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I was talking to a colleague today and I told them they were barking up the wrong tree when they were complaining to me about something that I could not do anything about, meaning to imply they should talk to my superior about it and not me. They got quite upset and thought I was being disrespectful. Was I being disrespectful without realizing it? Is this idiom indeed inappropriate in professional communication?

For context:

  • The conversation was being had on Microsoft Teams, in writing;
  • English is not a native language for either of us;
  • We are based in different countries, although the cultures are supposedly quite similar;
  • We are part of different teams in the same company and our teams are working together quite a lot so we have had informal conversations before, usually about technical subjects;
  • If relevant, we are working in software development.
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    – Kilisi
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 8:24
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    There's nothing inherently disrespectful about the idiom, but its usual meaning is that the person has misunderstood something. It doesn't usually refer to complaining to the wrong person, and that might have led to a misunderstanding - perhaps your colleague thought you were implying something different from what you meant.
    – N. Virgo
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 3:21
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    It seems like he may be unused to the expression, and took it literally that you were describing his request as barking like a dog. Ha!
    – RC_23
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 14:15
  • "Barking up the wrong tree" is more commonly used to describe the complaints of third parties who are not present in the conversation, not directly to the person doing the "barking".
    – David
    Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 22:37
  • Gosh, how long have we been beating this dead horse? :-) Commented May 5 at 22:36

21 Answers 21

101

It’s a perfectly fine British English idiom, but I don’t know about American. In the UK, I would say that anyone complaining about it, as long as they have some experience with the English language, is trying hard to be offended.

In case someone doesn’t understand it, you may have to explain it. Like there’s a cat hiding in a tree and a dog barking, but the cat is in another tree, so the dog is barking up the wrong tree.

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    Same here in America. In normal conversation it would not be considered impolite, nor would it in any way imply I thought the other person was acting in a dog-like manner. However, I could see that someone who had never heard the idiom might at least wonder (until doing a Google search) if there was something else implied by it. Given that, you should also avoid try telling your colleague that there is more than one way to skin a cat. :-)
    – Mark Meuer
    Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 19:02
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    I'm surprised to read that you don't see any politeness issues with this. Is "you're barking up the wrong tree" something you would feel fine saying to your manager in British English?
    – user541686
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 4:56
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    @user541686 Yes.
    – Darren
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 6:28
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    I've always understood it (as a native English speaker) to mean that a person is mistaken in a belief and the responder is gently pointing this out. For example, in a problem meeting, if somebody says they've spent a long time investigating Cause x, but there's a lot of evidence that it's actually Cause y, using the phrase 'barking up the wrong tree', would be unlikely to be considered impolite by anybody.
    – BWFC
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 6:41
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    @FerventHippo I actually think this does answer OP's question relatively directly. I mean, sure, it's not as direct as actually saying "No, you were not being disrespectful, and that idiom is not inappropriate in professional communication," but it seems fairly unambiguous to me that that is what this answer means.
    – David Z
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 7:18
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There is nothing inappropriate about the idiom per se, but I suppose it could be taken the wrong way, depending on context and delivery. It could be viewed as putting the "blame" for the mistake on the person doing the "barking", as it is implies that they are doing something wrong or ineffective. The statement alone also doesn't actually solve the person's problem. It just indicates that you can't do anything about it, but does not indicate who can.

You could use a more neutral way of solving the problem, like saying "talk to my manager about X". This puts the focus on the proposed solution, rather than focusing on the person's incorrect action of talking to you. At any rate, in most cases it would be an overreaction to take the phrase as intending disrespect. Someone would really have to be looking for a fight to infer that you are implying they are a dog with this phrase; idioms involving dogs are extremely common (sick as a dog, dog eat dog world, you can't teach an old dog new tricks, let sleeping dogs lie, etc.), and are not generally offensive or intended to imply that anyone is metaphorically a dog.

