14

Context - I work with a senior engineer on an opensource project. In some vague sense, on this OSS project, he reports to me.

He recently started a new job at a startup and also started taking on more of engineering manager kind of responsibilities there. Since the last 1-2 months, he's started using a lot of new jargon words, phrases, and colloquial idioms. He's probably been picking these up from the executives he works with now. Previously, his speech was very straightforward and well, "engineer-like".

The problem is, he mispronounces most of the jargon words and misuses most of the idioms. And he seems to be making a habit of (mis)using them in regular conversation. If I had to hazard a guess, he does that at the startup to better blend in.

My problem - when talking to him, it is getting tedious for me to focus on the topic of the conversation when his language has become so distracting.

How do I handle this situation? I would like to maintain a good relationship (the guy is basically good) and I want to make sure he doesn't leave the open source project (he's a good engineer).

It is not a question of his native language. He speaks standard English just fine. Always has.

Edit/add - Many people have asked for specific examples. Do note that this is novel behavior on the engineer's part.

Idioms - Many of his new idioms I'm hearing for the first time myself - having lived and worked for many years on three different continents, I'm familiar with enough variants of the English language. Many of the idioms make no sense in the context he uses them in. So I'm left scratching my head wondering what exactly he meant.

Mispronunciations - in many cases, he inserts non-existent syllables into the middle of words (while retaining all the other syllables). In some other cases, however, he just picks a different variant (e.g. gif/jif like someone mentioned).

I won't mention specific examples, because many of his mispronunciations and misused idioms are things I never heard before (in 15+ years of working). So they may be unique to him. Being an engineer, he's sure on stackoverflow, I don't know if he's on here too. I sure wouldn't want him coming across this, and identifying himself as the subject of the question.

12
  • 19
    By "handle the situation", what do you mean exactly? Doing nothing and accepting them as they speak is an option, thus why I ask what is your goal here to better help you... also, is this affecting only you? or others? perhaps it's just something that triggers you (and something that you would have to work on, not making him change).
    – DarkCygnus
    May 17, 2023 at 6:19
  • 12
    For that matter, is he deliberately garbling as a form of humor, making fun of the jargon? Specific examples would help us understand why this bothers you
    – keshlam
    May 17, 2023 at 10:27
  • 23
    Could you give some examples? I think they will be useful to clarify your question. Have you checked if they are actually mispronounced? I can imagine something like "The entrepreneur has a rendezvous with Claire to eat a croissant." to have several pronunciations depending on whom I ask.
    – Elerium115
    May 17, 2023 at 11:18
  • 7
    Yes, examples please, and whether you come from different states or countries. Idioms can be very region-centric.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 17, 2023 at 11:52
  • 9
    I really would like some examples of words he is mispronouncing and jargon he is misusing... With how you think the words should be pronounced/meaning included so that I can make fun of your misuse/mispronunciation at the same time I make fun of his.
    – Questor
    May 17, 2023 at 23:14

10 Answers 10

130

How do I handle this situation?

You check any ego or arrogance at the door, accept the fact that people aren't perfect, understand that you yourself probably have foibles that others find slightly off-putting, realize that there are bigger, more important things to be concerned with, and focus on the tasks at hand.

16
  • 10
    So your solution is "just accept it"? If I misunderstood, please explain, as I cannot read your answer in a way to understand something else.
    – virolino
    May 17, 2023 at 13:13
  • 54
    Unless it is causing serious problems for the open source project, YES, you just accept it. If it is making his documentation or code harder to read, you can suggest alternative phrasings for those specific instances. If it isn't, you have no reason to intervene outside of personal annoyance, and if you want to retain the volunteer you need to accept that people can be annoying and useful at the same time and focus on the one that matters most.
    – keshlam
    May 18, 2023 at 0:36
  • 6
    @virolino this isn't really a site that works on "hard evidence", as I'm sure you know better than I do, and there are very rarely any questions here that could ever be answered with "hard evidence". This answer is telling the OP that they are making a big deal out of nothing, there is no problem and the OP should try to avoid creating one for no reason other than a mild annoyance at the way someone else chooses to communicate. This isn't general advice about ignoring problems, it is specific advice about ignoring this which is a non-problem to begin with.
    – terdon
    May 18, 2023 at 12:05
  • 10
    This person is not likely to stop using those words and phrases. But you can nudge them in the direction you want (direction of clarity) by asking clarifying questions. A quick "What do you mean by that?" or "Care to explain?" or "I'm not quite following." can get him to clarify things and hopefully all members can remember that for the next time it pops up. Treat it like learning new jargon for an industry you aren't familiar with and then get him to correct his own mistakes and teach you at the same time May 18, 2023 at 12:14
  • 4
    @virolino May I suggest that you take this to Meta? We frequently see "no, that's within normal range, don't worry about it" or "You've framed the question incorrectly and/or are presupposing a solution that may not be correct" on Stack Exchange. And in an interpersonal problem especially, it's important to realize that there are two people involved and a legitimate fix may involve either or both. The essential stated problem is "it is getting tedious for me". An attitude shift to simply accept it as a variant jargon is a legitimate solution.
    – keshlam
    May 18, 2023 at 15:41
40

