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Recently I attended a training session where the speaker was repetitive about using the term "religiously" like

"....follow X and Y religiously..."

and

"...if you follow P and Q religiously...."

so on and so forth.

Now, from a literal point of view, I know this is having a specific meaning (follow strictly), I was wondering whether the usage may appear offensive to some people and whether I (or anyone, for that matter) should be using this particular term or not.

I am considering this scenario specifically in a work environment, for example, a training or discussion session.

Background:

Being in a region where religion still plays a very crucial role in daily life and English is not the first language for most of the people (not even second, for some other), I need to be sure whether there is a possibility that maybe my words are accepted wrongly or am I just over-thinking this? Can I (or can I not)expect at least a certain level of understanding of the vernacular in a corporate working environment (people)?

Note: Please feel free to re-tag if I missed anything relevant

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    Dear downvoter, I personally take constructive criticism positively. While i have been around for a while, this is the first time me asking a question here. If you can share the reason behind the downvote, I might learn a thing or two. Thank you. – Sourav Ghosh Dec 22 '16 at 15:38
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's about the meaning and usage of a specific term. Such a question belongs on English Language & Usage, not the Workplace. – Lilienthal Dec 22 '16 at 16:05
  • @Lilienthal 1) i have a cross-site related question here already. 2) this is about the usage of the term, yes, but in a particular situation that is, in the workplace, so I believe this has a place here. Please correct me if I'm wrong. – Sourav Ghosh Dec 22 '16 at 19:42
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    Your question is simply about the connotations of a particular English word. Different types of language are appropriate for different situations and the fact that you're asking about the workplace simply means that you're wondering if it's appropriate for use in a formal register. The communication problems you're quoting from the help is not referring to language use. It's a global site after all. An example of a communication problem would be about being unable to reach your manager or how to deal with a language barrier that's getting in the way of work. – Lilienthal Dec 22 '16 at 21:11
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    Cross-posting is also heavily frowned upon. There will almost always be a single site where a question belongs the most (ELU in this case) and cross-posting about one situation or topic is only useful if you are asking very different questions about said topic. That's just not the case here. If the term is offensive, that means it's inappropriate for use at work. If the term is in common usage then there's no reason to avoid it. That's a language question. – Lilienthal Dec 22 '16 at 21:15
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In an environment of native english speakers, this would be fine.

In light of the context you have provided, however, you might want to substitute "religiously" with "to the letter" and "follow the process meticulously".

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    While I agree this is the cleanest approach anyone can follow, this only leaves me wondering, if I cannot trust a working environment of colleagues who might misunderstand this seemingly proper construct, then what all else I need to be careful about..... – Sourav Ghosh Dec 22 '16 at 13:56
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    @SouravGhosh It's less about avoiding offense than it is about avoiding confusion. Confusion often leads to offense. In the case of conversation, an explanation is easy to give. In a presentation, it's just easier to use a different term. – JohnHC Dec 22 '16 at 14:04
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    I might avoid both of those and just use "strictly". "to the letter" is an expression which non-native speakers might not be familiar with an "meticulous" is not a very common word. – Erik Dec 22 '16 at 14:09
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    @JohnHC You're very right, and I completely agree to the point, no doubts. The only thing i'm worrying that, this is something that caught my attention and I can be careful to avoid this, but what if I miss something else? But I guess that's a story for another day, am I right? – Sourav Ghosh Dec 22 '16 at 14:14
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    With English not being their first language, you may want to avoid sayings like To the Letter. Since trying to translate that may get odd results. Meticulously is fine and a good suggestion – Draken Dec 22 '16 at 14:38
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I posted this as a response to OP's comment on JohnHC's answer, but it became too long, so converting it to an answer.

If you keep worrying about all possible interpretations of every word you say, you will never get anything done. People can always misinterpret anything that anyone says, even things that are black and white (see what I did there?).

If someone objects to what you say, hear out their objection. If they have a valid point, apologize and move on.

Sorry, I had a different meaning in mind when I used that word, but you are right. I see how it could be interpreted differently, thanks for bringing that to my notice.

Additionally, on a case-by-case basis, you can decide if you need to "fix" further use of the offensive word, and if so, whether the "fix" should be restricted to the ongoing discussion or be permanent.

For example, let's say, you didn't know that "Negro" is an offensive word in US. When someone points that out the first time, you would do well to avoid using it "permanently" from then on.

If instead, a specific gentleman objects to using "meat" as an example to illustrate some point for some religious reasons, but other people (following the same religion) have no such objections, it is not serious enough to warrant a permanent fix, you could just avoid using it around that gentleman.

If people bend backwards to find ways to get fake offended, it is their problem, not yours.