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    @gnasher729, I think, is correct. Most people would not be offended, but I think this answer captures the nuance with the expression, at least from an American English perspective. Delivery matters here. Although you could argue the same for any idiom or expression... Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 16:47
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    I don't think the issue is that someone can think they are being called a dog, I think the issue is that someone can feel accused of barking, or making a big fuss about nothing.
    – Orbit
    Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 9:21
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It's a perfectly valid English expression and you are using it in the right context.

That said, the answer does contain an element of 'Piss off and leave me alone' - which some people (especially those who aren't British or native English speakers) might find rude.

There are some cultures that also don't like Dogs and the implication of comparing the individual to a dog might be the cause of offense.

That said - I think they shouldn't get their panties in a bunch, go touch some grass and smell the flowers.

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    Even in cultures that love dogs, being compared to a dog is quite insulting. We love dogs because they are "human's best friend", but the main implication of comparing someone to a dog is that a dog is subservient to its master. Additionally, dogs eat on the ground rather than at a table, dogs bark loudly, bite, and piss everywhere to mark their territory.
    – Stef
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 10:12
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    @Stef It's not comparing someone to a dog. It's drawing an analogy, where the only relevant aspect of the dog is that it went to the wrong place. Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 15:46
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    @ReinstateMonica The dog didn’t just go to the wrong place, it’s also barking. Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 13:40
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    @SkippyleGrandGourou It's still not comparing anybody to a dog, in any way, shape or form. Any native British English speaker knows this.
    – SiHa
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 13:59
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    @SkippyleGrandGourou There is no dog. There is no tree. There is no barking. It's an idiom. Period.
    – barbecue
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 15:11
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Barking up the wrong tree is usually used in a fairly condescending manner. Just think about the fact that you are comparing what they are doing/saying to barking, and them to a dog. I would definitely not recommend using it with someone who is not a friend, much less a coworker.

I'm partial to "preaching to the choir" instead, since it implies you agree with their point of view or are on their side in the manner, but are also unable to do anything about it.

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The other party may not really understand the idiom due to being an English Second Language speaker and took to mean that you were saying they were a dog.

That's always an issue when using idioms with ESL speakers.

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    I think that this answer should gain more attention (+1). As a non-native speaker of English, I sometimes hear expressions (especially in a professional-casual environment) that I do not understand. Usually, it is clear that this is an idiom and before insulting back I ask about the meaning :) But sometimes I think I understood what they meant but I was completely wrong. So just make sure the other party really understand what you mean.
    – WoJ
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 10:19
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Exact context and tone matters here. If be inclined to just apologize, write it off as a learning experience, and not worry about it. Maybe be a bit extra polite to this individual for a while.

If English isn't your primary language -- or if it isn't theirs, or if you speak a different dialect of English than this person does -- you might want to check the English Language Learners section of Stack Exchange to get a better feel for the kinds of misunderstandings that can arise around idiomatic phrases. It's possible this question would be more at home there than here.

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    Microsoft Teams is a text-based interchange - no tone available.
    – user121330
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 8:07
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    Not tone of voice, but the (limited) equivalents in writing -- which, admittedly, could be subsumed in "context", but I was trying to distinguish what was being discussed from how it was being discussed.
    – keshlam
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 12:37
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There is nothing outright offensive about the phrase (though https://english.stackexchange.com/ might be better for explaining the turn of phrase). Generally though, you should avoid colloquialisms entirely in professional communications.

With colleagues, this rule can be ignored if you are generally on good terms with them and both of you have a solid understanding of the English language.

In your case however, you mention the following circumstances:

  • English is not a native language for either of us;
  • We are based in different countries, although the cultures are supposedly quite similar;
  • We are part of different teams in the same company and our teams are working together quite a lot so we have had informal conversations before, usually about technical subjects;

This seems to indicate a very loose relationship with this person, where neither of you are native English speakers, and are in addition from two different countries.

For these reasons, generally you should avoid using a colloquialism, in particular when trying to clarify a misunderstanding as it could be (as in this case) misinterpreted as an insult.