You didn't mention whether you tried saying simple things like these in the flow of the conversation (in a respectful way, of course):

  • What do you mean "xzy"? Do you mean "xyz"?
  • I'm not sure I understand what you mean, for me xyz means...

This is the first thing I would do in any conversation. Often enough I'd expect this to clarify things. Only if the person reacts negatively do you have something to "handle", or just let go.

If the both of you notice that you disagree on words a couple of times, then you can ask about it directly. Maybe, as some have pointed out, you will learn that some words have a different meaning at your engineer's startup. Or your engineer and you could agree that they don't master the jargon very well indeed and they could let you correct them more directly like:

  • Actually this is pronounced "xyz"
  • Oh yeah corporate talk is full of 360° synergy that sounds like BS haha, but actually xyz has a precise meaning: ...
1
  • 8
    +1 this does address the one part of the "problem" that actually could have consequences apart from nuisance (OP being annoyed about the pronunciation is quite irrelevant): misunderstanding idoms can lead to general misunderstandings in respect to what actually needs to be done. OP should also check beforehand, if they are not the one in error (sometimes there are regional usage differences for idoms).
    – Chieron
    May 18, 2023 at 12:21
37

Just lead by example.

Instead of complaining or explicitly trying to "educate" him (which has the potential to backfire in many exciting ways, from creating a super awkward situation to driving the contributor away), opt for a non-intrusive approach.

Just make sure you use these idioms correctly when you talk to him and pronounce everything the way you consider correct. Chances are they will take the hint. Perhaps he will just change his pronunciation, or stop using these idioms with you if he's unsure which one of you is right, or he may even ask you what the deal is openly. But anything of this will happen on his own terms.

Yes, chances are that he won't get the hint and will keep talking weird to you. In that case, realize this is not an issue worth sacrificing a whole project for, and refer to the answer by joeqwerty.

8
  • 8
    I've always found that someone correcting me immediately is the least offensive way to me. We learnt that way as children, so everyone knows that method already. May 17, 2023 at 15:15
  • 13
    @AndrewMorton I think whether or not it is offensive depends a lot on the mental makeup of the recipient of the correction, and upon the power balance between the parties. Between engineer peers, correction is usually expected and not really remarkable. From an employee to a boss, maybe less often expected. May 17, 2023 at 22:17
  • 2
    I went to buy some fancy whiskey once, as a gift. Not my area, but I knew the recipient didn't like "peaty" whiskey that tastes like dirt. On asking that of the store clerk, he politely said "Do you mean smokey?" without a trace of snark. That was clearly obvious I was being schooled in correct terminology, but in a nice way.
    – Criggie
    May 18, 2023 at 2:27
  • 10
    @Criggie: ("Peaty" is also correct terminology - the flavor comes from drying the malt over a peat fire.) May 18, 2023 at 3:08
  • 2
    @Criggie Weird - I thought that smokey and peaty were different. Maybe the clerk was just trying to clarify that you DIDN'T mean peaty?
    – MikeB
    May 18, 2023 at 11:04
15

My problem - when talking to him, it is getting tedious for me to focus on the topic of the conversation when his language has become so distracting.

This is a correct problem statement. The problem here is how you feel. I would like to give you some tips on feeling better in this situation.

It is often the case that geniuses like you and me have to work with people who are not geniuses. In fact, in my experience it is literally unavoidable. So it seems to me that dealing with these people is a critical skillset for success in all of life's endeavors.

Here's my tips:

  1. Have compassion. While it is tedious for you to talk to a stupid person, it is much worse to be that stupid person. If anything, you should feel sorry for him.

