Working in international groups where different participants communicate through a common language, often English, can lead to unintentional innuendo. In this case the innuendo is due to slang terms in a different culture than the speaker's own. The difference to other questions of a similar nature is that the speaker has no malevolent intents, direct or in-direct, but is ignorant of another culture's colloquial expressions.

When speaking with some German colleagues the other day, the project leader uttered:

Ah, it is good to see that you are hard on the lube.

Where I am from this is often used as a slang term for rough sex or used to imply that someone is a sexual deviant. Now I know the fellow and he is ignorant to the connotation of the phrase. In German, I believe, there is a similar phrase using the word grease which changes the context and is intended as something positive.

Following some comments from German speakers it would seem that being hard on the lube is not a wrongly translated phrase from German. It could be internal jargon or the PL simply wanted to express gratitude for a job well done but chose poorly when translating.

I politely informed him that the phrase might be interpreted as something sexually and negative, he laughed it off and we continued the meeting. Afterwards I received an email from the PL's superior who chided me for correcting him in front of the rest of the group. He also CC:ed my superior in my home office.

As user Draken has already pointed out it would have been better to have made these comments in private, allowing the PL to save face in front of the group. We have been working together for the past year and direct feedback was encouraged in the group. I assumed that an innocent comment meant in good spirit would be seen as no harm, no foul, I stand corrected. I contacted the PL afterwards to apologize and he has made no formal complaint and said to me directly that he didn't take offence.

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    What was the context of this exchange (e.g. a meeting, water-cooler/coffee chat). How did the project leader's superior know about this off-hand remark and exchange? Was he in the room at the time? Did your PL make a complaint against you (I'd expect he'd probably talk to you privately first)? I'd be more concerned about this aspect than about the innuendo itself.
    – Brandin
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 7:52
  • @Brandin, It is a fairly down to earth environment. This project leader is not what you would call a high-strung fellow. He welcomes open communication and welcomes direct feedback. He has made no complaint to me or the superior in question. Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 8:08
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    If someone said that to me (I am in Germany) I would be totally mystified. Whatever does it mean? Are you sure that's what he said?
    – RedSonja
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 10:48
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    As a German, I have no idea what that could possibly mean. There is definitely no direct translation that would make sense. The only thing that would work would be "etwas läuft wie geschmiert" (sth. goes swimmingly), "geschmiert" being an adjective for grease, oil or, well, lube.
    – Lennart
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 8:13
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    I'm not a fan of these duplicate close votes. One is about intentional inappropriate jokes--totally different. The other is more related, but still seems to be distinct; an offensive username is different from a remark made in conversation. (It's persistent, and there is no context to show people it's due to a language barrier).
    – user45590
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 8:27

4 Answers 4


People make mistakes, remember that not everyone is fluent in English. The problem wasn't that the person made a mistake, but the fact that you pointed it out in front of other people and could have caused the one who made the innuendo to feel ashamed.

Next time, instead of saying it in front of everyone, wait until you have some quiet time, or can send an e-mail, and tell them in a one on one situation. It avoids any awkwardness and they learn for next time.

They're working hard to talk another language, they don't need someone making them possibly feel small in front of other people!

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    +1. Similarly, I'd argue that the superior should not have cc'ed the OP's manager in his email. Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 8:47
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    That does seem to be an overreaction. However, it might be just a keeping people in the loop. I feel though the PL's manager should have contacted the OP's manager, so that the OP's manager could have dealt with disciplining. The PL's manager overstepped the line a little there
    – Draken
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 9:39
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    Applies to almost everything: Hanlon's Razor. Never attribute to malice... Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 10:58
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    @Sonic Your manager was stupid. If this was face to face, it was him to start the gossip. He felt hurt for stupid reason, and started conversations that shouldn't happen. His fault. But of course, if someone suspect manager is stupid, he should do whatever he can to make manager feel smart ;) as long as it is not going to backfire, of course.
    – Mołot
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 15:44
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    +1 "Praise in public, correct in private" should be an axiom by now. Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 18:01

I'm going to be a bit less formal, and more human.

Screw the superior's message.

If you were kind and polite while correcting him - there's nothing bad at that. If you correctly understood what was happening, I can see no harm in informing him about how weird that sounds and why - and no one would think you're being arrogant or trying to show off because of that.

If you weren't making fun of him and were just sincerely trying to help him and maybe laugh a bit with him, I don't see anything to apologise for ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  • +1 - I actually agree, but I think some people would prefer a less risky solution that doesn't put them at odds with their superior. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 0:24
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    Totally agree with you on that. I felt this answer was missing, versus the other, more conservative one, that I dislike because of that conservativeness. But that's the beauty of a shrug, too - you don't have to say anything. You just ignore it, and, if the supervisor turns back to you, you can always pretend to have missed the e-mail. I wouldn't mind to lie to that kind of supervisor ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 0:28
  • The problem is he did it publicly, which is a no-no. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 7:52

There was no need to correct him, or in fact do anything about it either privately or professionally. You're not his English teacher or his superior. I work with people in several languages, they make mistakes (so do I) but the only thing that should concern you is if you can understand what you need to know for the job.

He didn't laugh it off because he was happy about being corrected, he laughed it off to diffuse the situation and prevent further discussion of an unprofessional nature.

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    I agree with everything you said except the part where you suggest that you shouldn't let the other person their words might be interpreted as something inappropriate. Letting the person know in private later might prevent them from making a similar gaff where the stakes are higher. For example in Spanish the direct cognate for excited (excitada) means something more along the lines of horny. Before I was told this I would use "excitada" instead of "emocionada" which is a better translation. If everyone let me keep on using the wrong word I might have embarrassed myself when it mattered.
    – Erik
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 15:47
  • @Erik it's not my role to correct you, I'd do it for a close friend perhaps. We have a word in my language 'faka' it doesn't take much imagination to think how that could be misinterpreted. (a is pronounced 'uh')
    – Kilisi
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 22:59
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    I agree you shouldn't try to be the grammar police, but I do think a gentle reminder in private is appropriate for potentially vulgar mistakes. Going back to Spanish the word "actualmente" means "currently" not "actually." I'm not going to correct a Spanish speaker who uses "actually" when they mean "currently." Nor would I correct someone whose accent makes "six" sound like "sex." I do think it is appropriate to help someone say: I'm excited (emocionada) instead of horny (excitada).
    – Erik
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 23:36
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    +1 In many cases this is the correct answer. I would probably lean toward saying nothing unless you work closely with the colleague and their communication is important to the business, or you know that they would appreciate being corrected.
    – user45590
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 8:22

Working with people that come from a different culture and other that English native language is sometimes very hard, on both you and the other guy. You must be prepared for problems in communication. Honestly, "where you come from" doesn't apply in professional world. Where they come from, maybe wearing a red tie is insulting. It's more rude to shame him in front of an audience and telling him that he implied something sexually. It would be more polite if you just asked him to clarify what he meant.

  • Asking him to clarify what he meant doesn't solve the problem at all. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 9:05
  • Why not? If he asked for clarification, the problem wouldn't exist in the first place. I seriously doubt that a normal person wants to be rude in business meetings. Therefore, if you can't understand what the other person wants to say, why not asking them to clarify, explain better? I work with foreigners from time to time, and if I can't understand something, I ask, and all is well. To neither of us English is a native language.
    – Aleksandra
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 12:20
  • Asking for clarification does nothing to solve the problem that somebody is using crude and inappropriate language (whether intentionally or otherwise). There is more to it than whether you can understand what was meant; indeed, the OP appears to already know what was meant. Therefore, the only problem this solves is a non-problem already. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 13:38

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