  • It sounds like the OP is more worried about misunderstandings than causing offence. – jpatokal Dec 29 '16 at 10:15
  • @jpatokal Uhm, no. He has stated it explicitly: "I was wondering whether the usage may appear "offensive" to some people" – Masked Man Dec 29 '16 at 11:27
  • That said though, the word "religiously" would confuse me more than it would offend me. To me, it means following something blindly without thinking just because someone with self-proclaimed authority said to do so. I would be left wondering if the speaker is suggesting that in a professional environment because the management is broken beyond hope. – Masked Man Dec 29 '16 at 11:31
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Your initial feeling is correct. In business communication you should avoid language that may raise negative emotions in some listeners. "Religiously" is such a word. Many people have a negative view of organized religion and will be distracted from the intended message. So yes, you should avoid using "religiously" as a metaphor for "carefully" or "strictly". Serious writers and speakers choose their words carefully. Using "religiously" is not horrible, most people would have no problem with it, but it's sloppy. And it's a tired old metaphor.

The worst example I encountered was a presenter who used the Challenger explosion as a metaphor for engineering disaster. He was too young to remember, but the Challenger explosion was a living memory for older employees. Never refer to a fatal incident unless it is the reason for the meeting.

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Excellent question! Very insightful.

As a native English speaker myself, who has been a native speaker in four 'English as the official language' countries, (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, England) I can honestly say that even in an English as a first language country vernacular is more a thing of culture than language.

I recently learned a lesson at work here in England; I said to my colleague about a particularly difficult manager and policy "I really had to put on my 'big boy pants' today"

For those not in the know, 'Big boy pants' is the way of saying that you have to behave like an adult. And in NZ, AU and ZA this would be a casual statement and would pass without anyone caring. In England however, "pants" is the word for Underwear, so this statement did not pass by quite so casually.

Now the OP's question really has a great truth to it, should a speaker in the workplace use words that could be taken out of context? (even if the chance of it being so is small), Should a speaker give extra maybe even excessive consideration to the words and phrases that they use when speaking?

Could a word like "religiously" be detrimental to the speakers ability to communicate in a clear and understandable manner, without offence or misunderstanding?

I think this applies to all level of business not just someone who is speaking to a thousand people at a time.

A good communicator is someone who is able to clearly communicate an idea, without bias, in a clear and concise phrasing, that as many persons listening as possible will understand and absorb without the listener needing to interpret the message into digestible language.

There's some serious physiology and psychology behind how humans process sounds and language in particular, although I can't find any credible references at this point in time. When listening we interpret the words from their complex forms, down to simple forms that we then understand as the sentence spoke, such as "can't" is resolved back to "can not" and "religiously" is resolved back to "every day all the time" (depending on your interpretation)

(Recommend this excellent bit of reading https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/speech/differences.htm )

So no, you should not use a phrase to represent an idea, because a phrase that represents an idea, requires more processing by our mind, and detracts from the meaning of the words being spoken.

The fact that the word 'religiously' has a religious/cultural/social tone of it's own, is is also a valid point to bring up, mainly because as a speaker you do not know if someone will interpret the meaning of the phrase to be the same as the meaning you intended.

So no, you can not expect a certain level of understanding of the vernacular in a corporate environment, because the words you're asking about are not from that corporate environment, but have a cultural basis that requires the listener to have the same cultural point of view as the speaker.

And lastly the question of causing offence. "Better safe than sorry" to use a phrase.

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    I appreciate your enthusiam, but do you really this this IS an excellent question for our little corner of Stack Exchange? Personally I agree with the assertion that this question would be better suited for english.stackexchange.com – Lumberjack Dec 29 '16 at 21:35
  • I stick with my thought that this is a really great workplace question, because it relates to communication in a professional setting, generally only found in the working environment. It's also a good question for the English stack, however there it would lose it's environmental qualifiers and we would miss out on the depth of the question. – TolMera Dec 30 '16 at 8:14
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To me, "follow the process religiously" means "throw it all in the air and hope that god will sort it all out". So you might consider some different wording unless that is what you want to achieve.

Or if you ask someone to collect outstanding debts "religiously", they might check the financial circumstances of each debtor and write off any debt when the debtor cannot afford to pay it. That's what many religious people might do.

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    This is taking it over the top. – Pieter B Dec 29 '16 at 9:51
  • This sounds like the only correct interpretation of the word here, people should stop using that word for exactly this reason. – Masked Man Dec 29 '16 at 11:32
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    @JoeStrazzere the main issue here seems to be what it means in non-US-English contexts. I'm likely to initially interpret it wrong as well, even though I know what the speaker means, because doing something religiously in my native tongue has different associations than the US-English one. – Erik Dec 29 '16 at 16:40

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