  2. Have gratitude. Stupid people make the smart people like you and me look good. If it wasn't for them, you and I would just be average.

  3. Let yourself smile. Come on, it is kind of cute and adorable when stupid people try to sound smart.

  4. Be open to the diversity that makes the world so amazing. People are smart and stupid in all kinds of different ways. I'm sure you and I are stupid about certain things, and I'm sure your colleague is a genius in other areas. The variety of people is what makes the world work. Take joy in it.

  5. Be humble. You weren't always this smart, and you won't be when you're old; you aren't smart about everything, and in fact there are probably people who are much smarter than you at certain things. Remember that you have a place in this world. Respect yourself, respect others.

I wish you and your colleague well and I am hopeful you can move on to what is important.

13
  • 4
    "geniuses like you and me" Muy Humble?
    – Questor
    May 17, 2023 at 23:06
  • 4
    LOL I hear ya! I was just trying to match the tone of the question. Maybe the humor doesn't come across well.
    – John Wu
    May 18, 2023 at 0:14
  • 3
    Sarcasm often fails to come across correctly on the Internet, unless written VERY broadly. (My own sense of humor leans in that direction, so I've had to learn this, often the hard way.)
    – keshlam
    May 18, 2023 at 0:30
  • 4
    "The problem is, he... misuses most of the idioms" — this might be the actual problem (rather than the OP's feelings) if it leads to misunderstandings, or forces the OP to second-guess a lot what the senior engineer says. It might be that the OP is actually the one who's mistaken about what the idioms mean, but I think it would be a good idea to clear up any confusion first. May 18, 2023 at 12:13
  • 3
    @PaulD.Waite Yeah, this is exactly the problem.
    – ahron
    May 18, 2023 at 13:13
3

You should correct him when you can demonstrate that his misuse causes some non-trivial harm.

Prescriptivism is unfortunately out of fashion these days because of supposed associations with elitism, classism, and other -isms and it's unlikely that he'll care about the usage being "merely incorrect". You'll have to come up with a reason why it's bad besides the principle of correct language.

Example 1: Let's say you're working on the ToS of your app, and he writes that payments from customers are taken "under the table" when he really means the transaction is treated confidentially. It's clear how this creates both a risk of being sued, and makes you look bad to customers. You can point this out and show him the dictionary definition to back this up. This should work because you're not just saying he needs to write correctly for correctness's sake, but to avoid legal problems and damaging the organization's image.

Example 2: You go to sales calls where you pitch your service to clients, but he keeps speaking gibberish and makes you look stupid. You can then explain to him that his misuse of language is undermining your credibility and harming your business. If you want to be mean you can tell him to knock it off. If you want to be nice, you can ask to do a rehearsal of the pitch, and point out the misuses as feedback. Either way, once again the misuse is not just a nuisance but has real consequences that you can demonstrate.

Example 3: In meetings he keeps saying that a feature works "irregardless" of technical problems and this irritates you. There's not much you can do here. If you try to ask him "don't you mean regardless?" he will probably get defensive and wonder if you're trying humiliate him. If he was the kind of person who welcomes corrections on his language, he would have looked up the word online when he noticed that you use a different one. Attempting to correct him in this case will simply devolve into an argument about personal feelings, even though it's not a matter personal feeling that "irregardless" is improper English (I'll probably get a bunch of commenters now trying to claim otherwise).

This is similar to, say, dress codes at work. If you work at a bank and one of the bankers wants to show up in a stained t-shirt, torn cargo shorts and sandals, that's a fair thing to ding him on because it clearly scares away clients. But if he just doesn't know how to tie his tie properly, and always has a lopsided knot, you can't really do much about it if the main problem is that it annoys you. Even if you have the ability to fire such a person without much fallout, you're better off firing with no stated reason than to say you fired him for having a crooked tie knot and risk seeming petty. And once again, the exception is if you're, say, a flight attendant on a private jet - you bet they'll scrutinize every inch of your uniform because that sort of thing matters in that industry.