That being said, the simple solution in a situation like this is to apologize for the miscommunication and to then clearly explain what you meant to say in plain English terms.

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    "Generally though, you should avoid colloquialisms entirely in professional communications." if you are talking to a client sure, but i have never once seen a workplace where colloquialisms weren't incredibly commonplace (especially when you are using a chat interface). People shouldn't have to act like robots in every communication.
    – eps
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 21:47
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English is not a native language for either of us;

This is the key to the problem here. To most native English speakers "barking up the wrong tree" is a perfectly fine idiom to use in conversation.

However conversely, in nearly all other contexts, it's considered disrespectful to compare someone to a dog, or to refer to their complaints as "barking". If your colleague is not a native speaker - even if they have heard the idiom, they might not quite have the same familiarity with it and think that you are saying that they are "barking".

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    This is the right answer. The word "barking" is the key. For native English speakers, the idiom is fine. For non-native speakers, some would feel offended when they saw the word "barking". They would ignore the rest of the idiom. Many answerers for this question ignored the fact that the listener is a non-native speaker, therefore keep saying the idiom is fine. It's fine for them, but may not be fine for the OP's colleague.
    – Nobody
    Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 11:33
  • @Nobody I've had situations where I was absolutely not sure whether something had an offensive meaning or was meant to offend or not. In that case, you make sure that you do nothing inappropriate and unprofessional yourself and find out the meaning of what was said before you complain.
    – gnasher729
    Commented May 5 at 20:20
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As others have said, that is a perfectly common idiom and one I would be comfortable using in a professional setting. However, I also want to share a trick I have learned by dint of being one of only ~3 native English speakers in a company of more than 70 employees: when using idioms, link to a definition.

This only works when communicating through text, for obvious reasons, and I don't know if Teams supports markdown, but at work we use Slack and I often post things like:

You're barking up the wrong tree!

This way, I can still use my language idiomatically, but I also help my colleagues who are making the effort of working in a language that is not their own by providing a definition of any less common idioms I may use.

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    This could be seen as condescending. Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 15:47
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    @ReinstateMonica really? I've gotten very positive feedback, with people thanking me for explaining. Would you really find it condescending?
    – terdon
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 15:58
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    @ReinstateMonica a link is a good idea, there's no obligation to click the link if you already know, and no chance of confusion if you don't.
    – Kilisi
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 5:39
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I agree with the other answers that say this idiom is not offensive to a native speaker, but that care must be taken with idiom in the context of non-native speakers, or even speakers of different dialects of the same language for that matter - an American referred to as a "Git Wizard" by a Brit might believe their skills with a common SCM tool are being praised, for example, but listen to the way comedian Marcus Brigstocke uses that term and you would understand it is unrelated to software development and may not be meant as praise.

Where I disagree is that I think you have used the idiom slightly incorrectly. "You are barking up the wrong tree" does not mean "You are speaking the wrong person" but "You have mis-identified the problem", e.g. if I take my laptop to IT support and tell them it doesn't work, is clearly broken and must be replaced, they might validly respond "I think you are barking up the wrong tree", not to indicate that IT support is not the place to take a broken laptop (obviously they are), but to introduce the hypothesis that the problem is more likely a flat battery that can be recharged, rather than my diagnosis of catastrophic failure requiring replacement.

As well as potential cultural confusion about calling your colleague a dog if they are not completely familiar with the idiom, you have also told them that they are wrong in their analysis (rather than just speaking to the wrong person) if they are familiar with it. To tell someone they are wrong without expanding on why could easily be construed as dismissive.

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    I don't agree that it's non-offensive (native speaker here) but do agree it was used in the wrong context here,
    – deep64blue
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 19:22
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There's nothing wrong with the idiom, but I'd suggest that it's not being used correctly and could very easily be misinterpreted as meaning something like "your complaint's irrelevant".

It's relatively recent, but I think that "I'm sorry, but that's above my pay grade" would have been more appropriate.

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There's three possibilites here:

  1. Your colleague interpreted the phrase quite literally and is offended at being compared to a dog. The idiom is common enough in American culture that people usually don't think of it that way, but it's not something you'd say to a superior, which leads me to . . .

  2. Your colleague thinks it's your job to solve this problem, and was offended that you told them it wasn't. 'Barking up the wrong tree' means 'no one participating in this conversation can or will help you.' This is generally ok to say in certain dynamics, but in situations where there's big power imbalance, like a request from the CEO or the biggest client, then usually the polite thing to do is to pass the request on to the correct person.

  3. It's the complaint that's at issue Is the complaint something that matters a lot to your coworker but not to you? Or maybe they're complaining about something you actually like? If by 'Barking' you meant not that you couldn't help, but that you disagree with their complaint, that might be what 's actually offensive to them. They might feel that you should stick up for their needs or provide moral support.

In any situation, it's probably best just to type out a 'sorry you were offended' message and move on. I don't think it's worth going much deeper than that.

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  • Receiving a 'sorry you were offended' message would make be much more annoyed with you . If you apologise you apologise for your action and not for the other persons reaction.
    – mmmmmm
    Commented Oct 14, 2023 at 12:15
  • yeah, that's the point. When someone demands an apology but doesn't deserve one, they get a fake apology.
    – LeLetter
    Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 13:06
  • If I received a fake apology I would react more forcefully than with no apology.
    – mmmmmm
    Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 18:21
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They were complaining to me about something that I could not do anything about

Were they expecting you to do something about it?

It might be that they were just "venting", i.e. trying to relieve their frustration with a situation by complaining about it.

If so, you telling them that they shouldn't be talking to you about it could come across as insensitive.

A more appropriate response would be to listen and empathise (a simple "yeah that sucks" could work in a lot of situations where they're going through something unpleasant, although that's quite informal).

If you don't want them to "vent" to you, you could potentially still tell them that they'll need to talk to their supervisor about that. But I would just say that as is. If they keep doing it, then you can politely, but firmly, tell them that you'd like them to stop.

* If they weren't just venting, you can go with the advice given in other answers.

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    Not sure why this is downvoted, this was my first thought when I read the question. I don't see any indication the coworker ever expected OP to do anything about the situation.
    – GammaGames
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 17:29
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The phrase itself is fine but since in essence it means you can't help the person it may be taken as being dismissive of someone's problems depending on the context and how the rest of the conversation was going.

Being dismissive is unprofessional, so be sure to follow it up with pointers on next steps. Something along the lines of

You're barking up the wrong tree, go speak to John Doe he will be able to help you with that.

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As other answers have already stated this is a generaly accepted idiom for what you are trying to convey. They also state that the comparison to a dog, even if it's not the goal of the analogy, might upset some people.

You say your colleague think it was disrespectful. Do not let it linger and simply clarify that you meant no harm and simply wanted to suggest a solution.

When in doubt in that kind of situation I would say "I hear you but this is outside my zone of influence. You might have more impact by saying this to [manager]."

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  • *generally Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 1:32
  • @PeterMortensen There are more words that can be edited for this answer if you read it carefully. "meant not harm", "Mr X"
    – Nobody
    Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 12:25
  • @Nobody. Good catch. I'll correct.
    – BAmadeusJ
    Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 20:25
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The idiom probably isn't the problem here. Your coworker was likely offended because they felt like you were blowing them off and not taking their problem seriously.

Put yourself in their shoes. Pretend you are are upset about something at work. You have a legitimate complaint about something that you want remedied. Then the person you are complaining to says "you are barking up the wrong tree" and nothing else. How would that make you feel?

In situations like this it is best to be clear, unambiguous and leave no room for confusion. You should simply explain that you cannot do anything about the problem and that he should directly contact your boss about the matter.

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  • I am not sure why the down vote. The last paragraph is indeed the answer of the question. If you have something to say, please say it. Do not use idioms, particularly none of you is a native English speaker.
    – Nobody
    Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 7:14
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An issue that I haven't noticed being addressed is that the idiom implicitly acknowledges that the target of pursuit might be deliberately elusive, and any implied judgments about the intelligence of the pursuer would be based on such elusiveness. A dog might do an excellent job finding within a large group of trees the one that contains its prey, but not notice during its efforts to alert the master that the prey has jumped somewhere else, and thus get stuck "barking up the wrong tree". Or a dog might be so stupid that it just starts barking at the first tree it finds. Note that the idiom would not be appropriate if e.g. a dog suspected that its prey might not be in a particular tree, but would be likely to find a lead to the prey's actual location.

The idiom might be appropriate and not condescending in a context such as "You did well to find me, since I just got assigned the appropriate duties this week, but unfortunately those duties got taken from me this morning and I don't know to whom they were reassigned, so I'm afraid you're barking up the wrong tree". In that situation, the "prey" would be deliberately elusive, and the examination of the particular "tree" would reveal nothing useful. Asking for assistance from someone who doesn't have the desired information or ability, but knows who does, wouldn't be "barking up the wrong tree" unless there would have been some obvious easier way of finding the "right tree".

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I was talking to a colleague today and I told them they were barking up the wrong tree when they were complaining to me about something that I could not do anything about

You've dismissed them as a human.

You've judged their action as barking when they were merely trying to talk and gather information.


meaining to imply they should talk to my superior about it and not me

What you meant and the idiom you used are not congruent.

You basically told them to piss off.

The implication is meaningless, it could have meant any one of these:

  • My goodness, your voice is annoying
  • I hear you talking and I don't care
  • Wow, you're stupid for thinking this is my problem
  • I don't have time for this
  • Figure out the right person to complain to

They got quite upset and thought I was being disrespectful.

I can understand why.


Was I being disrespectful without realizing it?

That's not for you to decide. Per your colleague, "They got quite upset and thought I was being disrespectful."

^ There is your answer. You were being disrespectful.


Is this idiom indeed inappropriate in professional communication?

I'd say so, yes.


For a moment, imagine this:

You return to a store and begin complaining to the first manager you found about how your item broke after just 2 days of use and they said "You're barking up the wrong tree."

But, don't be offended! Right? Wrong. If they implied that you should head over to the customer service desk for proper assistance then they should have said that instead.

-2

While it may be true, that they did not understand the idiom, I think that it is highly unlikely. If they have sufficient grasp of English to converse over technical matters, then they probably know the idiom by now. I am saying that, seeing that English is my third language. When I hear in idiom in yet another language for the first time, its normally obvious to me that it is an idiom, even if I don't understand the context.

It is far more likely that the tone used made it disrespectful. But I suspect it was the cutting short of an attempt at friendly conversation.

On the other hand, I think the expression is very abrupt. I think that I might find the expression rude at any time, unless I was used to bantering with that person.

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  • "The conversation was being had on Microsoft Teams, in writing;"
    – Nobody
    Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 11:55
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Way too much overcomplicating this going on in answers.

It's very simple cause and effect. You disagreed with your colleague, he hit back pretending to be mortally offended, because he didn't have a decent comeback for whatever you disagreed on. He was expecting you to be cowed and defensive rather than unimpressed.

Absolutely normal behaviour for many people. It's most glaring when they pick on the way something was said, rather than answering the reasoning behind it. Many will even actually believe they've been mortally offended, because they can't see themselves properly.

Whenever a senseless seeming or disproportionate situation arises, it's best to look for the basic reason behind it rather than take it at face value. Then you can actually defuse issues easier.

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-4

This phrase literally indicates that the listener is a dog who is too stupid to figure out which tree has their prey. This is plainly offensive in any culture, and more-so in cultures where 'dog' is a pejorative. While native English speakers broadly find this idiom inoffensive, give idioms a wide berth when speaking with English language learners and be ready to apologize and recant. The fact that you were right about the usage does not mean you didn't offend your listener - in fact, it makes the insult more impactful - you also demonstrated their ignorance of this idiom by their offense.

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