this info (I guess from $ 1800 upwards?)
  • As far as I know, online multiplayer gaming can be absurdly competitive, that can make it entirely un-enjoyable, thus unattractive for beginners.
  • I did not mean single-player gaming for learning the jargon and terms; rather to achieve relevance, to facilitate inclusion. Learning the terms would come from immersing and better integrating in the group.
  • This idea would hinge on OP authentically finding joy in some games (not necessarily in ones the others play).
  • The key of my idea was about earning a spot in the others' hearts. I expected that to lead to improvement in multiple ways. If this is achieved, I expected, through the catalyzed communication it could render the rest of the problems non-issues, over time.
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  • If you play alone... you never pick up the jargon. And how many weeks of playing would a newcomer need before being familiar with the most common terms?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 8 at 5:15
  • @Mari-LouA no, playing is not for picking the terms up. Playing is only for breaking the ice (and of course for the enjoyment of it: that's a prerequisite; it's either authentic, or not useful). Afterwards, actually communicating with the colleagues could lead to picking up some of their jargon.
    – Levente
    Jun 8 at 6:26
  • But you recommended that the OP play these games alone, to see if they enjoy it. Then what? Continue playing by themselves? I don't know how old the OP is but if they are in the mid-40s or older they're going to feel like a fish out of water where online gaming is concerned.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 8 at 6:40
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    This seems like bad advice. If you need to pick up new hobbies just to be able to communicate with colleagues, there is something very wrong with the company.
    – Erik
    Jun 8 at 7:33
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    Telling someone to start playing videogames to understand a reference in conversation is like telling someone who asks what "Heineken" means that they should start drinking beer. It is beside the actual point. OP's goal is not to be like his coworkers, he wants to understand what they say and learn to connect to them conversationally, not recreationally.
    – Flater
    Jun 8 at 11:29

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