3
  • 2
    Your example 1 points, I would say, at the difference between dialect / slang and occupational jargon. Misusing technical terms / terms of art can be outright dangerous (an extreme example might be aviation phraseology, where e.g. departure and takeoff mean very precise things and if this distinction had existed in 1977, the deadliest aviation accident in history wouldn't have happened – in fact, the distinction was introduced because of this accident). Misusing slang OTOH just makes one look silly. May 19, 2023 at 19:32
  • The meanings of words in common use do change, and "irregardless" is arguably an example of that, so that's one I think you need to suck up (though you need not use it yourself). For technical terms, however, you are correct that everybody should work together to achieve clarity on the meanings within the particular domain.
    – cjs
    May 20, 2023 at 9:43
  • Haha, like clockwork! May 27, 2023 at 0:07
2

First things first:

In some vague sense, on this OSS project, he reports to me

You first need to clarify your precise formal relationship with this person by asking for clarification from above you (and him) and whoever is actually in charge, assuming anyone is.

This leads to two possibilities :

(1) You are actually above him in the chain of command on this project, in which case either you (if you're his direct manager) or whoever is his direct manager is the person to handle this. Whoever it is would need to explain the issue and discretely, but firmly, suggest to the problem person that they work on reducing their use of buzzwords and idioms and/or make sure they're using them correctly (to avoid potential confusion).

or

(2) You are not above him, in which case you need to address your concerns (in that the issue may lead to confusion and miscommunication of e.g. objectives to others) to whoever is their manager. Again discretion is required.

Then there is this:

The problem is, he mispronounces most of the jargon words and misuses most of the idioms. And he seems to be making a habit of (mis)using them in regular conversation.

You absolutely must make sure that you're right about this and double check your own understanding before launching into any attempt to correct someone else on what might turn out to be your own misunderstanding.

You may also be hitting issues I've seen people hit before. Your colleague is learning new ways to speak and new idioms common to another generation (of engineers) or engineers from another platform, or they may be interacting with people from outside engineering, like marketing, logistics, sales and support, who may have other meanings for expressions you think you know. I've also found that some organizations use their own internal jargon and if you mix with them it can get confusing all round.

In other words, make sure your colleague is not learning new legitimate uses for terms you only know in one context. In this case you need to point this out to managers as a potential issue and try and agree a common set of terminology across the project.

3
  • 1
    In an open-source project, this is a matter of team lead vs. other team members, with no "manager". It needs to be approached as a relationship between (near) peers. It must be handled cooperatively, as negotiation, or one of the individuals may simply decide that their time is better spent on a different project. Hence the emphasis in some of the other answers on tolerance, and finding a shared language that may not be what one would prefer but that gets the job done.
    – keshlam
    May 18, 2023 at 15:48
  • 1
    @keshlam I think it's a common failing of open source projects that they do not have a project lead. Peer-peer cooperation only works until it doesn't, and it doesn't far too often. Engineers are just as prone to alpha-dog fights as any other group. May 18, 2023 at 16:30
  • In my experience, OS projects suffer more when there ISN'T at least one person actively leading the effort, but de gustibus.
    – keshlam
    May 18, 2023 at 21:28
1

Just ignore it, plenty of people mispronounce on purpose for their own reasons. Unless it interferes with the tasks you shouldn't care. Reasons could be anything from being stoned and thinking it funny to pretending they're not fluent speakers for their own reasons.

I speak English using very simple terminology and a heavy native accent sometimes, purely because there is good reason to do so. Sometimes because the people I'm talking to understand that easier, other times because I have a reason to appear non fluent or discourage discourse.

1

OK, you finally posted some details I can respond to.

Different number of syllables/mispronunciations: In the US alone, there are a great many local variations in this. They may be entirely correct for their dialect, even if "formal English" as taught to folks who are learning it as a second language says they aren't. Jimmy Carter, famously, had a degree in what he pronounced as "Nucular Engineering" -- which was correct for the version of English he grew up speaking, despite sounding laughably wrong to those who use the formally correct pronunciation of "nuclear". You may simply need to accept that when you insist they are wrong, you are wrong; there are multiple ways of being right.

Idioms you aren't familiar with: That's a very different thing from your initial claim that idioms are being misused; again, they may be entirely correct and you may just need to learn the new idiom. Similarly, idioms are often re-applied; they may still be entirely correct. Again, this sounds like something you need to accept and adjust to rather than trying to blame them.

Finally, both idiom and pronunciation are often deliberately distorted as a form of emphasis or humor. For example, I often say "a dozen of one, six and a half of the other" as a humorous reference to the traditional "six of one, half a dozen of the other". This is something most native speakers are comfortable with, but which may bother someone who was taught English as a second language and expects more formal correctness, not yet being comfortable with the subtleties and elasticities of natural language usage. It sounds like you might be in that category...?

I'm afraid that the examples do reinforce my initial reaction, which is that you are overreacting and need to cut them some slack. Unless these quirks are finding their way into the code, the solution is for you to discuss them with the other person, rather than to fight to suppress them. If, after understanding their intent, they still throw you offbase you can quietly say so and ask if they can substitute something for the ones that bother you most, recognizing that this is for your comfort rather than because they are actually in error.

TL;DR: Back off before you drive away a valued contributor. Accept that different isn't necessarily wrong, and wrong isn't necessarily a problem. Learn to adapt rather than expecting others to do all the adapting. If I can learn not to scream "you mean question" every time a speaker of Indian English says "I have a doubt" (which is correct in their dialect), you can probably manage to handle whatever this individual's quirks are.

1

This is actually pretty easy to handle. All you need is so show some genuine curiosity and ask something along these lines:

Hey Jim! I couldn't help noticing that you've been using a lot of unique phrases recently that I often hear for the first time. You've must been studying some interesting stuff, haven't you?

Then he will most likely share with you the background of his new vocabulary and why he is using it the way he does. From there, equipped with the latest knowlege you can decide what to do next like saying:

Do you mind if I ask you for an explanation of some phrase that's new to me?

I'm sure he'll be very happy to hear that someone has noticed it and shows interest.

-2

Invite your colleague to a face-to-face feedback meeting. During the meeting, concentrate on behavior, not on the person. Instead of "you" say (e.g.) "your words".

Start with something positive:

I know you for XY time and I like that ...

Point out the issue to be resolved:

However, since you started the other job, you started to use some words that make me lose my focus. For example: ... (please give very specific examples). Unfortunately, word X is pronounced Y, and word K is pronounced M.

Point out expected outcome:

I would like you to find a solution which works OK for both of us. I have two ideas: either use those words only at your second job, or learn their meaning and their pronunciation better.

End on a positive note:

I think we can work out together this small issue, if we could fix the big problems before (remember project ABC, when disaster 123 happened??).

Of course, this is only the general framework of giving feedback, adapted to the specifics you provided. Feel free to be creative.

Very important: feedback is best to be given (and received) privately, 1-to-1. Emotions should be left aside - especially, avoid anger at all costs. Familiarize yourself with the topic of giving feedback from the countless resources available, before going into the session with your colleague - to avoid difficult-to-correct errors.

Note: please be aware that your colleague might not like some things also (e.g., about your behavior). It is your "duty" to listen to him and to reciprocate, by making things easier for him also. Feedback's are usually 2-way, and the "partners" need to cooperate from equal levels, regardless of their "relationship" outside of the feedback session.


I had situations throughout different jobs, where the behavior of some colleagues changed "without motive". I did exactly what I explained above (of course, adapted to my situations) and the behaviors changed for the better (both mine and my colleagues'). What was needed in the first place was to get to the point where we both had the same information as reference.

10
  • 7
    This will either come off as patronising, supercilious, or silly nitpicking. We don't have any examples where the OP's colleague/subordinate is misusing idioms, using mixed metaphors or mispronouncing words.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 17, 2023 at 11:50
  • 5
    We don't know what the errors are, if indeed they are errors. For example, I may pronounce either (/ˈaɪ.ðər/ ) differently to someone else (/ˈiː.ðər/) And if I say "forwards" you might say it should be "forward", but both forms are correct. P.S not my DV.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 17, 2023 at 12:36
  • 6
    I wouldn't dream of giving any native speaker feedback on their pronunciation of words, how they used idioms or metaphors in the work environment. But if they asked me for help or advice that would be very different.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 17, 2023 at 19:10
  • 5
    If a criticism of your answer has hit you this hard you, I'm sorry. Don't take it personally. There is no rant, no personal attack. I disagreed with the solution, and felt compelled to explain why.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 18, 2023 at 9:18
  • 2
    @virolino: The specific phrasing you're suggesting does strike me as patronizing. A DISCUSSION of "Hey, when you say 'a dozen of one, six and a half of the other' does that mean the same thing as 'six of one, half a dozen of the other'", or "That's interesting, I've always seen it spelled nerd rather than gnurd", or "I'm not sure what the word 'GONK' means in this comment" can be productive. Even if you're sure you're right, that doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong; approach it as a chance for both to learn. "You're doing it wrong" is far more likely to offend than "Are you sure?"
    – keshlam
    May 18, 2023 at 15:35

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .