my company has strict language protocols that my coworker won’t follow

A reader writes:

I work for a company that produces highly specialized products to very exacting standards. Our work is extremely high-stakes and errors could be extraordinarily costly for our clients in terms of money and even human lives. Although my specific department is not directly involved in any of that work, the company still expects us to adhere to the same language and security protocols as those in line with production. Part of the language protocols include never making assumptions, being clear and precise, and specifically acknowledging the difference between opinion/perception and actual facts. For example, one would say, “I read over the schematics and found no errors,” rather than “there were no errors in the schematics,” because the former explains who did the work and acknowledges that although they found no errors, it is possible that missed errors might exist. We are also asked never to make broad, declarative statements such as “the product is a failure.” Instead, we must specifically explain how, why, and under what conditions the product failed.

Again, our small department is very low stakes, and because of that, one employee, “Tom,” absolutely refuses to follow these protocols and is very lax with his language to the point that when he says, “We’re out of toner!” we have no idea if he means the machine is low or there’s none in the supply closet. He is not clear, not precise, and he states opinions and personal observations as if they were facts. On the other hand, nobody dies without toner. Tom is not my direct report, is otherwise excellent at his job, is a nice person, and we are all accustomed to his ways. The problem is that Tom’s direct supervisor, “Dick,” will be out of the office for at least nine weeks for a surgical procedure and will be temporarily replaced by one of his superiors, “Harry.” Dick left scrupulous notes and explanations, but he did not warn Harry about Tom, nor did he warn Tom to be more precise with his language. In all fairness, Tom may not care as he finds the protocols “ridiculous.”

I have worked with Harry for many years and know him to be a stickler for the language protocols; he comes from the engineering-production side and has never managed a department like ours. Although Dick is not my direct supervisor, he asked me to help bring Harry up to speed and assist him in any way I could.

What, if anything, should I do here? Should I talk to Tom? To Harry? Do nothing? For context, my role is singular and unique. Technically, I report to Harry, but his work and mine are not aligned so as to allow him to perform any actual supervision. My only goal is to help things run smoothly while Dick is out of the office. I should also note that these language protocols are discussed during the interview process and that Tom made it perfectly clear at the time that he disliked the protocols, but Dick hired him anyway.

Do nothing.

This whole set-up is extremely odd. Don’t get me wrong, I like precise language, and in the past I’ve had to coach employees whose language was so imprecise as to be misleading or confusing. But these company-wide “protocols” sound rigid to the point of bizarrely controlling.

Certainly it’s useful to cultivate a culture around being clear and precise and distinguishing between facts and opinions. But people are humans, not machines you can program rigid communication protocols into. Considering it a serious problem for someone to say “we’re out of toner” because they didn’t specify whether the statement was machine-specific or not is … well, it’s a lot.

And the company is so committed to this that it’s discussed in interviews? It’s certainly good to warn people about what to expect before they sign on (I would much rather they hear about it then versus after they start) but … again, it’s a lot.

Anyway, the good news is that it’s not your problem because you don’t manage Tom.

I realize Dick asked you to help bring Harry up to speed, and in theory you could tell him that Tom talks like a normal person and isn’t a stickler for precise language in the very specific and unnatural way the company requires … but this isn’t really yours to solve. Typically if you’re asked to help out an interim manager, it means things like “show her the process we use for the X reports” or “answer any questions she has,” not “relay your coworkers’ work habits and personality traits.” It’s not that there’s no value in the latter, but typically it would come from the outgoing manager or the interim manager’s boss, not the peers of the person being discussed.

Your company is weird! Tom has chosen to opt out of this particular weirdness, was up-front about it in his interview, and has a manager who doesn’t seem to care. That’s good. He’ll have to work out the rest with Harry during this interim management period, but you don’t need to get involved.

{ 504 comments… read them below }

  1. serenity*

    Seconding that this company’s expectations around language seem fussy and unproductive (in addition to controlling, as Alison said).

    OP, this isn’t your problem to manage. That’s something to be thankful for!

    1. PenicilliumIHardlyKnowEm*

      Yes. I like the concepts, but the rigid application is very strange indeed. In the past, I’ve been told that I could stand to be less direct in my communications with colleagues (not rude, just seemed cold) and I would feel weird having to follow those rules all day.

      Speaking of unclear communication, I wasn’t clear if the examples given were OP’s or ones provided by the company. Either way, it’s not OP’s problem to manage.

    2. Darsynia*

      It sounds to me like this is a company that builds, say, airline parts, or works with the aerospace industry, or perhaps even medical device construction or something. I know when pilots are on approach or about to take off there are very precise language requirements for them (including no extraneous, non-work talk) so that they don’t get fatally distracted.

      But, yeah, while precise language is important, when your particular department doesn’t have the same life-or-death stakes, it seems exactly as Alison says–‘a lot’–to complain about generally understandable language for regular stakes work. OP, if your boss isn’t bothered by this employee’s language, you should probably try not to be either, and be precise in your implementation of ‘this is not my problem to solve’ when it comes to the interim leadership change.

      1. Forrest*

        I would love to know from someone who works in a highly safety-conscious field of engineering, medical or aviation whether this level of language-management is normal. I can absolutely understand this level of language scrutiny being necessary in written contracts, safety documents or highly managed situations like an aircraft taking off or surgery—but extending them to talking about the photocopier?!

        1. Bee*

          My dad works as an engineer (a quality control engineer, no less) at a factory that produces medical supplies, and yeah, no, they don’t talk like this.

          1. Mayati*

            My husband’s a microbiologist at a medical device company, and I’m a legal editor. Neither of us talks like this at work (we’re both working from home). If any context requires greater precision in language, sure, we’ll use technical terms and specific formats, but talking the same way that we write our most technical documents would be exhausting and time-consuming without adding value.

          2. Nonny*

            My last job was working with clinical research/study data for medical devices, and *no one* I came across in my years at that company spoke like this. Not the product engineers, the research scientists, or even the health care compliance team. There were certain standards for the published studies and the official documentation, but regular or day-to-day communication? Absolutely not.

        2. American Oligarchy*

          I work in a Neonatal ICU and there is nothing like this level of language scrutiny. Under certain circumstances, like surgical procedures, there are fairly strict expectations of who says what, when to keep things from devolving into chaos, but those only apply in those specific instances and not just in normal day to day business.

          1. PenicilliumIHardlyKnowEm*

            Even in surgical procedure, I’ve noticed some chitchat during procedures where I was awake. The one that was an emergency procedure plus hemorrhaging (I’m ok now!) had minimal chitchat, but the conversations still sounded normal to me.

            1. ObamaGurl*

              I watched all of Grey’s Anatomy, so I feel pretty knowledgeable about how people talk in a surgical theater. I’ve never heard McDreamy or McSteamy be as vigilant in their wording as people in OP’s office.

              1. Indy Dem*

                Please, please, please tell me this is tongue in cheek. I love Grey’s (until the killed off McDreamy) but you can’t use any part of the show as indicative of the medical field.

          2. MGW*

            In veterinary medicine and we are precise in that when noting things in the record it’s “no murmurs auscultes” “no abnormalities noted on physical exam” “apparently healthy” etc, because just because you didn’t find it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But in terms of conversations between people or asking about office supplies- we talk like normal people!

            1. Marna*

              My vet friend tells me she’s had to remove ADR* from her professional vocabulary to avoid it accidentally landing in charts. :-)

              *”I dunno, I can’t find anything specific but that dog just Ain’t Doin’ Right.”

              1. MGW*

                We say that all the time to each other for why an animal is coming in “just ADR” and yep it’s a struggle to not put in the actual history/presenting complaint!!!

          3. Half-Caf Latte*

            co-signed. One very widely used healthcare communication framework is SBAR – situation, background, assessment, and recommendations: but that’s just to organize the elements, what you say is largely up to you.

            AHRQ, a national quality org, has some specific language frameworks to improve communication in traditionally highly contentious/hierarchical areas, but again, frameworks not this level of prescription. The “script” for escalating unheard/unresolved patient safety issues is “I am concerned about blah / blah make mes uncomfortable / Blah is a safety issue” but they’re scripting the trigger words, not the blah.

            And in a code, we emphasize closed loop communication, where everything is repeated back. But those are relatively infrequent & clearly identifiable as an emergency where protocol is needed, not to mention controlled chaos accompanied by incessant beeping.

            All of these are clearly “this is a lives at stake moment,” and even then, the scripts are … pretty basic so as to be easily remembered under pressure, and emphasize key elements to promote safety.

            1. Cindy Featherbottom*

              Medical field here as well. We have some abbreviations that are on our hospital list and from ISMP that are on our “do not use” list as they may be misconstrued/misunderstood in our notes in patients charts. Otherwise, our language isn’t restricted (and, to be honest, I’d be annoyed if it was as restricted as OP is converying).
              As Half-Caf Latte stated, we have some standards during codes as well. Most everything is repeated that way the nurse who is doing documentation gets everything down and everything gets recorded properly later in the chart.

              1. No Longer Looking*

                I’m curious, does it include f/u? Decades ago, my first office temp job was transcribing doctors’ notes, and my first day I thought there was a flu epidemic. Fortunately I commented on it about four hours in, and that was the day I discovered the standard abbreviation for Follow Up. :)

        3. waving from such great heights*

          From my prior experience in medicine, absolute clarity in speech is reserved for only very specific circumstances. Medical personnel chatting in a hallway about the big game last night don’t do it.

          1. bluephone*

            So if I’m reading Wikipedia correctly, one of the contributing factors to the Tenerife airport disaster (two planes collided on the runway, resulting in *583* fatalities and 61 presumably non-fatal injuries), was a miscommunication between air traffic control and one of the pilots. Essentially, the pilot and air traffic control were both using non-standard terminology (“we’re now at takeoff,” “we’re going,” “OK,” etc) that left it unclear about which airplanes were actually cleared for takeoff on the runway. ATC responding with “okay” was one of the notable examples but the one pilot strayed from the (tried and tested) script too, further confounding things. Along with the lousy weather, short runway, impromptu airplane diversions because of terrorism threats at another airport, etc, a perfect storm of errors resulted in one of the worst aviation catastrophes (I’m paraphrasing from wikipedia).
            TLDR–this is like, the only time I can think of when you NEED to be very specific in your language and even then, it’s limited to like, when the plane wants to take off (I’m not a pilot so I don’t know the specifics).

            So like, I do get that OP’s company has these protocols for a reason but when it gets to the point of “Jake said we’re out of toner–which printer, which toner, how much toner, well where do we get more from,” etc…management might want to rethink how they’re doing things?

            1. Katrinka*

              There’s a difference between “be specific in work product” and “be specific all the freaking time.”

            2. Artemesia*

              When taking an airplane off in fog, yeah you need to be precise enough that you don’t kill 400+ people as the incompetent pilot at Tenerife did — but toner? Maybe not.

              But the important thing for the OP is that there is no reward on earth or in heaven for people who are busybodies and try to correct all deviations from silly rules in the workplace. I empathize as I have been that person from time to time. One thing that happens if you do this is that other people will use you to meddle in things THEY want to change but don’t want to be tagged with. I learned it all the hard way. Stay in your lane. Let the interim manager deal if he wishes. Don’t get a reputation as a meddlesome nag.

            3. Amy*

              My dad was a Pan Am commercial pilot at the time and knew one of the pilots involved in the Tenerife disaster. He said he looked back right after the KLM impact and where almost 400 people should have been, was mostly just fire and runway.

              But in addition to standardized communications, one of the big takeaways was the pilot god complex. Based on the recordings, it was later decided that the KLM first officer knew the captain did not have clearance. But there was a culture of not questioning or contradicting and the KLM captain was one of the most senior pilots at the company. They instituted a new training approach called “Crew Resource Management” that stressed the importance of speaking up, that everyone from flight attendants to maintenance people were of vital importance to the safety of the passengers. There could be no blind following of leadership when lives were on the line.

              This fanatical adherence to precision of language for unimportant issues like toner seems like it could stifle important open communication if this is really a question of safety.

              1. Bluephone*

                That is a really good point! Yeah, I didn’t mean to imply that someone saying “okay” over the radio was the only reason the disaster happened—I just noticed that among all the other contributing factors that led to those 2 planes being on that one runway at the same time, in bad fog, two people essentially talking AT but not to each other was also called out. But yes, I did also see how the previous culture of “the plane pilot is GOD, never question him” was heavily criticized as a causative factor.

                1. AvGeek*

                  This has continued to be an issue. The Korean Air Lines 747 that crashed in Guam about 20 years ago had a similar problem. The first officer realized that the captain, who had control of the plane, was about to crash. The respect for hierarchy was such that the first officer still said nothing. While issues of hierarchy can exist anywhere, they were known to be particularly problematic in Korea (and presumably other highly traditional cultures), and KAL brought in consultants from Western airlines (Delta, IIRC) to completely makeover their cockpit resource management culture.

                  This is one reason I prefer to fly US/European airlines from a safety standpoint.

                2. Elfie*

                  Supposed to be a reply to AvGeek, but won’t nest any more.

                  Have you been watching MayDay (or Air Crash Investigation, as it’s known in the UK?). If so, I’ve seen both those episodes, and many more, where the reluctance to challenge the pilot has resulted in disaster. It’s pretty frightening, actually, to think that *even when their life – and others – is on the line* the rest of the crew won’t say anything. That’s a safety-critical situation, not toner!

                3. anon here*

                  AvGeek — my brother is a pilot for a major US airline and previously was a pilot and instructor for one of the regionals that contracts with the majors. What I understand (secondhand) from him is that some of the Asian airlines have switched to English in the cockpit to essentially give a psychological distance from the rules of ‘normal life’ that helps first officers challenge their captains — switching languages is a symbol or talisman of the switch in mindset re: challenge and authority (while also being useful/necessary for working internationally).

                  A big part of his training/instructing in the US was this emphasis on rules and scripts for communicating disagreement and challenge. They really emphasize it, and try to create an almost ritualistic culture around it in the US. Somehow it’s very important to make the cockpit psychologically different than talking with your friend or dad or boss, situations in which you might not disagree in order to avoid conflict. The ~blame-free reporting culture is also super-important to this, and I think US medicine could benefit from this as well (I’m married to a physician who does some of the incident review at their hospital).

              2. Indigo a la mode*

                Same thing with nurses daring to “contradict” doctors with, you know, life-saving information before a surgery. Procedures have been put in place to take the human ego out of that, too.

                I see I’m among a crowd with similar literary tastes. :)

                1. mlk*

                  My mom’s a retired doctor–a specialty that doesn’t do direct patient care but does deal with patients on a secondary level. In that capacity she would have to tell off surgeons that they were making unreasonable demands so quite able to push back in her specialty area.

                  I had to have a c-section (twins and I was high risk). Afterwards, I was SO tired and didn’t want to lay down. I sat up or reclined partway to sleep, etc. She realized I was having trouble getting enough oxygen but no one else did. Not the doctors nor residents (and probably students too) on rounds, not the nurses…Finally, she pulled a nurse aside and mentioned it. A diuretic and a lot of trips to the bathroom later (like a gallon later), and I felt much better. She told me just this month, 8 years later, that it still bothers her that she didn’t say something sooner.

              3. Nesprin*

                Yep- same concept for surgical “time outs” where the surgeon cedes control to the scrub nurses to have a second set of eyes check that the correct patient has been wheeled in for the correct procedure.

            4. Laure001*

              You sent me to a black hole of research and information about disaster Bluephone! It was very interesting.

              1. Bluephone*

                LOL, you’re welcome! Glad to suck someone else into my world of rabbit holes on Wikipedia.

            5. Anonapots*

              Yes, it really is about the situation. I think a good rule of thumb is if people can die/be hurt/or another type of major issue can occur, be precise. Otherwise you’re being a little weird.

            6. AvGeek*

              “TLDR–this is like, the only time I can think of when you NEED to be very specific in your language and even then, it’s limited to like, when the plane wants to take off ”

              It’s not takeoff. It’s taxi, takeoff, cruise, landing, taxi. All phases of flight.

            7. Indigo a la mode*

              I thought of the Tenerife comms immediately when I read the letter – but even so, those specific, live-saving comms are only during extremely specific, pivotal moments of a flight! If, after takeoff, the pilot leaned back and said “Gosh, the seatback is uncomfortable,” I doubt her copilot would wonder whether she meant the one she’s sitting in, 32B in the cabin, or the driver’s seat in the car she owned in 2005.

              All languages are built with analogy, inference, and implication. This workplace is bizarre – “I found no errors” vs. “there are no errors” sounds like they’re trying to avoid legal liability at every step of the way or something.

              1. Jenna*

                I thought this, too! The “I found no errors” part especially made me wonder if either the they’d been sued in the past or werejust worried about liability in general.

            8. D'Arcy*

              With regard to the Tenerife disaster, it should be pointed out that after saying “OK” to the KLM flight, the ATC controller immediately added a clarifying, “Stand by for takeoff, I will call you.”, while at the same time the alarmed Pan Am flight transmitted, “”We’re still taxiing down the runway, the Clipper 1736!” Either of these transmissions should have been sufficient to make it clear to the KLM flight that they were NOT cleared for takeoff, but both transmissions were made at the *exact same time* and caused radio interference that rendered both inaudible.

              Nonetheless, fault ultimately lies primarily with the KLM captain, who was in such a hurry to take off that he *interrupted his own copilot’s radio transmission* that they were at takeoff position with “we’re going!” and started his takeoff roll without having received *any* actual indication that he actually had clearance to takeoff. He then ignored his own flight engineer who is heard on the cockpit recorder saying he wasn’t sure if the Pan American had actually cleared the runway.

            9. Calpurrnia*

              For what it’s worth, I actually used to work in air traffic control, with controllers who had decades of experience managing traffic in busy US airspace. At the drop of a hat, they could completely code-switch into ATC language with
              its weird terminology, super-precise pronunciation, and rapid speech patterns – but when they weren’t in “live traffic” mode, they were absolutely normal humans who spoke normal ways about things. It’s like listening to a bilingual person swap from one language they’re fluent in to another – their brain has a switch to swap “modes” that monolingual people don’t have.

              The only difference (which I ended up acquiring through osmosis) is that ATC folks almost *always* use “say again?” when they misheard and need you to repeat what you said, rather than the “what?” or “huh?” that most normal people would say. Even when not in ATC mode. But I kinda like it.

              1. skunklet*

                Yup, former military ATC here as well – we were trained that the 7110 was written in blood, as there are all types of accidents cause by ___ so the 7110 is amended to fix that (John Wayne airport, early 90s, a private jet (maybe a Cessna) following a non heavy 757 (they were new, ftr) got caught in the vortices – the private jet was carrying 5 Execs from the In & Out Burger chain, plane crashed into a Toyota dealership parking lot, no survivors; NTSB determines that even though the 757 is not heavy, they now get wake turbulence calls).

                SO much has changed in aviation, really, since Tenerife – and not just b/c of Tenerife but b/c of almost every accident. But yeah, even controllers don’t talk like controllers all the time. :)

              2. Waffles*

                Hah. Truth. ATC here, and “say again” is a permanent part of my vocabulary even outside of work. My spouse likes to tease me about it.

            10. Darsynia*

              Yep, this is why I was suspecting it was airline related, honestly. I’m a huge airline disaster buff (I lived a half mile from where UsAir 427 crashed, and my next door neighbor was the chaplain for the emergency services charged with the cleanup) and that’s the main place I recall there being an issue.

              With Teneriffe, there were multiple miscommunications. The hotshot captain of the KLM flight was anxious to get going so he wouldn’t be over the allotted flight hours, and when he rushed to take off, he was at first challenged by one of the other cockpit crew. Unfortunately the second time, the ‘we are at takeoff’ statement was made, presumably because the crewmember didn’t feel comfortable challenging him again, and was essentially trying to warn anyone who could hear him.

              The biggest issue, though, was something called a ‘heterodyne,’ which is the sound when two people tried to use their radio at the same time. It produces a high-pitched squeal instead of letting you hear what was said. At the time that it happened, the taxiing plane responded to the stationary KLM asking if they could take off by saying ‘we are still on the runway.’ Unfortunately, this was the worst possible time, as the information both pilots needed was blocked from the other’s hearing.

              I honestly can only imagine on the ground communication being so important during *repairs* of planes. There have been multiple accidents where impreciseness has caused deadly crashes. One of the less catastrophic was a shift change in the middle of replacing a window in the cockpit. The screws chosen were microscopically incorrect, causing the pressure differential in flight to pull the window out of its frame, and the pilot with it. Unbelievably, the first officer managed to catch his legs and hold on for the hour+ it took to land, and the pilot survived.

              1. Elfie*

                Ah, was that the flight from West Midlands airport to Ireland? I live just down the road from that airport, and it’s the only time on Air Crash Investigation that I’ve seen Birmingham mentioned (yay I guess?). I was absolutely gobsmacked that the captain survived – the flight crew honestly thought they were holding on to a body for burial.

          2. Six Feet Under Par: A Chip Driver Mystery*

            Now I want to imagine a sporting conversation with this precise language.

            I obvserved the football match that was broadcast on TV last night. The team that I support scored more goals than the opposing team.

            1. Jenna*

              Love it, lol.
              “At 6:47, Hernandez kicked the ball with his right foot, and the ball traveled 4.3 yards in an eastern direction.”

        4. perstreperous*

          I have worked on mission-critical (if it goes wrong, it costs a lot of money) and safety-critical (if it goes wrong, it kills people) software for 30 years and have never heard of anything like this nonsense.

          In fact, trying to dictate how people talk is, in my opinion, unsafe because it will inhibit them from speaking up – and, when you are doing the type of work I do the last thing you want is a potential risk or error being suppressed. Whenever someone new joins, no matter who they are, I always say something like, “I might be Senior this or Manager that but, if I say or do something stupid, for heaven’s sake speak up.”

        5. Canadian Yankee*

          I used to work in the nuclear waste industry, and we did nothing like this. The company was super-strict in its enforcement of safety protocols. For example, even in my very clerical corner of the building where there was zero likelihood of anyone dealing with any nuclear materials, you could still get in serious trouble if you were spotted walking around with an uncovered glass of water (spill and slip risk!) or if you left your desk drawer open and unattended (someone could bump into it and hurt themselves!).

          But there was no policing of language like the OP describes.

            1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

              you can’t put too much water in the core

              Even that…. is it that no amount of water in the core constitutes too much? Or is it that bad things will happen if too much water is put into the core?

                1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

                  So that’s what the woosh sound from overhead was! </humor>

                  In all seriousness, thank you. I have never seen the cartoon, so I thought I had missed something…

        6. Keymaster of Gozer*

          Used to work for the railway and while there was a manual on how signallers talk to drivers/control rooms there was just a rule of ‘try to be clear and don’t swear on company email’ for everything else.

          I’d really struggle if I had to think that hard about every sentence I ever wrote or said. That’s just plain weird.

          1. UKDancer*

            Yes. I worked as a very junior assistant researcher for a media company at one point and we had to be very clear and accurate in what we provided and ensure we were clear what was factual and what was speculation or allegation. So any research I provided was extremely carefully sourced.

            I did not however have to think about every sentence I wrote to that level of detail. If I was ordering the refreshments or booking a room for a meeting I would use normal colloquial language. I think it’s fine to have rules for professional communication but trying to police everything your staff say is very controlling.

        7. Aviation Engineer*

          I work for one of the big aviation companies and we (from engineers to factory employees) don’t follow these kinds of rules. I work daily with pilots and am the child of a military pilot and it’s just not a standard thing to speak in such a structured way. They do use strict language *while flying* and it does seep into everyday conversation but by no means is it commonly practiced, much less enforced, in daily interactions.

        8. RocketGirl*

          Long time reader, first time commenter here!
          I am a Manufacturing Engineer at a large aerospace company that builds rockets for NASA, the Air Force, etc. As you can imagine, we have very high risk processes with safety and cost and aside from jargon and acronyms, we do not have language rules like this at all!

        9. It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s SuperAnon*

          Aerospace engineer here. Our written documentation for how to assemble/disassemble/repair parts requires this level of detail for sure so there’s no room for error.

          It also takes months of revisions to get the language right because nobody speaks like this.

          1. Oxford Comma*

            But are you that specific when it comes to reporting that the printer is out of toner?

        10. Forrest*

          Thank you to everyone who answered! I’m a careers adviser who LOVES hearing about norms and cultures across different sectors (it’s why I do it!) so I am really enjoying these answers!

        11. RadManCF*

          I used to work as a millwright, and I spent a month in a nuclear power plant during a refueling outage. These sort of language protocols are quite similar to what I experienced. In particular, we were instructed to use what was called “three way communication.” One person would give a directive, the recipient would repeat the directive to check that it was properly received, and the person giving the directive would then restate the directive, to confirm to the recipient that they had properly understood. The concern is that people may start tearing apart the wrong machine, which would cause unplanned downtime, and possibly unplanned radiation exposure. In utilities, uptime is everything, and power companies have no problem spending money to have people sitting around doing nothing, just so they can be there when they are needed.

        12. Half-Caf Latte*

          So not for nothing, nurses and pharmacists have a reputation for being able to read …. poor penmanship.

          Errors attributable to said penmanship was one of the arguments for the adoption of electronic prescribing, which was heralded as the solution to such errors, but has actually introduced new problems *because* precision-according-to-coders is now a factor.

          Example: Doctor rounds in the morning, writes orders and leaves them on the chart for nurse.
          Old issue: does that say hydralazine or hydroxazine by mouth once daily?

          New issue: no longer have a reading or transcription error, but orders went in at 9:01am, after the official default time, and no one realizes that the first dose defaults to tomorrow, patient doesnt start drug unless someone catches it.

        13. Ali G*

          My husband is an engineer and he has visited client sites such as aircraft carriers, submarines, nuclear plants, and Federal research labs (where you have to decontaminate to exit), and he has never experienced anything even close to this.

        14. Pilcrow*

          Technical writer here. That kind of precision is required for documenting X-Ray generator requirements and tolerances or in written communications with the FDA, but it’s definitely not used in day-to-day work in the office.

        15. Emilia Bedelia*

          I work in medical devices, in a quality/compliance role.

          Language IS extremely important when we’re talking about patient safety and liability (eg, “Product A was designed to reduce the risk of Y problem” vs “Product A prevents Y problem”). Many companies have found themselves with a warning letter or cease and desist for using inaccurate language to describe their products.

          Most people I work with are extremely precise with their language as a result, because after sitting through audits defending your work and having your word choice scrutinized by legal counsel before it gets sent out to the customer, you get used to that level of consideration. My role and roles like mine tend to draw people who are internally sticklers for that kind of thing, so most people are naturally pedantic in that way.

          That said, I’ve never encountered that level of scrutiny with regard to informal internal communication. It seems more like a cultural issue for Tom more than anything – I can’t imagine him having a particularly nice time at this job if he doesn’t want to follow this specific of a protocol.

        16. engineener*

          I’m an engineer at a national laboratory working with chemicals that could seriously harm us if they’re mishandled — think burns, poisoning, eventual cancer, etc. It’s pretty low stakes most of the time, but there’s a HUGE safety culture as a result and there’s a lot of rigorous documentation associated with work procedures. We might formulate language like this when we’re writing work planning documents, but the rest of the time? Nope. Not even close. This is robotic even for engineers.

        17. Molly*

          I’ve worked for several medical device companies. I’ve written SOPs, protocols and work instructions. I’ve worked directly with accounting to develop Sarbanes-Oxley compliant protocols when a company goes public. I’ve dealt directly with the FDA, during panels and audits. I’ve trained sales reps on what they can and can’t say while selling FDA-regulated products. I’ve written clinical research protocols, informed consents, etc. I’ve worked directly with data management and biostatisticians to optimize databases and QC SAS tables. I’ve worked directly with IT to address specific project and department needs. I have been coauthor on white papers. Oh yeah, I started in research labs. And I come from a family of engineers and IT.
          Never, ever have I experienced anyone try to control my speech and/or writing to this degree. Not even close.
          I have never heard anything so ridiculous in all of my working career. It is totally unnecessary, a time suck and smothers all creativity and innovation. No, no, no!

        18. Probably Taking This Too Seriously*

          The scientists who develop the products at my company are this technical. So are the lawyers. The rest of us—marketing, IT, admins, etc.—say things like, “there’s no more toner.”

        19. Anonymous for identification*

          Technical writer here, Life Safety industry. We’ll do that in our manuals at our data sheets, and anything online. But in casual conversation we’re just as relaxed as the next human.

        20. LizM*

          I’ve worked on the fire line in wildfire response. We have specific protocols for using the radio, and are careful to be precise when relaying operational info, but we don’t talk like this in the office when we’re not on an active incident.

        21. Peggy*

          Not in a highly safety conscious field, but I am a mathematician. I love how the mathematical language removes any ambiguity and enjoy checking mathematical texts for flaws, ambiguities and impreciseness.

          And yet, even if talking to like-minded fellow mathematicians, this is not how we speak casually to each other. And even the jokes about the way our everyday language does not follow these rules get old pretty fast – e.g answering “do you want tea or coffee?” with “yes” without specifying which part of that statement is true or giving me 5 bananas after I said “I would like to have a banana” since I did not say “exactly one”…

          Our day-to-day interactions and language neither do require that level of rigour nor would it help to facilitate communication.

        22. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

          I don’t work in those fields but am almost certain it’s not normal. We’d have heard about it. It’s crazy.

          I even doubt that in a highly safety conscious field it’s this intense. The OP writes: “I read over the schematics and found no errors” versus “there were no errors in the schematics.” Can you imagine in the cockpit of a plane pilots, instead of saying we’re a “X altitude” always saying I see “the altimeter says X.” It’s a waste of words. Now, if there is reason to disbelieve the altimeter, sure, describe that issue, but really?

          As an aside, I’m reminded of the character Anne, the Fair Witness, in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

          1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

            There’s a liability difference between “no errors were found” and “no errors exist”. I suspect this kind of precision has more to do with the legal than the scientific.

            My industry (patents) is extremely picky about word choice because a single word could make millions or even billions of dollars of difference in coverage, and we don’t want to be on the hook for the difference. As another commenter observes, it does tend to attract people who nitpick language more generally – I’ve had a ten-minute conversation about whether “three-month” (as in a 3m period) has or does have a hyphen.

            But we would still say “ugh, this fricking printer is out of ink” even when it takes toner and only the black cartridge is empty.

            1. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

              “My industry (patents) is extremely picky about word choice because a single word could make millions or even billions of dollars of difference in coverage”

              In speech inside the office with colleagues? Really? You need that precision in everything you talk about? That’s wild.

              1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

                No? In actual work product. My final paragraph shows that we use human people words most of the time (and the fact you misread me shows that we aren’t 100% precise ;) ).

          2. ZoomaZoomZoom*

            Haha, my first thought was “You’re a… uh, what was that called… uh, Fair Witness?!”

        23. GMN*

          I’m an engineer in a field where engineering mistakes and judgement errors can and has lead to loss of many lives. I know many businesses and many employees in this and similar fields and no one does something like this.

          I am all for precise language when communicating about an engineering decision but first of all reasonable engineers understand that on their own and if your engineers are not reasonable that is not a language protocol problem but a staffing problem. Second, why roll that out to all work conversations, including toner? This sounds absurd and it makes me wonder if this is really that important to the company or if it is mostly important to OP.

        24. Paul Tucker*

          I worked for about a decade in clinical electronic data management. The FDA and other regulatory bodies – many from other national governments – were often involved. When we’d write something contractual or otherwise binding that would be included in the study, we had to use this level of precision. That said though, we had a legal team helping out to review and coach on stuff. We all understood the requirement – it wasn’t a ball and chain tactic.

          So apart from writing those specific documents or communicating contractually binding information (or something that would be included in the final clinical study), we communicated like normal humans without this creepy level of control and manipulation.

          Don’t get me wrong, precision of language is a must-have skill to succeed in life, yet that’s a two-way street. If someone says something unclear, the other party can ask clarifying questions. Humans call this a conversation.

          I’ve worked with people that don’t seem to know how to form a question that doesn’t require five minutes of dialogue simply to understand what they’re asking. We all have, and it’s incredibly inefficient and annoying. That’s a struggle typically has less to do with a language protocol, however, and more to do with that persons learning style (or mine) – and that can be addressed with good management, transparency, and coaching.

      2. AMT*

        Every place I’ve worked that used rigid documentation protocols has applied them only to work communication/documents (e.g. refer to the patient by name rather than “patient” in your note, but no one will get on your case for saying “the patient in 501 is asking for you” to your coworker). I’m surprised this isn’t true of OP’s company. It takes much more work to be the language police than it takes to occasionally send a clarifying email.

        1. AMT*

          That was kind of a bad example—while that last one is still a work communication, what I meant was that casual communication that’s not going into a patient’s chart and doesn’t pertain to a critical situation (e.g. medication) isn’t held to the same standards.

      3. Scribble*

        There are several very specific langTEges developed originally to help second-language speakers of English understand tech manuals written in English. One ASD-STE100 Simplified Technical English (STE), which has become an international for tech writing in many industries and governmental organizations. There is a dictionary with examples of approved and not approved words and sentences. STE writing rules also specify restrictions on grammar and style usage. If you search for Simplified Technical English, you will find links to that and other constructed languages; that can become a wormhole. I suspect this company has decided to take things up a notch and require similar rules for their verbal communications as a way of embedding the rules in the culture so there is a reduced likelihood of error anywhere in the communications chain.

      4. Boris Badenov*

        I work for a manufacturing company that makes critical life support and safety equipment for military aircraft and we definitely don’t do anything like this!

      5. JSPA*

        If (say) the wrong o-rings look the same as the right o-rings, or if two different sorts of o-rings are right, but have very different tolerances, then even the third backup o-ring ordering ordering person (the one who normally orders the toilet paper and toner) not to mention the person who distributes the o-rings to individual toolboxes, needs to have a very high commitment to precision.

        Most workplaces may not need this level of precision, but more of them may need it, than have it. When corners get cut because (e.g.) “it’s just fertilizer,” we get giant explosions that level towns.

        A workplace requirement doesn’t need to make sense to be a requirement (or a firing offense). As with the Covid scoffer in the other question:

        If there’s a protocol that everyone signs on to use–even if it makes not-a-lot-of-sense for the person who works alone in the otherwise mechanized warehouse to use a mask and hand sanitizer, or even if it makes not-a-lot-of-sense for the person who only buys the toilet paper to specify that there is no T.P. in any of the five supply areas that he has personally checked as opposed to, “we’re hella low on TP, I’m putting in a rush order”–the protocol is there for a reason, and making it universal is there to avoid laxness creep.

        I’d be a pal and warn Tom that Harry’s a stickler, and that this would be a good time to pay attention to phrasing and suck up any private opinions until Dick gets back. If you frame it as, “I enjoy working with you and with Dick, and I’d hate to have Harry feel forced to lower the boom on anybody, especially in this economy.”

        1. Amy Sly*

          Agreed. LW should give Tom the head’s up that Harry is going to enforce the corporate culture. I can’t think of an appropriate situation that LW should tell Harry anything, but at most, it should be a “Yeah, Dick didn’t do much to enforce the communications protocol” one-off comment.

          The customer is not always right, but they’re always the customer; the boss is not always right, but they’re always the boss. Learn to deal with it or get another job. As noted in another post today, you can’t change a corporate culture from the bottom.

          1. Hoya Lawya*

            I disagree that “you can’t change a corporate culture from the bottom,” at least to some degree, but set that aside. The existing manager, Dick, doesn’t seem to care about the language standards to the extent OP does — most likely because he realizes that what’s appropriate in technical writing may not be necessary when ordering toner. The new manager, Harry, may ultimately feel the same way. So “if the boss is (almost) always right, it’s OP who should be deferring to Dick.

            1. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

              “most likely because he realizes that what’s appropriate in technical writing may not be necessary when ordering toner”


        2. Observer*

          If Harry were the one writing in, I would ask them why it’s important for Tom to use this level of precision. But I would most definitely say that he had the standing to warn Tom and then enforce the rule. The only hitch would be that Tom was hired even though he made it clear that he was not planning to follow the protocol. Which is why Harry would definitely need to warn him, and should probably ask Dick.

          That still does not necessarily make it sensible for Harry to actually fire Tom.

          PS Any organization that allows someone who normally only orders toner and toilet paper and the like to go ahead and order O-Rings for their high precision engines is NOT ever going to be able to make sure that all orders are going to be JUST right. It doesn’t matter how carefully they enforce these kinds of rules. But it DOES inspire a scary level of false confidence.

      6. AvGeek*

        Aviation (air traffic control and cockpit relationship management specifically) has very precise language standards. These standards were put into place after communications breakdowns/ambiguities resulted in crashes — a great example was the 1977 Tenerife collision of two fully-packed 747s on a foggy runway. The captain of the KLM plane was ambiguous in his use of language when communicating with ground control, and arguably would not have commenced his takeoff role had communication been clearer. These standards continually get reviewed, too.

        This does not meant that these language protocols gets used in the corporate office, of course.

    3. Richard Hershberger*

      I snorted when I read the part about never making assumptions. I assume that the letter is about human beings on planet Earth, but it might have been delivered through a gap in the space-time continuum, and actually be about space aliens on planet Zorg. Is this a reasonable interpretation? Of course not. The assumption about humans and planet Earth are entirely reasonable–so reasonable, in fact, that any other interpretation is unreasonable. But as soon as the discussion moves to what is and is not reasonable, there are going to be legitimate gray areas and differences of opinion.

      1. Observer*

        Better yet is the OP’s example of problematic communications. “We’re out of toner” is imprecise, but “the printer is out of toner” is precise – even though it most definitely does leave lots and lots of room for assumptions.

        Assumptions include that the toner needs to be refilled and that Tom will refill the toner (unless you assume that he’s going to leave it to the admin staff).

        Also, “we’re out of toner” IS actually a factual statement, even if not 100% complete.

        In fact, the use of this particular example helps to explain why Tom thinks the protocols are “ridiculous.” I suspect that to the vast majority of people, the protocols seem not-picky, overly prescriptive and highly idiosyncratic.

    4. Jenny*

      I can see this making sense in written communication to clients but… everyday verbal language? That’s never going to work.

    5. Anon for this*

      Shouldn’t you rephrase that as, ‘in my opinion, this company’s expectations around language seem fussy”, so that no one accidentally takes your opinion as a declaration of fact?

      1. PenicilliumIHardlyKnowEm*

        Incorrect. It is a well-established fact that this company’s language requirements are a sack of bananas.

          1. Rusty Shackelford*

            Unless the sack is transparent and the bananas are in a single layer, how do you actually know how many bananas are in there? Shouldn’t you say you *believe* there are X number of bananas in the sack?

            1. Hosta*

              ‘Believe’ is just a fancy word for ‘assume’. So….

              This company’s requirements appear to be a brown burlap sack that is approximately three feet by four feet, bearing the impressions of an unknown number of curved objects approximately half a foot long.

        1. Anonymoose Esquire*

          This company’s language requirement, appears, to the best of my knowledge, to be a sack of bananas.

          – A lawyer

    6. AndersonDarling*

      I was assuming that the toner example was a placeholder for a more technical situation that is more unique to their field and wasn’t really meaning that every casual conversation is scrutinized.
      I can attest that it irks me when someone yells “The whole website is down!” and the development team panics, but the problem was that the user mixed up their passwords.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        Sure, but the problem with that proclamation is not that is is imprecise or opinion, but that it is wrong.

    7. kt*

      I disagree. I *strongly* disagree.

      Now, I don’t think people should be reprimanded in normal conversation for saying, “We’re out of coffee!” rather than “We need to order coffee grounds as we’re out” or “The coffee pot is empty — shall I make some more?”

      But if you’re working in rocketry or in nuclear power or a few other places, precision really is important. In 1999 we lost a Mars probe to a crash because inches and centimeters were confused — the units were not specified, and assumptions were made. Yes, it’s nitpicky to expect precision in all communication — but if you are used to being really precise all the time, you won’t F%^& it up when it’s really important!!!!!!

      It’s my observation that people who are happy with imprecision in language (like most people) just are not very good at turning on precision when needed. I don’t say this as a dis, I’m saying this as a mathematician who has spent literally months trying to test and recreate models and proofs and concepts because there are 20 different things someone *could* have meant when they said their imprecise thing, and I can’t ask them to figure it out, and it’s just actually not precise enough to be useful. And what I work on won’t kill anyone.

      1. New Jack Karyn*

        What OP and Tom work on won’t kill anyone, either. They’re not engineers, surgeons, airline maintenance techs, etc. And there are a number of people in this thread who say they can and do code-switch between their technical language and their everyday language.

  2. Annony*

    The best thing to do is to circle back to him when there is an issue and ask for clarification. If he says “We’re out of toner” ask him “Are we completely out or does it just need to be changed?” If he says “There are no errors in the document” ask him “Who checked?” (but only if you actually need to know that). If there is no follow up needed then there is no problem. If follow up is needed often, point that out and how much time is being wasted. That might make him see some of the requests as being less ridiculous or at least not worth his time to push back on.

    1. Heidi*

      Agreed about the toner thing. This seems like such a non-problem. If Tom’s non-adherence to language standards has truly impacted the work, however, that’s different. Rather than point out that Tom is too lax, I’d specifically explain how, why, and under what conditions Tom has caused the work to fail.

      1. Hoya Lawya*

        If Tom’s non-adherence to language standards has truly impacted the work, however, that’s different.

        …and, lo and behold, that’s what managers get paid to decide! Dick doesn’t seem overly concerned about it.

    2. The Cosmic Avenger*

      Actually, “We’re out of toner!” is not a request, and since Tom has problems communicating, I’d say it’s not something the OP needs to reply to, other than maybe “OK”. Tom reminds me of other gaslighting, passive-aggressive, or otherwise difficult people I’ve dealt with, in that he is putting the work on others to identify and satisfy his wants and needs instead of doing it himself.

      Assuming that my take on his communication style is correct, I’d just make acknowledging sounds until he asked an actual question, at which point I would start asking leading questions to determine the actual problem, like what do you mean, what makes you say that, how exactly [thing he said], etc.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          Unless “we’re out of toner” means “I checked the supply closet and there’s no more toner, and I don’t have access to the P-card so I personally can’t order any.” Which could be true in my office.

          1. MayLou*

            In which case tom should then say “please can you order some more?” to the person with the power to do so.

      1. MCMonkeyBean*

        It’s certainly possible that Tom is a total dick, but jumping to “passive-agressive gaslighter” based purely on the example of “we’re out of toner” seems very extreme to me.

        1. Cat*

          Right? I agree it may not need immediate action by the LW but that’s a pretty normal comment, come on. Also that is soooooooooo not what gaslighting means even if it is otherwise a passive aggressive comment.

        2. rayray*

          Seriously. That is a wild assumption. I hear people say things like this all the time. Sometimes people say it just so people know not to print anything for a few minutes. Maybe he’s saying it so that someone might let him know where to grab a replacement cartridge. Maybe it was just a “Oh! We’re out of toner” reaction when he printed something and it came out bad or the alert came up on the printer.

          Sheesh, people can just say things. I seriously don’t get at all how it could be gaslighting. As rigid as this place seems, there’s probably some extensive protocol for changing the toner so maybe Tom is just alerting someone who is authorized to change it out.

      2. Amy Sly*

        There are few sentences as freeing as “Yes, and?”

        It works on insults: “You’re a nerd!” “Yes, and?”
        It works on people trying to shove their problems on you: “This is broken!” “Yes, and?”
        It works on people wasting your time venting at you: “This isn’t fair!” “Yes, and?”

        It’s the F.R.Civ. 12(b)(6) of conversation.

        1. Aunt Vixen*

          A man said to the universe:
          “Sir, I exist!”
          “However,” replied the universe,
          “The fact has not created in me
          A sense of obligation.”

          – Stephen Crane

          1. Hoya Lawya*

            We would be so much better off if this philosophy had prevailed in Philadelphia, 1787.

        2. Koalafied*

          I’m a really big fan of just, “Wow.” when someone is being offensive or rude. I’m pretty sure I picked it up from advice on this site and it’s really SO effective in so many situations. You register your disapproval in a way that doesn’t give the other person anything to debate or argue with, and in a way that makes clear they’ve transgressed so much that you don’t even have to tell them what they did wrong – they know that you know that they know exactly what they did wrong.

      3. Sack of Benevolent Trash Marsupials*

        So funny, I also came here to say that the only acceptable phrase here for me from Tom is, “Guys, the copier in the break room is out of toner, I went to the supply closet to get more but we seem to be out, anyone know if there is more somewhere?”

        But that’s just because I have a knee-jerk response to dudes who tell the women in the office that the copier needs more paper or whatever. I actually agree with Tom that the language guidelines are ridiculous.

        1. Lady Meyneth*

          Nah, that’s still unclear language! Is the copier out of toner because the toner ran out or did someone dismantle the machine and all the parts, toner included, are scrambled across the room? =)

          Seriously, though, in a workplace this rigid about language norms, it seems very likely ther’s a specific procedure for changing toner, and Tom might not be authorized to change it at all. And yes, I realized the toner thing may be a placeholder example, but I still think this applies.

        2. London Lass*

          In my office I’m pretty sure it would be our Facilities team who wod be responsible for replenishing the toner. I certainly have no idea where it’s kept and I think it would be frowned upon for me to attempt it myself. (Haven’t been there all that long and don’t need to print often.) So if I said that to my colleagues it would be as a friendly warning that they may have trouble printing at the moment, and possibly to ask them whether there is someone I should be emailing about it.

          1. stiveee*

            But the point is that you’d ask Facilities. You wouldn’t just declare that there’s no toner and expect whoever’s in earshot to do something about it (aka ‘your mom doesn’t work here’).

      4. Observer*

        You’re right – it’s not a request. So why does anyone care if there is not toner in the copier or in the supply cabinet? The only one who needs to care is the person who needs to do the ordering, unless the OP has left something out.

      5. hbc*

        I’ve spent several years trying to get my kid to understand the difference between a request for action and a declarative statement. “I’m thirsty.” “Okay, thanks for sharing.”

        I accept lapses from her because she’s nine. I’m also fine if there’s one obvious action to take, like “The boss is on the other line” or “There’s a customer waiting for you.” Otherwise, you’re getting a heck of a lot of sarcasm from me. “So you’ll be ordering more toner then?”

        1. Up Too Late*

          My dad used to say, “Oh, you changed your name to ‘Thirsty.’ Thanks for letting us know.”

          1. Llama face!*

            I’m pretty sure the classic response to “I’m thirsty” is “Hi Thirsty, I’m Llama face!”.

        2. I can only speak Japanese*

          Pragmatics are their own field of linguistics. Someone saying “it’s a bit chilly in here” usually means “can whoever is closest to the window close it if there are no objections?”

          If my husband is getting himself a drink and I say “I’m thirsty” he better understand that I mean “pour me a cup as well.”

          1. hbc*

            See, I would never get that from “chilly” unless it had been firmly established as a pattern. And I think it’s nicer to ask “Do you mind closing the window?” where it’s implied that it’s because I’m cold rather than “It’s chilly” implying that I want someone else to close the window…because it could also mean that *I’m* going to get up and close the window unless someone objects, or I’m wondering if anyone has a throw blanket available, or I’m getting a sweater, or I’m making an observation about the weather.

          2. jenkins*

            Well, if I was getting myself a drink and I knew someone else was thirsty, of course I’d get them one too. But I’d generally prefer to be asked, rather than just have a problem reported to me for solving. I also get my kids to say, “Can I have a drink please?” instead of just saying they’re thirsty. I’m not confused about what they’re after – I’m teaching them that when they want a person to do something for them, it’s more polite to ask nicely.

        3. Sharon*

          It goes the other way, too, unfortunately. I actually preface questions to certain people with “This is simply a request for information and there is no wrong answer” because they will automatically panic and assume I am trying to get them to do something or that there is a “right” answer I expect them to come up with, probably because they’ve encountered a passive-aggressive person previously. (e.g. “What time are you leaving tonight?” gets interpreted as “Do I have to work late? Am I in trouble for leaving 5 minutes early 2 weeks ago?”

      6. JSPA*

        Or it’s, y’know, a normal conversation. There’s nothing intrinsically blame-y to start with, let alone blame-shifting, or duty-dumping, or (of all things…) “gaslighting.”

        Gaslighting has a specific meaning.

        An example would be, if he hid all the toner, waited for her to discover it missing and order more, and then he secretly brought back the missing toner, then asked her why she’d keep ordering toner, and told her that she must be loosing her marbles.

    3. Kelly L.*

      We have “out” and “out out” for this. Just plain out is the printer is out. Out out is when there’s none in the supply closet either.

  3. Cols*

    Are they just… biased against follow-up questions? The toner example is truly baffling.

    1. A*

      hahaha exactly my question. I found this letter pretty amusing for how low stakes it really is compared with the high stakes tone it was written in. Not at all beefing at the letter writer but hopefully as the commenters trickle in with similar opinions about the overall weirdness, they will gain some perspective that it’s not a coworker quirk they have to take responsibility for! Follow up questions really are a super easy solve…in most communication missteps I would even say!

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        Frankly, I’d love to work in a workplace like OP’s.

        I spent a few years as a second-shift programmer. I’d get half-baked stuff like Tom’s characterization, and be left with a bad choice–do I dig in and make assumptions, possibly getting myself fired for reading the tea leaves wrong, or do I send it back to have ¾ of the instructions clarified and miss the deadlines (because you know one round of clarification is rarely the only round)?

        To each their own… I can totally see why someone might dislike it, but I can’t see where that dislike would be universal.

        1. A*

          That’s totally fair, but the letter writer even states that the strict language protocols really have no effect on her specific department, and that’s what’s bizarre about the rigidity. Sounds like in the environment you were in it would have been hugely beneficial to have more strictness about language clarity!

          1. Mockingjay*

            Some of the engineering documents I work on have unusual language or focus, but nothing this extreme. I did find the emphasis on the first person unusual; we have specific processes to avoid human error – and associated blame. I suspect that the latter is what Tom is (subconsciously?) objecting to.

          2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

            Sounds like in the environment you were in it would have been hugely beneficial to have more strictness about language clarity!

            Even now, being on first shift like everyone else, I’d be deaf from the irate yelling if anyone actually analyzed and quantified how expensive the obvious follow-up questions are.

        2. SometimesALurker*

          Ohhh, shift work with short deadlines is an example where this would indeed be important! Thanks for sharing, I wouldn’t have thought of that.

        3. Observer*

          Be careful of what you wish for. Sure, when you are talking about specifications for programs, you really need to be precise. But, there comes a point where it’s just a waste of time.

          There is a time and a place for everything. If you are talking about the measurements for the fuel tank on a plane, they you should definitely be extremely precise. Make sure it’s clear in the document what measurement scale you are using, etc. When you are talking about the weather, not so much. You don’t need to know if it’s going to be EXACTLY freezing or “around freezing” to know that you need to dress warmly or that the heat needs to be on.

        4. designbot*

          Agreed. I do drawings for construction, and there are some linguistic tics in those having to do with who is taking responsibility for a) knowing the thing, b) procuring the thing, c) installing the thing, and d) being the one to tell anyone else how to do any of the above. I can see some clear possibilities of where this type of thing comes from, because the company is trying to cover their bum so that nobody can say “Teapots Incorporated said it was fine!” when they don’t want to take that much responsibility for, for example, reviewing the work of a collaborating saucer firm.

        5. knead me seymour*

          This can also be annoying in publishing. If you’re responsible for overseeing the proofreader’s work, or if you’re the designer who has to enter the proofreader’s corrections, it’s less than helpful to get a bunch of notes that say things like “This seems off?” or “I think it might be X.” Or mysterious highlights.

          But that’s a pretty specific instance, mostly because there are so many notes to review and the proofreader isn’t there in the room with you to ask for clarification. In day-to-day communications, a regular standard of speech is fine. It was a bit unclear to me how far the LW’s office takes this, and how literal the toner example was meant to be.

        6. EllieN*

          I too would love this! I’m not sure if it’s just how my brain works, or if it’s my fatigue at my field’s tendency toward ambiguity, but this sounds incredibly relaxing to me. My favorite mentor and boss was retired military and had a very regimented style as well; it was calming for me to have such directness and precision. Also, though I’m pretty sure I’m neurotypical, I tend to get along well with some autistic adults because of my communication style.
          But I know I’m a minority on this.

      2. LGC*

        Not gonna lie, that’s why I adore this letter and wish there were more letters like it. It is so low stakes! I needed a letter that didn’t leave me angry about the state of…well, not so much the world since the rest of the world is doing okay, but the state of the US!

        On that note – I don’t know if it’s so much a communication issue as it is a cultural issue, actually! Like, Tom just opted out of speaking Jargoncorp’s language most of the time, because he realizes Jargoncorp is banana crackers that’s just not his style. At any rate, even under that framing, it’s still minor, because I presume Harry still understands how to talk in natural human language (since I don’t think he goes home to his spouse and speaks in Jargoncorp – and if he does, I really need his spouse to write in to either here or Dear Prudence or pretty much any advice column out there because I need to hear this).

      3. tamarack and fireweed*

        I’m a little baffled that everyone here seems to assume that this is a weird environment. I understood the OP is in an organization where people will literally die or catastrophes will literally happen (or very high-stakes large and expensive projects will crash and burn) if very delicate processes aren’t carried out exactly as specified and communication missteps must be minimized. I’m thinking flight safety, managing ICUs or nuclear power plants or cruise missiles, NASA mission control or the like. And yes, in such an environment I would expect that people adhere to agreed-upon standards of terminological precision. And that these standards overall extend even across sub-teams that have lower-stakes tasks to fulfill. The toner example may be a little contrived, but on the other hand I cannot see why someone would be so rude as to insist on his right to make the co-worker ask for clarification.

        Sure, the core of the advice is the same: it’s not the OPs job. And sure, if this is a normal company with relatively commonplace business reasons for whatever standards of precision they require (a law firm, an accountant’s, an engineering firm), this setup would be a little ridiculous. But this doesn’t mean there aren’t organizations out there for which this is a sensible and life-preserving way of operating.

        1. EllieN*

          This does remind me of pilots I’ve worked with, mostly military. Extremely specific verbal sequences are part of keeping everybody alive. “I have the control.” “You have the control.” Etc.
          Remember the famous Van Halen concert rider about the brown M&Ms? They enforced strict standards on the small stuff so they could feel confident proper safety protocols were followed on the big pyrotechnics. This seems like a similar culture to me.

        2. EllieN*

          This does remind me of pilots I’ve worked with, mostly military. Extremely specific verbal sequences are part of keeping everybody alive. “I have the control.” “You have the control.” Etc.
          Remember the famous Van Halen concert rider about the brown M&Ms? They enforced strict standards on the small stuff so they could feel confident proper safety protocols were followed on the big pyrotechnics. This seems like a similar culture to me.

    2. KayDeeAye*

      Oh, I so agree! I mean, I get why precision is so important in *written* communications or voice mails – something were the listener might not have immediate access to the speaker – but if Tom is right there and the person he’s talking to is right there, what’s the problem with saying, “Tom, do you mean the copier is out of toner or the entire office?”

      So, so odd. I wonder if there are better examples of how Tom’s “imprecision” can be a problem but the OP just couldn’t come up with one when writing in?

    3. Ryn*

      Truly this is one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen on this site… and that’s saying something! I would find it extremely strange and off putting if someone told me that saying “we’re out of toner!” wasn’t specific enough (and I work in communications). I’m just scratching my head at this entire thing.

      1. Mama Bear*

        While it certainly helps to be clear, concise and direct, there’s also a point at which that hill might not be one to die on. OP can certainly ask follow up questions and perhaps Tom will even come around to saying “I tried to print on the Canon on the 3rd floor and it’s out of toner” eventually. I suspect that he was hired for his expertise and not his language skills. There are reasons many companies hire technical writers/content editors AND engineers. Someone needs to convey geek speak to plain language and not all engineers are good at that. To be honest, the language protocols may serve Harry well elsewhere but are they universally necessary? I was not surprised to read that Harry is an engineer.

        I think OP needs to focus on the skills Tom needs and look past his emails unless he consistently fails to convey things like deadlines and project plans that would impact other people downstream.

      2. rayray*

        Definitely. If someone said “We’re out of toner” I’d turn around and look at them. If they were at the printer, I’d assume they meant there. If they were at the supply closet, I’d assume they meant there. If for whatever reason I was really that confused by their statement, I could ask follow-up questions or say things like:

        (If they’re at the printer) “There should be more in the supply closet, if you need help replacing it, let me know”

        (If they’re at the supply closet) “Oh shoot. Guess we forgot to order more when we took the last one out. Let’s get that ordered”

        Communication. It’s that simple.

        1. Strictly Speaking*

          “Let’s get that ordered” falls into a similar trap though: is that a command, or a way of saying that you are going to order it yourself? I often don’t know how to proceed when a boss says to me “Let’s do X” where X is someone else’s job and/or something that only my boss has authority to (tell others to) do.

          1. Rayray*

            Holy moly.

            It isn’t an order. There’s no reason to be so high strung. Sometimes there is a certain person in the office who places those orders so I would say that and then go alert that person that an order needs to be placed. If I were able to make those orders, I’d just do it.

            If I were the boss, I’d either order it myself or give clear instructions to someone else. I’d be so sick of dealing with people nitpicking and overthinking every damn thing I say that I’d probably just do or myself though.

      3. Marna*

        I suspect part of the issue may be, especially as nobody in the comments has ever heard of an organization operating this way, so basically I’m going to go ahead and shamelessly assume this company culture is actually singular and unique, that the OP had a lot of trouble finding examples that weren’t so specific as to be the equivalent of saying “I work at Precision Chocolate A-Bombs, in the Nougat Detonator division, here’s the street address.”

    4. Kiki*

      I can get how it could be a little bit jarring if you’re used to every other person in your office being painstakingly precise, but most people converse like this? And the way to figure out what someone means about the toner is easy: just ask a follow up question, like Cols said!
      I don’t know exactly what LW’s office does and I completely believe field exists where this level of precision is necessary, but expecting absolutely everyone to maintain that level of precision ALL the time in low-stakes normal office situations seems like overkill to me. Maybe they think it will keep everyone in good practice for high-stakes scenarios, but like…. we can all figure out what Tom means about the toner in less than 30 seconds, if he’s great at his job, who cares?

      1. So long and thanks for all the fish*

        I mean, it could also not be OP’s job to ask follow-up questions. Especially assuming the toner example was a stand-in for something technical, but even if it isn’t- if everyone is busy and it’s the reporting person’s job to say, “the canon printer on the 3rd floor is out of toner; there’s only one replacement cartridge left in the supply closet and we’ll need to order now if we want to print out all the fliers for X event on time” when OP’s job is to handle purchasing for events A through Z, she needs to know how much of a priority whatever request is, the model, how many they really need, etc. I can think of a lot of situations where yeah, it won’t be life or death, but it would seriously test a number of people’s patience to have to ask follow-up questions when the policy everyone else abides by is designed to avoid them.

  4. Environmental Compliance*

    I really, really thought this was going to be a “Tom doesn’t use the correct report formatting/language requirements” instead of “Tom, in normal every day speech, said the toner was out”.

    Expecting standardized language across reports, especially in terms of liability, makes sense. Controlling spoken internal language to the point where saying “the toner is out” is Egregious Word Choice is…..well, Tom’s right – it’s ridiculous.

    1. Triumphant Fox*

      I thought for sure it was going to be a compliance issue – using words you CANNOT use an in an industry because it’s misleading. We have product descriptions, title descriptions and language we cannot use because it could be misleading, so we don’t use it internally either. We also have words that are too closely associated with another brand – another company’s jargon – that we avoid using. I wouldn’t go around saying I googled something if I worked at Bing.

        1. arjumand*

          I frequently use “I duckduckgo’ed it” to try and get a laugh out of my students (yeah yeah, tired joke), but I won’t be using it anymore because I’ve gone off duckduckgo. IT might be less evil than other search engines but it’s been really letting me down lately.

      1. whingedrinking*

        Exactly. For example, I used to work for a cosmetics company, and we had surprisingly strict protocols around how we were allowed to describe products and ingredients. You couldn’t say that something was good for a specific medical condition, for example, like rosacea or acne. We even had to be cautious about words that could suggest treatment of a symptom, like “soothing”.
        But that pretty much only applied to talking to customers about the products themselves. You were allowed to say things like “Can someone get me one of the big bottles of glass cleaner?” without being told to say “a one-liter spray bottle of ammonia solution”.

    2. Annony*

      Yeah. My sister works in purchasing and is constantly having issues with people just saying “I need a computer monitor” and she needs to drag out the details because that is too vague for her to do anything with. But the examples given here seem normal and more precision is usually not necessary.

      1. Observer*

        This is a perfect example of the kind of balance that is useful. The level of precision used should be proportional to the need of the conversation. When talking to purchasing you want to tell them what size monitor, what kind of connector etc. When telling someone that you can’t get any work done because you need a new monitor, it just doesn’t matter.

    3. Hoya Lawya*

      Exactly. I’m a lawyer, and I previously worked in political communications. I get the importance of language and clear writing. I get that it’s frustrating to get employees to follow a style guide or marketing guidelines. I even get that technical language from fields like law or aerospace may seep into everyday speech.

      But…everything has its limits. Language is ultimately meant to serve human existence, not the other way around. If this company is at the point where “we’re out of toner” is problematic, it’s probably being overly dogmatic. Indeed, it may be counterproductive. Tom may simply decide not to alert anyone about the toner and let it be Someone Else’s Problem.

      I think that Tom’s boss, Dick, sees this, which is why he doesn’t care about the language protocols in casual speech or very low-stakes situations, like toner. I suspect that other managers may see it too, and that LW is relatively junior and hasn’t yet come to grips with the unwritten nuances of when the language protocols apply, and when they don’t. LW should defer to her manager in this case.

  5. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    Anyway, the good news is that it’s not your problem because you don’t manage Tom.

    I agree, enthusiastically. Take off the caring hat and walk away.

    I realize Dick asked you to help bring Harry up to speed, and in theory you could tell him that Tom talks like a normal person and isn’t a stickler for precise language in the very specific and unnatural way the company requires.

    While technically true, there’s no way I can imagine to actually do this and not have it come across that you want Harry to bring Tom into line. And if Tom truly sticks out as you’ve described, Harry’s going to pick up on it on his own all but immediately.

    … but this isn’t really yours to solve.

    Nor do you want to be involved if it does get solved. You’re far more likely to end up as collateral damage.

    1. BRR*

      All of this. Not your circus not your monkeys. I wonder if Dick even let Tom know that Dick asked you to help? I’ve been asked to correct a coworker’s work and let them know they were making a pattern of errors when it a) wasn’t my job’s duties and b) nobody in my coworker’s chain of command let them know I was asked to do this and it was awful. The coworker was extremely hostile about it, which I sort of don’t blame them, and never bothered to fix their work process.

      Dick can fix it or Harry can fix it. This isn’t worth it for you.

        1. wittyrepartee*

          Does it mean “the only good language is a dead language”? Because, yes… that’s quite good.

          1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

            That is what it translates to, from a nominally dead language.

            1. Pipe Organ Guy*

              Love it! (says the survivor of four years of high school Latin a lifetime ago)

      1. WoodswomanWrites*

        Not only is it a cool user name, but I managed to remember the Latin I had in high school decades ago to translate it on my own. I had no idea those nuggets of learning were still buried in my brain.

        1. Hapax Legomenon*

          They all have handy derivatives too, which is definitely how I hang on to the few Latin words I remember. (Funny thing is, the conjugations/case endings are still so deeply embedded I can go through those instantly, even though the vocab is almost all gone.)

  6. Theory of Eeveelution*

    This is one of the strangest letters I’ve come across on this website, and I’m DYING to know what OP’s company does/what industry they’re in.

    This sounds a lot like how my brother, who is an engineer, will talk about his job to people who aren’t engineers, because that’s how they expect him to talk and are delighted when he actually does. Then he goes into the office, where he and his coworkers communicate in The Office quotes and Rick Roll each other.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I have SO MANY questions.

      My job is pretty detail-oriented and important, we have specific language we have to use on various things, and we still talk like normal people to each other.

      1. Jenny*

        I’ve encountered this in formal written communication but never in verbal ones. Even in legal oral arguments, while there are certainly rules, aren’t this strict on sentence structure.

      2. Quinalla*

        Right, I’ work in a similar position where I have to be very detailed oriented it what we send out in writing – for liability and other reasons – but we talk to each other normally in conversation. If we are discussing something related to what goes on a document, then we might get into what precise language to use, but we are fine with using verbal shortcuts, etc. when in conversation as yeah, you can clarify with questions quite easily :)

      1. Llama face!*

        I’m now waiting for the fanfic that explains how llama grooming ends up being a life or death issue requiring utter verbal precision. No seriously. That would be amazing to read. :)

        1. Gingerblue*

          “Five Times the Llama Brushes Were Interchangeable (And One Time They Weren’t)”

    2. Escapee from Corporate Management*

      This. I’ve worked in the healthcare field where mistakes could truly cost lives and where language needed to be precise. If you ordered a drug, you needed to specify drug name (and sometimes s-p-e-l-l the name when there could be confusion), dosage, and method of administration. Everything was by the book. And when you wanted to say the printer wasn’t working? Then, we spoke like normal human beings. Heck, someone might even toss in a colorful word or two (as in: the @#*^ing printer is out of toner AGAIN?).

      There is something very odd in your workplace, OP. And as Alison pointed out, it’s not your job to solve it.

      1. Just J.*

        This. 1000 times this. I’m an engineer and we all talk the very precise talk when it comes to our projects, but yeah, for normal office stuff, our language is very colorful.

      2. Mama Bear*

        Agreed. If I need to verify a part number (for example) then I need to ensure I’m right down to the last digit. But that’s a very specific thing and not general office equipment or whatever.

    3. No Tribble At All*

      I’m assuming aviation, which has a set of words which can only be used under certain circumstances. For example, no one says “takeoff” unless the aircraft is actually cleared by air traffic control to take off– you’ll notice the gate agents, etc always say “departure” (“we’re expecting an on-time departure”). It sounds like some subset of the company uses Simplified Technical English, and the CEOs have decided that everyone must always speak that way, which is … baffling. Bonus, it sounds counterproductive from a risk management process, since you’d want people to reflexively interrogate vague statements like “we’re out of toner!”

      1. No Tribble At All*

        Bonus link to wikipedia for STE with examples:

        Not allowed: Before acceptance of unit, carry out the specified test procedure.
        Allowed: Before you accept the unit, you must carry out the specified test procedure.

        Another example I can remember is the use of the word “close”. Is it “close to” as in “nearby”, or “close” as in “shut”? It was only allowed to have one meaning — I think it was the closed vs open meaning.

        1. Mockingjay*

          This is really interesting. My industry is just the opposite. Military likes the imperative form. Do this. Test that. One command or action per sentence. Result immediately follows.

          We get the occasional push to use more “personal” language, especially in software guides, but the vast majority of our work focuses on the equipment or process, not the person. (We do get end user input – well, at least some projects do.)

          1. Amy Sly*

            Both of those sentences are imperative. The not-allowed one just leaves the “you” unstated. Leaving the “you” implied works better in languages that conjugate their verbs to have a specific imperative form; fluent English speakers recognize that the “you” is implied and that the sentence is a command, but English as a second language speakers may not.

            Moreover, changing the “Before acceptance of unit” to “Before you accept the unit” eliminates the ambiguity of “acceptance.” One does not “acceptance” things; one “accepts” them and the act of doing so is an “acceptance.” “Before acceptance” only implies who is supposed to do the accepting; “Before you accept” makes that explicit.

            1. Mockingjay*

              Weirdly, we (people) don’t “accept” things. Acceptance is the purview of an agency, military command, or title. The title holds the authority since people who hold that post come and go.

              How language is used in different industries fascinates me.

      2. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

        “For example, no one says “takeoff” unless the aircraft is actually cleared by air traffic control to take off– you’ll notice the gate agents, etc always say “departure” ”

        But is this true of all aspects of aviation, or just on the plane and in air traffic control? That is, it is true through airlines etc, or just when flying?

        1. No Tribble At All*

          Hmm I’m sure the marketing teams are allowed to say “takeoff” other than in the instant the aircraft is cleared for takeoff. But throughout the airport, etc you cannot say takeoff casually. It came from the Tenerife disaster — one aircraft was taxiing on the runway and another aircraft thought that runway was clear for them to takeoff.

          1. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

            “throughout the airport, etc you cannot say takeoff casually. ”

            Really? So if pilots are sitting in a lounge before their flight they don’t say it? “We took off 2 hours late” is not allowed?

            The rules for air traffic control apply to all communications in an airport? I did not know that.

    4. MsMaryMary*

      I had a client in the nuclear energy sector. They had similar language protocols that were basically part of their culture. Being very precise, three part communication, and a commitment to zero errors was expected of the entire company, whether someone was an engineer, accountant, or receptionist They expected the same of their vendors. I actually learned a lot from their communication philosophy and liked working with them.

      Tom’s issues with the communication style sound like a mismatch to the company culture. It’s like someone continuing to send emails after they’ve been told the team prefers to talk face to face (or vice versa).

      1. RecoveringSWO*

        Exactly. This reminds me of “verbatim repeat-backs” that the Navy requires sailors to give prior to every action that can impact the safety of the ship. (e.g. supervisor states: “all engines back” sailor response: “all engines back, aye” so there’s multiple reminders that this ship’s about to go backwards and someone speak up if we’re gonna hit something!)

        I think you’re correct that it’s a culture mismatch and I’m curious of Alison would have responded differently if she had more experience in a work environment involving dangerous tasking like nuclear energy. That said, I think we all agree that it’s not the OP’s battle to fight.

        1. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

          MsMaryMary and RecoveringSWO – excellent examples! Much better than I came up with.

        2. Certaintroublemaker*

          Although, if Harry comes in and starts riding Tom mercilessly about his imprecise communications, OP could do Tom (and Dick) a solid by telling Harry, “Dick knew Tom was like this before hiring him. He’s an asset in all other areas and Dick is fine with his communications, because they’re not critical here.”

            1. Observer*

              Why? The OP is following proper protocol.

              Of course, since the OP follows protocol they would probably edit slightly – ” “Dick knew Tom was like this before hiring him. He’s an asset in all other areas and Dick seems fine with his communications, because they don’t seem to be critical here.”

              1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*


                If Harry thinks it’s important, and Tom is being ridden/reeducated because Tom doesn’t think it’s important, and OP makes excuses for the status quo–even if those excuses are valid and persuasive–OP risks being lumped in with Tom as having the same attitude, that it’s not important.

                It’s Dick’s place to stand up to Harry, not OP’s. The decisions weren’t OP’s to defend.

        3. That Girl from Quinn's House*

          I was wondering if this was military-adjacent, too. Because that’s really the only place I can think where they’d have rigid bureaucratic rules on replacing the toner in a printer.

          1. Indigo a la mode*

            Military might have lots and lots of jargon with the SITREPs and the WARNOs and the 9-lines, but no, this is not the way military folks talk at work.

            Source: was enlisted in the Army, have had family in all branches of military

        4. Aunt Vixen*

          They do that in e.g. theatre as well. “Fifteen minutes” “Thank you, fifteen” – if you don’t say thank you *and* repeat the call the SM does not know for sure that you (a) heard and (b) were listening. Or, there’s only one way to warn people you’ve dropped something from a height, which is not “Look out” or “Shit, MaryMary, I dropped that thing, sorry” – it’s “HEADS!”, and the only appropriate response is not to look up and see who’s yelling or what they dropped, it’s get as compact as you can until you hear whatever it was hit the floor.

          But there are times that it matters and times that it doesn’t.

        5. Ryn*

          They do this in theatre too (Stage manager says “Five minutes to curtain” and actors reply “Thank you five”), which makes sense because a lot of the early stage hands were sailors!

        6. Blarg*

          It would be hard to suggest the Navy is always like this, though. I feel confident that the supervisor would also ask another sailor “what’s for lunch?” Not “what meal is being prepared for me to eat at the noon hour?”

      2. Anon for work here*

        Agreed 1000%. I think a lot of Alison’s comments here are off base due to her lack of experience in fields where this is a critical part of the culture, though the overall recommendation of “do nothing” is probably still correct. My current firm consults with many of these industries and we have certain standards with respect to health and safety that we adhere to across the board, whether you are on an oil rig or an accountant – like many of our clients do, because it matters. That wouldn’t really extent to something like saying “we’re out of toner”, but it does extend pretty far and it’s part of the intake culture.

        1. Not for academics*


          medicine, aviation, military, engineering, etc. lots of not-corporate and not-non-profit areas where this kind of thing is normal and important.

          1. Snitzery*

            I can’t speak for them all but I can say with resounding confidence from many years of personal experience, the military is not this rigid. Not even close.

            1. Of course not*

              They don’t have to be, they aren’t losing all their clients globally from repeated safety issues that result in injuries and deaths. There are no real external pressures on the military for that.

          2. Seeker of truth and light and grilled cheese*

            A friend actually lost his part-time college job parking cars at events, because he couldn’t stop himself from saying “go ahead and back up”. Doesn’t sound that egregious, but imagine saying that to every car at an event – chaos! Peopke didn’t know what to do – Go ahead or back up?!? They would have to clarify, or they chose wrong, or they chose right.

            His one tiny word choice had a huge ripple effect and they had to fire him because he couldn’t stop himself. (One time he even said “STOP IT!” out loud after saying the bad phrase, and the limo driver was like WHAT NOW? Stop? Go? Back? Aaaaa! )

            1. Paulina*

              One rule I always have on a road trip if I’m driving or navigating — we pick a word that means “correct”, and it’s never “right”. (Can be “correct” itself, unless the driver prefers something else.) I almost drove off a short cliff once because the navigator was using “left” to mean “problem on the left,” and I wouldn’t go further until we worked out an unambiguous vocabulary.

        2. Adereterial*

          Except… the work the OP does, does not require this level of precision. It’s unnecessary.

          I’ve worked in environments that required exceptional precision (aerospace, medical devices etc) and the language used about those things was very precise. The printer being out of toner? Detailed precision is not required and was not required for those conversations.

        3. Nanani*

          Agreed. And the number of comments making fun of LW for caring about the language use (which IS part of their job!) is surprising. Since when is making fun of people allowed?

        4. Anna Banana*

          There are people all over this comment section saying they work in those fields and this is excessive.

        5. Observer*

          Except that the OP actually makes it clear that it really doesn’t matter IN THIS CONTEXT and also uses an example that you yourself agree is not typical even in these fields.

          In addition to all of the people in these fields saying that this does not match their experience at all.

        6. Hoya Lawya*

          “That wouldn’t really extent to something like saying “we’re out of toner”, but it does extend pretty far and it’s part of the intake culture.”

          ^ But “we’re out of toner,” or something akin to it, triggered this whole situation.

        7. Gruntilda*

          I work in an indirect/back office role in an industry and company that takes safety very seriously. We have regular trainings and initiatives even for indirect staff about safety, and are encouraged to use pointing and calling ( for things like using the shredder and printer.

          No one actually does it regularly because people in indirect roles just don’t need to care about physical safety and precision like people on the shop floor! I can see the value in encouraging everyone to prioritize precision, but emphasizing it this much is a little overkill. I wouldn’t be surprised if the office culture has communication issues as a result of these priorities.

      3. new name*

        Came to say this. I temped in the nuclear energy field once. After someone tells you something, you have to say “I understand” and repeat what you just heard. One of many examples.

    5. knead me seymour*

      I like to believe that they all work for a style guide, because I am loving the idea of a whole company full of pedants. Not that the LW sounds particularly pedantic, but if it’s true that this type of rigorous language is enforced in their department just out of sheer love of consistency, I’m sure that would be frustrating to live through but it’s kind of delightful from a distance.

  7. AllerDerm*

    That is truly a bizarre policy. I get it when you’re writing things like technical documents that you want to be as precise as possible. But in everyday speech too? That’s so controlling and makes everyone sound like robots.

    1. Yikes*

      Agreed! I would t work here. I can’t even imagine the censorship that English second language employees must experience, with each of their sentences being nit picked and destroyed! What a disaster. I couldn’t do it.

      1. Finland*

        I was for sure this letter was going to be a complaint about someone speaking a language other than English, not about policing technicalities. And I see similarities to the letter written by the manager who was trying to save her employer money, even though her department was basically exempt because of its size, and the bizarre level of ownership she took over making that a reality.

  8. MK*

    You know, unless the person stating that there are no errors in the schematics is the Archangel Gabriel passing on a message from God, I get that it means simply that the person who says speaks as far as they know, not relaying an absolute cosmic truth.

    Precise language is great, but people aren’t stupid and some things go without saying.

    1. Jenifer*

      ^^^ Absolutely! I teach a foreign language and English composition, and this company’s desire for precision is rather obtuse. Enough is already understood in these kinds of communications, and spelling everything out the way they want tends towards another set of inefficiencies, and as Allison points out, robotic programming of language. It’s quite an overcorrection.

    2. Green great dragon*

      Ach, I can see that one – ‘I read it and saw no errors’ is different to ‘we hired someone to use the schematics to follow the process and check every step was clear to them’, for example.

      1. MK*

        Well, sure, but in this case who did the checking matters, so by all means include it. But, e.g. if I say to my supervisor “I read the relevant legislation and looked up the supreme court’s rulings and the answer to Z is x” I don’t need to every time add “according to what I found” to spell out that there might be something I missed, because it’s always a possibility that I missed something in the ocean of centuries-ling lawmaking and case law. Being this precise to outsiders might be necessary, but between colleagues there is usually a context to things you say.

        1. Sal*

          Oooh, I actually frequently default to being specific about the contours of my research because a lot of my job right now is *not* that sort of intensive legal research, so when I have done it, I flag it. Literally told a judge on Monday morning via zoom that I had looked at every [state] case on Westlaw that cited the statute at issue and that [x] appeared to be an open legal question.

          I definitely have a tendency to do this more when I think there is no right answer rather than when there is one.

    3. Mystery Bookworm*

      Eh, I’ve worked on teams where certain documents were *very* fastidious in the way OP is describing. And yes, a big part is to remove ambiguity for the reader, but another element is that it creates a culture where the writers are careful to be aware of any assumptions they might be making and interrogate their own impressions.

      That said, in my experience that sort of language is limited and doesn’t dictate how people discuss printers in passing (or even what is said in e-mails and such). So I’m with the rest of the commentariat that this is excessive.

    4. TechWorker*

      Lol exactly, how would ‘there are no errors in the schematics’ *ever* mean anything other than ‘no errors have been found yet’

      1. waving from such great heights*

        There are no errors in this report!

        [Three days later. No one has touched the report.]


        1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

          Sure, but if it’s Jim Bob’s job to check the report and he finds no errors then all that proves is that he’s human. Stating there are no errors implicates that you, the one who checked it, found no errors. If others are supposed to verify and drop the ball, that’s a completely separate issue.

    5. Nobby Nobbs*

      IIRC, even Gabriel didnt manage to phrase things so precisely that follow up questions were unnecessary.

    6. Andy*

      Realistically, people are dumb and bluff a lot and combination causes quite a lot of epic problems in software development.

      As in, I would love if people did not used certain confident phrases when they checked something for 2 minutes and blurred answer.

      Because then I am getting confident analysis and then I am finding out it was all imprecise crap when it is too late and a lot of time was wasted.

      While the protocols sound extreme, it is not true that you can rely on “things going without being said”. That does not really work that way and the epic is a lot of bugs and time wasted.

      1. Coder von Frankenstein*

        Preach it, brother. (Or sister, or sibling, as the case may be.)

        This is why, when people report bugs to me, I check everything myself. I don’t care what they claim to have tested. And it’s why (good) tech support will always ask you if it’s plugged in. You can tell them flat-out “It’s plugged in, I checked,” and they will ask you to check again anyway, because there is a significant possibility that you did not in fact check.

    7. Quinalla*

      Yes, in verbal communication this is over the top. For written communication where you could presumably accept liability for saying “Everything is good!” vs. “I didn’t find any discrepancies” and I send out communications every day where I have to be careful of how I word things, but again I would not expect that for the kind of example the OP gave. I do understand how that precision could seep into the OP’s culture for sure, but again seems very over the top for it to be that ingrained in the culture.

    8. Coder von Frankenstein*

      But it doesn’t express how they determined the lack of errors. Did they personally review it? Did someone else review it? Did they build the part described in the schematic and perform a series of tests to verify that it worked? Or are they just confident that the person who drew the schematic wouldn’t make a mistake?

      While I agree it’s excessive to apply this level of rigor to the state of a toner cartridge, it absolutely does matter. I have coworkers who constantly mix up guesswork and expectations with facts, and it means I can’t trust a word out of their mouths. I have to verify everything myself before I can rely on it. And then I have to find a diplomatic way to say, “This thing you said you checked and couldn’t possibly be the problem? I checked it, and it was not the way you said it was, and it was the problem.”


  9. Manon*

    I’m not clear why the company maintains strict language protocols in such low-stakes situations. In cases where unclear communication could have serious repercussions then sure, enforce those guidelines, but why does it matter when there are no serious consequences?

    1. ThatGirl*

      This is what I’m wondering.

      My company makes consumer packaged goods, including some food products. Precision is important on the packaging; we need to get things like net weight, ingredients and allergen statements right, and we need to be careful about our marketing claims; those things are regulated, and they matter.

      But we don’t need to talk to each other in extremely rigid and precise terms around the office! We can ask follow-up questions and speak like normal humans!

    2. RecoveringSWO*

      It sounds like most of the org deals with high stake situations. I can understand how from a compliance standpoint, the company would err towards enforcing their communication standards across the board. It would encourage “good habits” and uniformity, etc.

    3. NW Mossy*

      Part of it may be that for many people, it’s easier cognitively to deal with a black-and-white rule. There’s no judgment or nuance required to follow it, so it’s less thinking-effort on an ongoing basis.

      The cost side of that choice, though, is that it creates these weird pockets where the rational basis for the rule doesn’t apply and if you inadvertently do spend time thinking about it, you realize that it makes no sense.

      1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

        I grant that it’s easier for some people to deal with a rigid rule. But this goes to the point of parody. For example, would saying “I tried to log on to Zoom and it didn’t work” be grounds for a negative review? After all, the speaker did not specify if this was an internet provider issue, local modem failure, software issue, personal hardware issue, power outage, cellular tower failure, or just that Zoom can be really crappy sometimes for no reason at all?

        1. Notamanager*

          And the example you use is a perfect example of why clarity in communication is important: I have no idea what “it didn’t work“ means! Was there an error box? What did it say? Did your screen go black? Were other people able to get In and you weren’t?
          I also think it’s weird that in an era where we’re desperately trying to get newspapers and other reporting to be done in the first person so that agency isn’t lost, that a protocol that requires everybody to be first person visible is being talked about as if it were inappropriate.

          1. SometimesALurker*

            I don’t think it is a perfect example, though, because we don’t have enough context for the hypothetical situation to know whether the other person needs to know the details. In an office where it’s expected that people submit their own tickets to IT when needed —
            Boss: How was your Zoom meeting with Nancy?
            Employee: Great, but I tried to log into Zoom and it didn’t work. We spoke on the phone and I caught her up on the xyz, and she emailed me slide she was going to show me.

            That *is* clarity. On the other hand:
            IT: What can I help you with?
            Employee: I tried to log into Zoom and it didn’t work.
            Also fine, if it’s the first part of a conversation! If it’s the only thing employee says, or employee waits passively to be asked the right questions, *then* it’s a problem.

            1. AMT*

              Exactly. Also, you don’t always know what level of detail the person is looking for, or which details are important to them. I used to produce reports for attorneys and I’d sometimes get “why didn’t you include this?” and “why *did* you include this?” about the same type of detail from different attorneys. You’re always going to guess wrong sometimes, even when you know what the other person is looking for. That’s what follow-up questions are for!

            2. Spencer Hastings*

              I came here to say this too! If I’m talking to my boss, or most colleagues, I’ll just say “application X isn’t working; I’m contacting IT.” And then in my email to IT, I’m telling them exactly what happened and copy-pasting the error messages I got.

              1. UKDancer*

                Yes, I couldn’t get MS Teams to work this morning. So I said to my boss. “MS Teams isn’t working for me at the moment so I’ll dial into the 11am meeting on my phone.” That’s all my boss needed to know. I then rang the company’s IT helpdesk and explained how MS Teams wasn’t working and what I had tried so far while they talked me through the fix I needed to get things going.

                My boss would not have considered it a good use of his time to know all the detail. All he needed to know was that it wasn’t working for me right now. IT needed to know a lot more about the problem in order to fix it.

                I think clear communication is great but you don’t need to say the same things to everyone all the time.

          2. Observer*

            All of this is important if you are asking for tech support. But if you are just telling your boss why you didn’t log in, it DOES NOT MATTER and it just wastes everyone’s time.

      2. Lexi*

        For some reason the email suggests non-USA to me. Absolutely no clue why other than there hasn’t been a rebellion yet. I could see a company in Europe that pulls employees from many countries that does precise work doing something like this to avoid problems among their many native language speakers.

        1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

          I was thinking Asia: wasn’t there a bit in Malcom Gladwell’s book about manners and customs in Japanese? Korean? being problematic for precise, straightforward communication?

        2. Miss1of2*

          This! This! And This again!!!!!
          In Japanes there is like 10 ways of saying “I am sorry” depending to whom you are apologizing to and to convey different level of guilt!!!
          It has been an issus in the past. (Apologies to POW from WW2, that were not clear for US people, but to much for Japanese people)
          I would not be surprised if this was an Asian company.

          1. Mameshiba*

            Chiming in from Japan… I would be as surprised if this was here or Korea as I would be if it was in the US or Europe or anywhere.

            Japanese and other high-context languages do rely heavily on a shared understanding of context. But fluent speakers are able to understand that context and message just as well as in any other language. This stuff only seems imprecise for non-native speakers and low-context languages who don’t know how to listen/read for context!

            I work in manufacturing–we don’t talk like this when the printer is out of toner!

            1. I can only speak Japanese*

              I actually feel like native speakers of Japanese misunderstand each other just as much as native speakers of any other language. Then again, being imprecise can be used as a sort of insurance policy, as in “that’s not what I said/meant!”

              1. Mameshiba*

                Sure, no language ensures perfect communication regardless of speaker. But my point is that many non-native speakers from low-context languages treat Japanese and other high-context languages as if they are “vague” or “imprecise”. But they’re not; you just don’t understand it. The language is not inherently faulty; your language skills are not high enough (“you” meaning people who think this way).

                My overall point is that Asian/high context vs low context language groups are pretty irrelevant here because you can still spell out important safety info in high context languages (Asia has medical labs and space centers and factories…), and when speaking informally, people are able to communicate with each other fine without weird guidelines like OP mentions.

      3. Batgirl*

        Do you want people who can only follow black and white pro forma scriptings in a high stakes situation? I don’t know.

        1. Andy*

          High stakes situations are a lot about following multiple levels of protocols through. They are not just about individual heroeship, but they are about following process even if you think that it is not necessary this one time. Sometimes you don’t understand reason for protocol, but protocol has reason. Or you don’t understand context. Or you are overconfident and cocky.

          The way industrial accidents happen is by series of multiple slip ups on following rules – those accumulate and randomly catastrophe happen. If you read detailed technical reports from industrial accidents, it is often culture slipping for some reason.

          So yes, you want people that generally follow the rules even if they subjectively guess “not necessary”. That then creates culture that holds safety.

          1. NW Mossy*

            The same can be true in financial services as well. When I see costly errors, it’s rarely down to “X was done wrong.” It’s a lot more common to see chaining, where error A creates the possibility for error B (which normally cannot happen) to occur, and then error C comes along and massively amplifies the impact of error B.

          2. Batgirl*

            I don’t have any problem with people who are sticklers for following protocols in protocol situations, my objection is about people who can’t operate without them in any situation.

      4. Observer*

        Sure, in some respects it’s easier to deal with a single rule. But if you are talking about reasonably skilled jobs, the level of judgement called for here is not high enough to really be an issue. And it comes to point where you just add a layer of unnecessary cognitive work to meet these kinds of guidelines. Which is fine when it really matters – I don’t care how much extra work it is to make sure you are EVERY SINGLE detail of medication orders right. But when it’s the printer toner or even the thermostat?

    4. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      I wonder if it’s because they have some sort of history with hiring people whose communication/soft skills are very poor and who also aren’t, for whatever reason, easily coachable?

    5. emmelemm*

      Right, like I can imagine being very precise about language when speaking to *clients*, such as saying, “I have reviewed the document and found no errors” being a distinction from “There are no errors in the document”, because getting sued blah blah blah, but internally? Talking to EACH OTHER? Is super weird.

    6. beanie gee*

      The best I can figure is the company might have crazy billable rates, so inefficient communication can cost money. If you can be more clear, direct, and specific from the beginning, it saves everyone time.

      I’m going with an optimistic interpretation of the letter that the protocols are more like general guidelines/best practices and not strict rules? But I may be naive in that interpretation.

  10. Apocalypse How*

    It’s important to be precise in written communication that will be seen by people outside the company, and it’s fine to have general guidelines about what spoken language constitutes polite office decorum, but these “language protocols” over how people speak in conversation are strict the point of veering into Newspeak. I can imagine someone working at this company for a few years, only to move to a new job at a new company and find that they have a really hard time communicating with other people.

    1. Batgirl*

      New company:
      “Do you need that print out right now? We’re out of toner”
      “You should say whether we are completely out or if we need to order more”
      “How about if I tell you when I’ve checked the cupboard!”

    2. MCMonkeyBean*

      I was thinking about that too. OP, if you find this is useful at your company and you seem to have no issues with it that is great for your current position. But unless you plan to stay there forever it seems likely you may need to better understand how unusual this is!

      We talk a lot here about not letting toxic jobs warp your norms, but I think sometimes even something that isn’t toxic can still make it hard to adjust when you move somewhere else and everything is just *very different* than what you are used to.

  11. Mr. Tyzik*

    Whenever I’ve done transitions from another manager or supporting one for an absense, I’ve steered clear of the personalities and biases conversations. I want to make my own observations from a neutral place when I come in, and I give other managers the same courtesy.

    I have given advice on team dynamics to help the other manager understand how the team communicates, but not at a personal level unless there was a PIP involved.

    OP, not your problem. Frankly, you shouldn’t invest your time in policing others’ behaviors; that’s for their leaders to address when applicable.

  12. KHB*

    Now I’m wondering what exactly these “strict language protocols” say! I’m fascinated (and frustrated) by all the ways that language can be subtly slippery, and how that slipperiness causes confusion either accidentally or on purpose. But it seems to me like trying to anticipate, and correct for, every possible point of imprecision would be a fool’s errand. Or maybe OP’s company is smarter than me and has it all figured out.

    But that’s all incidental to OP’s question, and Alison’s right: This is not your circus, and these are not your monkeys.

    1. AMT*

      I’m also interested in what these protocols might be and what industry OP works in that they might be necessary. I am so, so skeptical that this saves any time or prevents more errors than normal communication (beyond whatever industrial/legal applications it has in the more sensitive areas of the company’s work). There is a difference between “employees should learn to communicate with reasonable efficiency” and “employees need to use dogmatic, Scientology-esque communication rules that, as far as an outside observer can tell, don’t actually save more time than they waste.”

    2. SafetyOfficer*

      I work in healthcare, and the message that is always pushed in “objective, not subjective.” It would be subjective of me to describe an individual as “spaced out”. It would be objective of me to describe an individual as “unresponsive to questions until asked two or three times, gaze out of focus and off to the side away from this nurse while reviewing plan of care. Speech slow when responding to questions.”

    1. Roscoe*

      Ha. Probably. “Its not technically your birthday, and you celebrating it is incorrect”

      1. AMT*

        “Please hand over the streamers. Your cake will be incinerated along with the calendar where you’ve circled your non-birthday in pink highlighter.”

  13. Lurking Tom*

    I wonder if the language protocols are so strict because there is some possibility that people like Tom could be moved from non life-or-death roles into roles where they could very well have a huge negative impact without that precision, so they just want everyone to follow the protocols to have them become habit just in case. Otherwise, yeah, this setup is kinda baffling.

    1. AthenaC*

      That was my guess. Either that or the line between “occasionally life-or-death” and “never life-or-death” is fuzzy / inconsistent / unclear and the company decided it was in their best interests, risk management-wise, to hold everyone to the same communication standards.

  14. Roscoe*

    My god, I would go crazy in this place. Just your examples alone were so oddly precise that I’m siding with Tom just as a normal person. It seems like Tom is good enough at his job that your manager doesn’t really care. That happens sometimes. Its not your problem. I’d argue the fact that you are worried about talking to an interim boss about Tom’s “normal” speech shows how ridiculous your workplace is

    1. Ali G*

      I’m giving the LW a little benefit of the doubt here because they say Harry is the stickler. I think they legit think Tom will be fired or something since Dick isn’t around to “protect” him.
      I am willing to bet that this 9 weeks is going to be either very eye opening to the LW or extremely awful for Tom (if Harry is truly going to bust him for not following the protocols).

      1. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

        In fact, I think if anyone needs to be warned here, it’s Tom. Harry will figure out on his own that Tom doesn’t use extremely precise language for everything, but Tom might not know how much of a stickler Harry is until he’s being taken to task for not following the language protocols.

        1. Green great dragon*

          Just wanted to say how much I love your user-name, and it seems particularly appropriate here. Both women who used precision in it’s appropriate place :)

      2. Batgirl*

        I’m really enjoying the irony that LW has been imprecise about why this precise language matters so much at all times.

  15. HailRobonia*

    When I saw the topic, I was “yes, communication/language protocols are important!” but then it seems way to strict. In a previous job I had to coach the employee who was responsible for scheduling conference rooms and equipment reservations. I had to drill it in to her that she can’t just say “you’re all set” when someone requests a room, she needs to be precise: “You are all set, you have room 303 reserved on Monday July 20 from Noon to 3:00pm” (I eventually gave her email templates to copy and paste but even then she didn’t always include all that info).

    I had previously done that job, and let me tell you, if someone misunderstands a room reservation they never admit to it… it was always my fault.

    (this was back in the day before scheduling software was in wide use… it was literally a binder with printed out pages, one for each week… oh I feel so old now)

    1. TimeTravelR*

      OMG! Yes, it is ALWAYS the scheduler’s fault, except that one time it wasn’t. The Queen Bee of our C-Suite contacted me to book a room that was usually reserved for my division, but the Big Boss would occasionally need it and we always flexed to them. So Queenie books the reservation with me but then puts it on Big Boss’s calendar wrong. We had to do a lot of last second scrambling when Big Boss showed up 30 minutes before the room was scheduled for her and another team was using it. Queenie came to me and was very upset. She got even more upset when I showed her the email she sent me with the time the room was needed (but at least that time she got upset at herself). The end of the story was good, though, because it made her realize (based on subsequent interactions) that we ALL make mistakes and it’s okay to be human.

  16. Even In an Emergency*

    I would last 5 seconds at this place! OP, definitely don’t worry about this one.

  17. Ali G*

    I really, really, want to know what the responses are to Tom when he says such things as “we are out of toner.”
    Is there a communal gasp, a record player scratches and women faint?
    I must know more. This is fascinating.

    1. Heidi*

      Really fascinating. Is AAM fanfiction a thing? I want to read the letter Tom would write about this place.

        1. Not for academics*

          AAM fanfiction is no further than the HRmanager harassing the intern from last week.

      1. Insert Clever Name Here*

        “Dear Alison — my coworkers are obsessive about language to a ridiculous degree. My manager doesn’t care and I get excellent reviews; how can I get my coworkers to RELAX ALREADY and understand that it’s ok to ask questions?”

    2. Delta Delta*

      I hope there are fainting couches spread around the facility for just this very purpose.

  18. The Magic Rat*

    I am not being sarcastic when I say that I would love to work at this company.

    1. TimeTravelR*

      There are absolutely people who would thrive in this environment. I am not one, but it does take all kinds to make the world go ’round!

    2. Graduated Student*

      Same!! At least, I think I would. It sounds soooo nice to be told something and have the luxury of being certain what it means.

    3. Kate, short for Bob*

      It would be relaxing wouldn’t it, never to have to second guess or assume

      1. TechWorker*

        Maybe… but not particularly relaxing to have your own language policed to this extent. I work in a technical job where being precise matters but even then we say things like ‘x is broken so I had to use the other hardware’ IF it doesn’t matter to who you’re saying it to. If I’m talking to the person who might need to fix it, sure I’ll give all the precise details, but sometimes being vague is enough and saves time?

        1. hbc*

          Yeah, I think that’s what’s gets me. I would never, ever say that there were no errors in a document. I probably meet 97% of the communication requirements at that company naturally, and it especially drives me crazy when people make statements that they present as facts when they’re really based on assumptions. (“My team filled out that document correctly” =/= “We have protocols in place that makes it very unlikely we made that kind of mistake.”)

          But sheesh, if you ask me to review a document and I say “Looks good,” is someone going to get on my case that I didn’t specify that it looks good *to me*? Can I tell you that Angela in Accounting handles the expense reports or do I have to put “…to the best of my knowledge” on the end of that sentence, because what if Angela resigned or they reassigned duties since last week?

          I suspect that the precision might be somewhat random.

          1. AMT*

            Yep. I’m thinking that it’s 5% “glad I used the protocol because this task is important and my statement could’ve been misinterpreted” and 95% “this level of precision is unnecessary and burdensome for this type of communication, but people are going to yell at me if I don’t use the Special Precision Protocol for my emails about leftover cake, so I guess I’ll do it.”

      2. Aunt Vixen*

        True story: Once there was some rollout of some new feature of a software thing at an old workplace, and the IT guy was there explaining something about it to me, and I said Hmm, I wonder if X will be an issue, and he said It shouldn’t, because you can’t do Y, and I said Oh great! then I won’t worry about it –

        – but it was in fact possible to do Y. In which event X would indeed have become an issue. For some reason they couldn’t actually prohibit Y, even none of us wanted to do Y and they didn’t want us to do it either, and my friend the IT guy thought telling me I wasn’t allowed to do it meant it would never happen. Like nobody’s ever clicked a button by accident.

        Oh, I said to him, you mean I *may* not do Y. Yeah. That’s not the same thing at all.

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          I deal with that with clients, not coworkers.

          My work has an abnormally low fail rate because I treat all my clientele as though they’re going to lie to me. When the garbage that the client claimed could not be submitted comes across my plate, the system is prepared to reject it out. Input validation is totally worth the time invested.

      3. Auntie Social*

        Yes! Is it “we are out of toner, has the office manager ordered some?”, or is it “the copier is out of toner, can the receptionist please replace it?” I want to know who to call.

    4. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

      I would love to work there also.

      Sometimes, trying to read someone’s mind and figure out what they meant is just impossible!

    5. Anonym*

      Same. I spend (waste!!) so much time asking people to clarify what they mean, when the differences between the realistic possibilities are significant. Sloppy communication = making other people do the work of figuring out what the eff you mean.

      The expectation sounds a bit intense, but I can also see where the company wants people to be in the habit of automatically following these protocols when they’re at work. No judgment calls = lower risk.

    6. Taylor*

      I would too. I’m an attorney in a highly-regulated environment. In general I tend to think/write like this anyway.

      The toner thing would be an issue at my company because it’s our admin assistant’s job to retrieve a new toner from the supply closet when the printer’s out, but it’s the office manager’s job to order more toner when there is none in the supply closet. So “we’re out of toner!” wouldn’t do anyone any good in this case.

      1. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

        Wow! Thanks for providing an example which made what many people thought was ridiculous legitimate.

      2. Jenny*

        I am alsi an attorney and I can certainly write like this and certainly control my language in an oral argument.

        But my experience is that informally attorneys are a sarcastic and foul mouthed bunch.

        1. Taylor*

          I’ve definitely sat in my boss’s office and heard her distill a long, sensitive, heated case into, “Wow, fuck this guy,” but I also wouldn’t call my office informal. There’s generally an expectation that you’re always “on” when you’re talking about new matters and issues that come up, even if there’s room for commentary later. We all have a good sense of our roles in the office and who does what, so someone saying “We’re out of toner” into the void wouldn’t go over well.

        1. beanie gee*

          I agree that rigid rules don’t make sense, but if the expensive lawyers eventually get into the practice of being more specific in their request, it saves everyone the back and forth time of the clarifying questions. It’s true that it’s not a ton of time, but you know lawyers and their time.

          1. Jenny*

            Maybe it is my field of law but I’ve never encountered lawyers being this nitpicky in informal communications. Formal, yes. But “hey we need more toner”? No way.

            1. Cat*

              Yeah, as a lawyer, nope. We have normal conversations like everyone else when we’re not writing legal documents.

            2. Ginger Baker*

              As the admin at a law firm: I can assure everyone here that zero lawyers (okay maybe like 0.002%) are concerned with *who* replaces the toner. They relay the message to someone (usually the admin) and expect that person to figure it out and solve it. Whether toner replacement is handled by the mail room, IT, the admin, or the office manager, matters not at all so long as the toner issue is fixed (including where that “fix” is the attorney was wrong about the kind of problem and it was actually a printer jam but their real concern was not WHAT was wrong, precisely, with the printer but “I need the printer to work” and [it was not]). (And I have had this exact conversation but subbing in “they don’t care WHO does the TOA, even if the partner *said* Document Services, I promise, I am happy to do it and it will be faster and easier if you have me do it” with associates who don’t yet understand…)

        2. hbc*

          As a one-off, it’s fine, but there are people who require this level of follow up All The Time, and they do get irritating. In my experience, they’re typically people who don’t have a theory of mind–they’re obviously talking about there not being toner in the machine right now and they’re like someone to tell them where the toner is. Until the next time, when they use the same words and of course they mean that there is no more toner on the floor and someone needs to order it.

          Strong correlation with people who won’t suggest a restaurant but will shoot down every one you suggest with vague noises.

        3. Taylor*

          The expectation in my office is that everyone makes themselves clear the first time around, to be honest. It was framed to us as respecting the other person’s time and being “solutions oriented.” So in this case the admin assistant would say “Hi Office Manager, we’re out of toner in the supply closet, can you please order some more?” or “The printer’s out of toner so nobody print anything for the next few minutes while I change it.” She wouldn’t just blast around a generic “We’re out of toner” email or just comment that we’re out of toner.

      3. Not for academics*


        “The toner’s out!” isn’t useful.

        “Bob, can you please order Toner X for Machine Y?” IS.

        1. Batgirl*

          It is useful if someone’s waiting for printing or about to walk into the photocopy room and it’s all the information you have. It’s inefficient to make everyone find out for themselves because you’re afraid to be imprecise. The person you’re telling may not even care about the follow up information; there’s another way to share the information or there’s another printer upstairs!

    7. Not for academics*

      Me too. Clear answers that relate directly and only to the question asked? Information stated correctly without room for misinterpretation? Excellent.

    8. Mimmy*

      I have to admit that I too kinda like these protocols, though I do think the company is being much too picky about them. I’m the type that doesn’t like to have to probe for clarification if it can be avoided. I also like the example about not finding errors in the report – saying “I found no errors” lets you take ownership of the task.

      I probably would not enjoy working with this employer. But I could definitely get behind at least encouraging clear language without sounding so formal and precise.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        saying “I found no errors” lets you take ownership of the task.

        And saying “Each of us reviewed the report and found no syntax or logic errors” conveys both more clarity (that’s why “recursive” is still hyphenated unnecessarily) and a greater sense of confidence (as the odds of all 5 of us missing the same error should be lower).

      2. Taylor*

        “I found no errors” seems to be taking less ownership of the task. I use this sort of language all the time, because I don’t want to get caught certifying or guaranteeing something the way “there were no errors” would. It’s also something I’ve been encouraged to do by superiors when drafting legal documents and declarations. Like we don’t want someone to certify that “There are 100,000 documents in these boxes,” we want them to say “I examined the box indexes made in the ordinary course of business and they indicate that there are 100,000 documents in these boxes.”

    9. Pre-Existing Since 2006*

      Likewise- I spent probably a good hour the other day in an extremely frustrating conversation because my coworker was paraphrasing another coworker’s request while using “unofficial” “estimated” and “supplied by a third party” interchangeably, and kept swapping them around when I asked her to rephrase so I could get at the details.

  19. Niktike*

    I’m going to remember this exact letter for the next time I need to define the phrase “making a mountain out of a molehill.”

  20. nunyabeeswax*

    That environment sounds exhausting. Having all work, internal and behind the scenes done is such a meticulous, even paranoid CYA mode sounds terrible. Being accurate and precise is one thing, but this seems to go far beyond that, when employees are fuming at each o supplies aren’t phrased to specific exhausting protocol standards? Its like dad joke land become real.

    Employee 1: “I’m Thirsty”
    Employee 2: “Your name was relayed to us as Bob; if you are changing you name to Thirsty, you need to contact Human Resources, IT to implement the change electronically, and also contact your supervisor. But in the meantime, I’ll address you as Thirsty if you so desire.”
    Employee 1″ No, I mean I need a drink!”
    Employee 2 “What kind of drink? If you mean alcohol, I can refer you to the employee assistance program to deal with your drinking problem. ”
    Employee 1 “I meant water; I need to get some water”g o

    1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

      This sounds like the type of conversation Sheldon has with almost anyone on The Big Bang Theory. That is not a good thing.

        1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

          Or SmarterChild circa 2004.

          “OK I will now call you Dumbhead. How are you today Dumbhead?”

  21. Some Other Tom*

    Everyone in the comments is saying your company sounds ridiculous. But I seriously doubt any of these people has done tech support. They should try dealing with the mental and emotional exhaustion that comes with deciphering “the computer is broken” all day every day. I, for one, would love more precise language from my coworkers!

    1. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

      Problem: the computer is broken
      Solution: plug in the monitor

      (Yes, I logged this ticket back in my tech support days. More than once.)

    2. waving from such great heights*

      *sticks hand in the air* I do internal support. We can ask follow-up questions, it’s totally fine :D

      And yes, we’ve all dealt with e-mails that say “my e-mail is broken”. But I’d rather have those than the one who try to use the specific word but get it wrong, so we’re troubleshooting the wrong issue entirely, because they want to be Helpful.

      1. Marna*

        There’s that. I always try to be reasonably accurate when I need to call tech support but if I could describe the exact problem and be certain I was doing so correctly I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t need to call, because that would probably mean I had the skills to fix it.

        I used to work in Roadside Assistance. We had a lot of extremely smart and skilled customers. Lawyers. Coders. Actual brain surgeons! And they’d call my no-formal-professional-qualifications ass and say “It’s going Brrrrrrrrlllllllltttttt when I turn the key.” And I’d know within five questions whether I could help them sort it or if I needed to call a tow-truck.

        It was very good as a school in not assuming people are dumb because they’re no good at what I’m good at.

        1. Marna*

          You know what, let me add some nuance there because I’m not assuming tech support folks all think people are stupid.

          But, and I say this with love, I’ve dealt with a lot of tech support people whose cars won’t start and they mostly open with “Yeah so my car’s broken…”

    3. TechWorker*

      I have done tech support where people are like ‘the thing went wrong, what’s wrong with the thing?’ with basically NO detail whatsoever (and it matters because we have timezone differences with some of the people we support so lack of info can be a lost day). I agree being clear is important in that sort of situation.

      The two examples in the letter however…. were not that.

    4. Cynical B*****

      I’ve done plenty of tech support. It’s part of why I hate talking on the phone now.

      If you do tech support, you’re taking a frustrating job, that’s a given. If anyone tells you it’s easy, they should sit at the desk for a couple hours and see how many cocktails they want afterwards.

      The thing is, most people don’t care about how their technology works as long as it does what they want it to do. It’s your job to ask the right questions to get this information. Damn right it would be great if they knew what a cursor was or how to navigate a Windows file system, but it’s not an expectation that’s likely to ever be fulfilled

    5. Keymaster of Gozer*

      Tech support is m career, and I have to say that such rigid rules on what I can and cannot say would have me off with stress a LOT faster than a load of ‘the thing isn’t doing the thing’ calls.

    6. emmelemm*

      Yeah, but in the specific realm of IT support, you’re often dealing with people who don’t have the skills to articulate the problem other than “The computer’s broke.” You just have to start asking them questions. And yes, this is VERY frustrating.

    7. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      Hear, hear! “Urgent production issue: Nothing works. Fix everything ASAP.” We have all gotten those tickets and learned to dread them.

    8. doreen*

      I’m sure you would – but when I ask someone why they didn’t reply to my email, I’m satisfied if they tell me they couldn’t log in and the help desk told them they will just have to keep trying. I don’t need the underlying story ( that I got later and don’t fully understand) about how the department of labor was overwhelmed by UI claims and other state agencies had the number of logins limited so DOL could increase their capacity.

    9. Observer*

      Been there done that. The thing that most people are pointing to is that there is a time and a place for stuff. If I’m having a problem logging in, my boss doesn’t need more that “I’m having trouble logging in” and it is actually counterproductive for me to get into any level or detail in most cases. Tech support? The more detail the better.

      And, I say this as someone who HAS done, and still often does do, tech support.

  22. I'll say it*

    “I work for a company that produces highly specialized products to very exacting standards. Our work is extremely high-stakes and errors could be extraordinarily costly for our clients in terms of money and even human lives.” if a company can cost human lives, I’m all for them communicating in a really specific way, and I’m kind of surprised that so many people think the entire company is weird. making the low-stakes people do it is probably too much but…if communicating in that super clear “weird” way makes it so people don’t die, I’m not sure I’d criticize it.

    1. Hester Mae*

      I agree; I assumed the toner wasn’t a real life example but just illustrative of missing precision.

      1. TechWorker*

        Right except the letter specifically points out that they’re not sure whether to call it out because no-one is dying over toner. Eg – either that *was* a real example or the things that have lack of precision are similarly low stakes.

        1. Batgirl*

          It’s a good example if it’s a replacement for something else that would only need one follow up question: “Out? Like completely out or does it just need replacing?”
          People upthread are bemoaning when someone says “The computer is broken” which has unlimited questions attached and the tech support has to just start randomly asking until they hit the right question. That’s vague.
          But I don’t see the issue with seeking one clarification.

          1. ShockedPikachu.gif*

            Everyone seems really hung up about this one example, but it sounds like it’s just meant to illustrate the way that Tom generally does not follow the language protocol. It seems pretty strict, so his deviation from it is probably fairly noticeable. Asking one follow up question to one statement is no big deal, but repeat it a thousand times and it adds up.

            1. Cat*

              But if we only have one example, we really have no choice but to assume it’s representative. And the LW straight out says they’re in a low-stakes department where the precision isn’t necessary.

              And no, this stuff doesn’t add up because we all have these conversations a million times a day without even noticing. Imagine you’re at a restaurant: “I feel like a beer; what do you have?” “Do you usually prefer lagers or IPAs?” It’s just the give and take of human speech. What might be different is if you had to ask your space shuttle designer whether she meant to use metric or standard units of measurement every single time it came up. But applying that more broadly is ridiculous.

            2. EventPlannerGal*

              I mean, if it’s just a placeholder and not a real incident then it’s kind of hilarious that OP is so concerned with precision and clarity of language and has picked such a distractingly ridiculous example.

    2. Abogado Avocado*

      Exactly. I can think of a number of critical-to-life professions in which specialized communication can make a big difference. And far be it from me, as a consumer of some of those products and services, to criticize them for it.

    3. JB (not in Houston)*

      I’m with you. It sounds like something I’d have a hard time with, but if it’s part of a safety process where not following the process could result in someone losing their life, then I think the process is a good thing. Criticizing the company for having this kind of rule generally seems off in that context. But I think Alison is still right that the OP has no reason to get involved here, and it seems like the department she’s in won’t have safety issues if Tom doesn’t follow the rules to tell someone that the supply closet is out of pens.

    4. Observer*

      But that’s just the thing- No one is saying that the company is being weird for requiring precise communications on product documentation. They are saying that trying to enforce this level of precision for EVERY SINGLE type, mode and circumstance of communication is weird.

      1. allathian*

        Yes, this. Even pilots usually talk normally to each other when they’re not following takeoff or landing protocols.

  23. Littorally*

    This makes an interesting counterpoint to the letter about the covid “truther” from the 11am post. Safety and company policy, two rather different experiences.

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      It’s slightly different… This OP isn’t considering firing Tom. That would be a fascinating contrast to the Covid “truther.”

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          This has potential… but the other scenario doesn’t have “it’s moot; she can’t fire him” to hide behind. Fingers crossed…

    2. Delta Delta*

      I was actually just thinking that. Because when it boils down, it’s two different employees, working in two different companies who, for whatever reason, choose not to follow company protocols. I guess here OP can’t fire Tom and can sit back and watch what happens, whereas in the other letter the person did have that power.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        I see Tom as every bit the buffoon as the Covid “truther,” and I imagine that viewpoint is going to be a minority one.

  24. Phony Genius*

    If every Tom, Dick, or Harry always spoke exactly the same way at work, I’d be too weirded out to be working there. Especially if those are their real names.

  25. Tomato Frog*

    Haha guess I’m the only one who got stars in their eyes as I read the examples. I agree it’s a wacky and overreaching policy and I would never endorse implementing or enforcing it. But…. you know how sometimes you visit another country and they do things that other cultures find weird but it speaks directly to your heart and you want to settle in? This is that for me.

    1. Graduated Student*

      Yes exactly! (OP, what field are you in? I’m unemployed and want to go to there)

    2. CM*

      Let’s start a club!

      Also, what’s the harm in just saying, while getting Tom up to speed, “Just so you know, Harry is a stickler about language — I know you’re not into following the strict protocols, but I wanted to alert you since you’ll be reporting to Harry for a while.”

  26. Cat*

    Okay, here’s the thing: using super precise language is a skill. If you’re a nuclear engineer and you need to keep the plant from melting down (“you can never put too much water in the nuclear reactor”), that’s a skill that you’re trained for and paid for. If you’re the printer toner guy who happens to work at a nuclear plant, you’re not and you’re not going to find a whole staff of non-nuclear engineers who happen to have that very specific skill that has nothing to do with their job. It’s unreasonable to expect.

  27. Nanani*

    So, I work in patents. Extremely precise language, for legal and technical reasons, -are- patents. It’s not life or death, but there is a lot at stakes (mostly money and the time of highly specialized specialists) and extremely specific language is compulsory.

    To stick to LWs toner example, a patent document could never say “We’re out of toner” – only “(specific machine) has run out of toner” or “there is no toner in the supply room”. For that matter, a patent would never use “we” (or any pronoun). Patent language requires that nouns be restated instead, giving legalese phrases like “Party A” or “the inventor” and technical phrases like “Flange C is made of chocolate. The flange C is disposed at the distal end of the base B” rather than replacing that second “flange C” with “it” like in natural English.

    Point is, patent experts, attorneys and engineers and everyone adjacent, does NOT talk like this when they are not specifically drafting a patent document! We talk like humans to each other. Unless you’re quoting a document or discussing the phrasing thereof, you aren’t expected to talk like you’re making a patentability argument.

    LW, it’s great that you are so dedicated to the protocols of your field. I’m side-eyeing the people in the comments making fun of you for it. Attention to detail and respecting protocols are good qualities.
    The issue is that you may be over-applying your protocols.
    It’s okay to talk in ways that aren’t protocol-perfect. Your colleague isn’t codifying “We’re our of toner” as an acceptable substitute and you have the ability to ask if they mean just the one machine, or the whole supply room.

    Don’t try to change them. It’s really ok.
    Keep being your expert self where the situation calls for it – in your actual work – and don’t waste your energy outside that sphere. Keep it laser focused on the life and death part, relax for the common office chit chat.
    I promise you, it’s ok.

    1. Jenny*

      If you talked in informal communications like you write a patent, people would look at you like you’re crazy. It’s a very specific lingo.

    2. Hoya Lawya*

      “Point is, patent experts, attorneys and engineers and everyone adjacent, does NOT talk like this when they are not specifically drafting a patent document! We talk like humans to each other. Unless you’re quoting a document or discussing the phrasing thereof, you aren’t expected to talk like you’re making a patentability argument.”

      I’m not a patent lawyer — but the SEC actually had to adopt a regulation to get attorneys to write in “plain English” in regulatory filings. The SEC staff recognized that overly long sentences and abstruse legalese undermined the goal of giving high-quality, understandable disclosure to investors.

      It was a shame that it actually took a regulatory action to accomplish this change, but I suspect that was because some less talented lawyers saw their role as concocting written mumbo-jumbo, rather than providing actionable advice on how to structure deals.

      I edit for “plain English” all the time.

      1. Jenny*

        My field has a HUGE plain language attorney push. My first post law school job was clerking for a judge who dealt with a ton of pro se defendants (collections and tax liens) so plain language was hugely important. Even when dealing with another lawyer I do get very annoyed with those who use flowery language. Frankly, they’re usually using it to try to mask a bad argument.

  28. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

    I guess I am the only person on this forum who does not find the language protocols odd. As she said, if the language is not precise people could die!

    I used to work in tech support. Trust me, when telling someone how to fix their computer, precision and accuracy are paramount. One character off could mean the difference between losing an entire hard drive worth of data and crashing a system and taking hours to recover vs. doing what was intended.

    Think about the medical field… I have gotten prescriptions that were written for me to take bi-weekly. Does that mean twice a week or twice a month? That could mean the difference between life and death. This may be a case where a protocol states that either “twice a month” or “twice a week” must be used instead of bi-weekly.

    Supposed someone tells you something and you don’t realize that there is an ambiguity until later when you do not have access to that person any longer. Granted the toner example was a bit much but it may have been the best example (without giving out too much information) that the LW could come up with.

    Another example, in a chemical situation, what does “ml” stand for? Does it stand for millilitre or microliter? In this case it needs to be stated that “ml” stands for millilitre and “mcl” stands for microliter.

    There are times when language protocols are needed.

    1. Cat*

      I don’t think anyone has said it’s weird to use those protocols when they’re needed. It’s weird to expect someone whose job admittedly has no connection to the high stakes part of the business to use them.

      1. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

        I do agree that it may be going a bit overboard, especially in the toner example which the LW provided, but as someone else stated, sometimes it is easier/better to just maintain the consistent language if it is needed in 99% of the interactions.

        1. Cat*

          I disagree that it’s easier. Talking like that requires deliberate thought and energy and is also a specific skill. It’s not one you can reasonably expect people who aren’t trained in that discipline to expend energy on when it’s not necessary.

          1. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

            Yes, I agree that it is difficult for people who do not have that mindset to do. That is probably why it is discussed in the interviews as it should be in this case.

            The person here is not adhering to company policy and culture. Hopefully he knew this before going in.

            1. Cat*

              I mean, you can discuss something in an interview and still have it be a stupid expectation that will make it hard to hire and retain people if you enforce it strictly. Which is probably the case here since it sounds like he straight out that he wasn’t going to do it and they hired him and kept him anyway.

            2. Observer*

              Well, according to the OP, he did know and his boss knew that he was not going to adhere to these protocols but hired him anyway. Which says that it really is NOT necessary in this context. Because if it were necessary, then Dick would not be coming back.

    2. PollyQ*

      I don’t think anyone’s saying “never be precise.” The question at hand is “Does every conversation and interaction within a workplace need to be precise?”

      1. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

        Sorry, I didn’t see your response until after I posted the one above.

        I still maintain that in a company where 99% of the interactions need to be extremely precise, it is reasonable that the other 1% be as precise.

        1. MsM*

          Except that from the sound of it, OP’s department doesn’t need that level of precision even a majority of the time. And while maybe those standards need to be maintained in communicating with other parts of the office, they might well be getting in the way of the department’s ability to do its job. As someone who once spent the better part of a workday arguing with a specialist about their insistence on using a term of art that non-specialists tend to interpret as the exact opposite of its meaning in the field, when the audience for the communication we were arguing over was 99% non-specialists, my sympathies are with Tom.

        2. PollyQ*

          I’m not convinced that 99% of the interactions need to be that precise, though, regardless of what LW’s company standards are. Even in a hospital, or on a plane, you overhear employees using language casually most of the time.

          1. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

            The department may not need that level of accuracy but maybe the company as a whole does.

            It is part of the company culture. It was (theoretically) discussed in his interview.
            He needs to adjust to the company.

            1. Cat*

              Except he told them he wasn’t going to do it and his boss was like okay, that’s cool. Not sure why he needs to adjust given that his boss is fine with it and it is admittedly not necessary for his job.

        3. Observer*

          According to the OP, the department they are in does not have a need for this level of precision at all. So, it doesn’t matter what percentage of the communications in other departments need to be so precise – in this department it’s overkill and probably carries a fair cost – a cost that may not be visible to everyone.

      2. Escapee from Corporate Management*

        Exactly! Use precision where it’s needed. Don’t sweat it where it’s not.

  29. Black Horse Dancing*

    Th toner question throws me. In my office, I would ask “What printer?” and “Have you checked in the secondary closet?” Certainly it wouldn’t be a big deal.

    1. TiffIf*

      I mean yes, it seems simple enough to ask those clarifying questions but when everyone one the team is clear in their communication but one person EVERY SINGLE TIME has to be asked the same clarifying questions it does become a big deal.

      I work on software and we have a general chat where we can throw out questions/issues/information and very often one specific person will throw out something really general “is anyone else having trouble calculating” and we have to ask, “which environment?”, “which module?”, “which user”, “which profile”, “what address” and it is a waste of our time to ask those questions when they have been reminded over and over to be more clear and include more information about what they have already tried/researched.

      This is slightly more pertinent that a question about toner, but really I see it as the same issue-don’t waste others’ time when you can include more information up front to get a clearer, more accurate answer.

    2. Spencer Hastings*

      Plus, who walks up to someone and just says “We’re out of toner” with no context? Rather than saying “We’re out of toner — where is the toner kept?” or “We’re out of toner — who do I talk to to order more?” or “We’re out of toner, so I could only print 10 handouts.”

  30. waving from such great heights*

    This is… very very weird.

    I had an abusive relative who wanted precise language exactly like your office does, and it was a method of his abuse that nothing I said was ever right, it had to be said the way he wanted. Which isn’t how communication works. So this is striking a lot of very weird bells in my head.

    But. Like. What. I can see having this in a style guide for publications, etc, but… they want all communication in your org to be like that? Everything that’s spoken, everything that’s e-mailed… ????

    This is so weird. Also, there’s nothing wrong with follow-up questions of the kind of “is there any toner left in the supply closet?”

    1. Anon for this*

      I had a friend like this. There was no way to make him happy with my language, ever, because he criticized all of the options. Then I got a degree in linguistics and discovered that most of his anger was directed towards nonstandard dialects, AAVE, and features associated with women. How about that.

      (From what I can tell, linguists don’t talk like the OP’s workplace. Except maybe the semanticists, and even then only sometimes.)

  31. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

    I said something similar above, but I want to elaborate a bit: I wonder if what’s happened is that this company has a history with employees who don’t easily pick up on communication norms or situational nuance. It can be really difficult to coach people like this without going down the road of language policing, because they’re naturally going to take an all-or-nothing approach with how they apply feedback.

    Also, if their communication issues cause problems with their colleagues, it can create a lot of managerial burden and annoyance for everyone involved. For people like this, you end up having to create black-and-white rules to make things easier for this type of employee and to be able to manage in a way that doesn’t place a spotlight on you constantly policing other peoples’ behaviour.

    I can see this happening when you have someone who throws out a lot of critical declarative statements (less “we are out of toner” and more “your solution is bad”). Someone who does this kind of thing a lot without being able to explain where they’re coming from or provide solutions can be really unhelpful and corrosive to a team. Sometimes a good answer is to not keep someone like this on your team if they can’t be coached, but I can see how a manager might think that creating language protocols is the most inclusive way of handling this.

    1. Anon for this*

      I wondered about this as well. I see how ridiculous and rigid this is, but there might be a hidden cause of the sort you mention. I don’t want to stereotype, but ‘talk like normal people!’ might amount to ‘just follow your neurotypical social instincts!’, and, well, several of my friends don’t have those and would much prefer everything to be spelled out.

  32. MsM*

    It strikes me as telling that despite the “scrupulous notes and explanations”, Dick apparently doesn’t consider Tom’s imprecision enough of an issue that Harry needs specific protocols for dealing with it. I also think OP’s consternation over how to deal with this also illustrates the limitations of spelling everything out even in an environment where that’s not necessary, since they apparently don’t feel empowered to come up with their own plan.

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      It’s possible Dick advised Harry verbally, as not to create a paper trail.

  33. WantonSeedStitch*

    IMO, it’s one thing to require specific language in reporting or on forms, but another to require it when the printer is out of toner. I work in prospect research, and when I’m trying to find information on, say, someone’s wealth, to see if they’re capable of making a major gift, my note in our database will say “research did not find any indication of major-gift level wealth.” In a conversation with a coworker, I’ll say, “yeah, Jones is not a major gift prospect at all.”

  34. Cathie from Canada*

    At first this letter seemed so ridiculous that I thought it might be fake. But now I am wondering if the letter writer should consider whether something else going on in her office.
    It seems like people in this company might looking for excuses not to hire certain individuals, or to harass or fire fellow employees, based on needlessly rigid company norms.
    We are reading more now about systemic discrimination, what this means in practice, and how seemingly innocuous rules and practices have been used to ensure that certain people are not welcome – like poor people, Black people, women, minorities, disabled people, and so forth. There are many examples of this kind of discrimination: height and weight requirements in police forces were used to discourage women from applying to be police officers; ridiculous knowledge exams were used to prevent Black people from voting; it took government regulation to force companies to make physical accommodations to allow disabled people to work in many locations.
    So now I am wondering if selecting employees for their “precise language” is the way this company makes sure that everyone it hires is “our kind of person” – to the point that, when someone slightly outside of these norms is hired, the whole office apparently conspires to track his every trivial instance of violating these norms, and a temporary manager is expected to have great difficulty managing such a rule-bending person as Tom.

    1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      That’s an interesting point, and it’s one that makes me kind of suspicious about what’s going on here. What this brings to mind, though, is that the rule might also be there to protect neurodiverse people from systemic discrimination. If an employee has a condition that affects their social communication, having really explicit communication rules might protect them from facing systemic discrimination due to struggling with picking up implicit norms.

      The same idea could hold up for reducing systemic discrimination of recent immigrants or employees who don’t speak English as a native language. Think about that question last week with the rude emailing grad student and a potential cultural norm issue – having really rigid ground rules can help keep employees aligned with norms in a way that looks a lot less like discrimination because it’s applied equally to everyone, in every situation.

      It would be really messed up if this is their way of improving inclusion, but nothing would surprise me.

      1. HailRobonia*

        I’ve taken training in multicultural communications and it really helped… just learning simple things like “avoid too many sports metaphors” really makes it easier for people who’s first language isn’t English… or American English.

    2. Theory of Eeveelution*

      I had this exact thought. From reading other threads, it does seem like there are some industries where this type of communication is the norm (aviation, military, nuclear), but if OP’s company is outside those very few industries, then this feels like a baked-in discrimination tactic.

  35. Kaaaaaren*

    Tom is right — policing people’s language to this extent in low- or no-stakes contexts IS ridiculous.

  36. Secretary*

    I read this and I was like… “These communication protocols are crazy… crazy…”

    Then I came to the comments and saw comments of people talking about how great it would be. Thanks for the perspective!

  37. Scarlet*

    I could never work for this company, there is no way I’d be able to wrap my mind around these rules well enough that they’d regularly make it into my everyday language.

    I’d be too hyper focused on saying things the correct way that the content of what I was saying would probably suffer.

    1. Mill Miker*

      I’d be a wreck. “No assumptions” is not actually possible so already there’s an assumption about which assumptions are reasonable. You can always be more explicit, and I feel like I’m walking into the linguistic equivalent of the coastline paradox.

      I know the correct level of detail is somewhere between “Toner’s out” and “a several paragraph monologue indicating who’s speaking, who the intended listener is, which machine is out of toner, where that machine is, which type of toner cartridge, whether or not the stockroom has been checked, who’s responsible for changing it, who’s going to inform that person and when and how (and how much detail to go into in each of those details, do I need to provide the full transcript now? or are we assuming I will communicate properly? (ah! recursion!), that the conversation is now over, and I’m making my leave now, using which door…” but I’m not sure where that level is.

    2. allathian*

      Yeah, me too. I wonder if the person who wrote the policy had serious issues with uncertainty of any kind?

  38. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    Not your circus, not your monkey. And the “language protocols” you speak off sound ridiculous and out of touch with being human. When you say “there are no errors in the schematics” it implies that you checked them and you found no errors. It may matter outside of your department, but as long as his langauge is harming anyone or anything, good grief let it go.

  39. Amethystmoon*

    I have to agree that the rules in that particular office seem bizarre. However, it should be up to management to enforce the rules, bizarre or not.

  40. Adam*

    The company is run by those teachers who respond to a student’s request to go to the bathroom with “I don’t know, CAN YOU???”

    1. MCMonkeyBean*

      My dad was always on my case about that when I would ask a waiter “can I please have X?” at a restaurant. Then one day I pointed out to him that as paying customers we are presumably *allowed* to have anything they have available but there is always the possibility that they have run out of certain ingredients or that a particular piece of equipment is broken, and therefore it really is a question of whether it’s possible and “can” is the right question after all. :P

  41. Alli525*

    Oof. I got halfway through OP’s letter and said “Well, this sounds like a cult, why is OP so insistent that this is normal?” I once interviewed at Bridgewater, the financial company run by the infamous Ray Dalio, and they put a lot of emphasis on weirdly specific language too. Bridgewater is widely known for its bizarre culture (so many stories on the internet!) and I’m glad I wasn’t selected as a finalist for that role.

  42. Delta Delta*

    I’m taking OP at her word that there is a reason they use the language they use. Tom seems to talk in everyday speech like a person, and not like a technical manual. Maybe I’m thinking too much about this, but is it possible that OP is annoyed she has to talk like a technical manual but for some reason the rules don’t apply to Tom?

  43. Alex*

    I’m picturing Tom’s eventual resignation:

    “I quit!”

    “That’s imprecise. Do you mean you will cease coming to work and in return you expect us to stop direct deposits into your account each week? or are you ending your contributions to the Big Project? Or maybe you are declaring that you will not ever consume an alcoholic beverage again?”

    “F*** You!”

    “Tom, your second declaration is also imprecise. Who are you asking to f*** me? Or is this an instruction for something I should do to myself? How am I supposed to know what you mean? Please rethink your wording and try again.”

  44. Goldenrod*

    Is your company run by Vulcans?? I’m watching a lot of Star Trek: Voyager lately, and can see a Vulcan company being run this way. Or maybe a Borg company.

    “Your company is weird!” Ahahahahha, I love that!

  45. Tinker*


    On the one hand, my first reaction was “an entire office that likely understands that if I say ‘X isn’t yet proven’ I’m not saying ‘X is false’ or making any statement yet about whether it is wise to act as if X? AMAZING!”

    On the other hand, my second reaction is “where do they find employees” because in my experience people, even fairly analytical people, quite often just somehow don’t structure things in a way that they’re capable of operating like that for sustained periods or outside of narrowly defined domains. It seems like they must be leaving a lot of talent on the table.

    I also wonder if the practice of universally requiring this language protocol rather than putting defined boundaries on it makes it easier to follow the protocol due to practice, and how much it makes it harder on account of fatigue among folks whose natural inclination in that area is limited. The thing about protocol-bound spaces of higher intensity is that they have an inside *and an outside* with defined transitions between them, not that you just go and live unbounded chunks of your life in the high-protocol way.

  46. Not for academics*

    This …

    Part of the language protocols include never making assumptions, being clear and precise, and specifically acknowledging the difference between opinion/perception and actual facts. For example, one would say, “I read over the schematics and found no errors,” rather than “there were no errors in the schematics,” because the former explains who did the work and acknowledges that although they found no errors, it is possible that missed errors might exist.

    … isn’t weird!

    The toner bit may be an example of too much, but in general, having norms around specific language is pretty common in the sciences.

    1. Littorally*

      Right, and the bit about taking ownership in the example the OP gave about errors makes a lot of sense to me as well. “There are no errors” – okay, who checked? Littorally the initial review guy checked, but it hasn’t gone to Littorally’sBoss for the final review. Big difference there in who’s going to take what kind of action.

  47. Senor Montoya*

    Nah, Tom is kind of a jerk and Dick has done Tom no favors by letting him flout the company’s rules. Tom knows the rules and even though they;re dopey, they’re not illegal, they’re not dangerous, and they’re not that hard to follow *if he wants to*.

    Many years ago I worked as a documents coordinator for a large engineering firm that did work on nuclear power plants. Checking, double checking, triple checking everything; jargon; documentation of everything, even in departments like mine that had nothing to do with the highly regulated engineering work …in my view, it was costing the company money in wasted time and resources (and paper). It was a PITA. But them’s the rules — so I followed them. It did not kill me (here I am!). It did not destroy my soul (bitching at the water cooler helped). They paid me a nice salary for it.

    The real problem here is that Dick put the OP in a bad position, by asking them to help out in a situation where the OP can’t really do anything to help. Tom’s going to get in trouble, and Dick is going to be mad at OP for not doing anything about it. That’s what really sucks in this situation.

    1. Amy Sly*

      Agreed. If Tom’s not a good cultural fit for this company, then Dick has lived up to his name in sheltering him from that culture.

      And I imagine this won’t be a popular thought around here, but frankly, if a company wants to build a corporate culture of Vulcan/android levels of exact speech, that’s their right. They can compete against the company in their field that only requires precise speech in certain areas, and the respective outputs of the two companies can speak for themselves. Personally, I’d prefer my nuclear plants/airplanes/space shuttles/medical equipment to be built by the anal-retentives.

      1. Cat*

        This comment mixes two ideas in a weird way. (1) Tom and Dick are jerks for not following the rules; and (2) the rules are totally okay because of the free market. If the free market dictates on stuff like this, than Tom is fine because apparently he’s valuable enough that it’s worth it to the company to let him flout the rules. If the free market shouldn’t be allowed to dictate, than the fact that the rule is completely idiotic should be considered relevant.

        And you can be anal retentive about operating your nuclear plant without being anal retentive about the copier toner.

        1. Amy Sly*

          I’m not saying the rules necessarily okay, but that if they’re so irritating that competent people like Tom leave or get fired from the company, that will be evident in the product. On the other hand, if the rules engender a culture of painstaking precision in all things, that will be evident in the product as well. The customers will vote with their pocketbook to determine which strategy works better. My assumption is that the products produced by the pedantically precise will be superior in quality, though I suppose it’s equally likely that they’ll be difficult to use because they’ll expect precision from users who may not provide it.

          And sure, people are capable of compartmentalizing rules and code-switching. On the other hand, people who are lazy or sloppy in one area can often be lazy or sloppy in others. If a company wants to operate on that second premise though, its employees should follow its policies.

    2. Cat*

      Disagree. Something being a rule doesn’t make it a good idea and nor is this easy to follow. Sounds like he’s valuable enough to the company (or, more likely, it’s impossible to find a full admin staff who can or will follow this asinine policy) that it’s not an issue.

  48. Ann O'Nemity*

    I wonder if this is one of those examples of a company value implemented far too literally and rigidly.

  49. CleverGirl*

    I can’t help but wonder if the entire company is really this strict about language or if this is just one person taking it to the extreme and then getting upset that someone else isn’t also taking it too far.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      It depends. I worked in a company with mostly chemists and they all acted fairly similar to this. Very precise.
      Must be a STEM career thing. Doctors also speak this way to other medical professionals. It seems weird until you’re in it.

  50. Matilda Jefferies*

    This reminds me of Alison’s frequent advice that toxic workplaces can warp your perceptions of office norms, and how things function in the non-Hellmouth world. OP seems to be taking it for granted that precise language is absolutely critical, up to and including casual conversations (or complaints!) about the printer.

    So, OP, just a perception check – this is not a requirement in most offices. There are lots of workplaces where the language does need to be this precise, but generally that requirement is limited to specific high-stakes situations, and the rest of the time people talk the same way they do outside the workplace. Given that, I would encourage you to do some thinking about what else might be unusual in your office – things that are atypical compared to other offices, or that may have seemed strange when you first started but you’ve gotten used to them in the meantime. You’ll probably find that this isn’t the only example of unusual rigidity or just general strangeness.

    You don’t necessarily have to do anything with that information once you’ve uncovered it. Just keep in mind that what you’re seeing is (probably) not normal. And when it’s time to start looking for another job, try to look for a place that operates a bit closer to the norm for your industry. It’ll be a lot easier for you, if you’re in a place where you don’t feel like you have to be watching other people’s language all the time!

  51. Observer*

    OP – your whole letter is a perfect example of why the kinds of protocols you describe don’t really work. You’ve been very specific about what is happening, but what I really do not see is why you think you may need to do anything about this.

    What is the problem you are trying to solve? Why does this problem need to be solved? Why do you need to be the one to solve it? I’m not being snarky – You are asking WHAT to do, and the real question is WHY you should do anything.

  52. The Grey Lady*

    Well this would drive me batty. Not Tom, but the company. I appreciate clarity and specificity as much as anyone, but it wouldn’t be natural for me to force myself to talk in an unusual way.

  53. Chronic Overthinker*

    I guess language protocols would depend entirely on the type of work involved. If this were a digital printing company, or a newspaper printing machine, precise language would be imperative in regards to toner because it could potentially cause a hazard or delay a deadline. However, if it is in regards to the office copier or a minor machine then it isn’t a big deal. So while I do agree with Alison’s advice, elaboration in general is definitely needed in Tom’s case. It is more efficient to provide the necessary details in the beginning so you can find a solution promptly. However, I could just be overthinking. ;)

  54. rayray*

    Man, I have worked places before were people would act obtuse and play dumb when you said things. It’s maddening. It sucks to have to feel like you need to rehearse everything you say for fear of people pretending what you said didn’t make any sense, or acting as if you’re a stupid incompetent idiot.

    1. CyaneaCapillata*

      I am currently in this type of workplace. We notice that while a coworker is entirely unable to follow directions given to himself, including coming to work on time, he has an amazing memory as to when someone else is assigned to assist him or do his work.

      There is a side issue which might be controversial. One coworker speaks English as her second language. However, when told to perform a task in what we feel is simple English (“Please do not touch this” or “Please work over there”), she will loudly say “Huh?” and often perform the opposite action. We would perhaps be more inclined to have sympathy did she not do this to the employee who shares the same first language, even training her in this language. Frustration is mounting, of course.

  55. Andy*

    In addition to langue rules being unusual, the whole “we will make replacement temporary leader someone from completely different section with little kowledge of work he will lead and no knowledge of culture he will lead” very bad and dumb. Through I admit it is typical companies nonsense, let’s really hope the old boss comes back before too much damage was done.

    I know this only from opposite side, engineering/technical being managed/lead by non technical, but I don’t think opposite will be much better. I predict that everybody will be much happy when this all ends.

  56. The Original Stellaaaaa*

    I hope you can solution this.

    Maybe those two LWs can have a chat about when jargon matters and when it doesn’t.

  57. Butterfly Counter*

    The one place I can think of right off the bat where precise and careful language needs to be used is when working with interviewing very young children about crimes they may have experienced or witnessed. While the OP is talking about what looks to be engineering positions of some kind, child interviewers are held to a very high level of care, control, and precision.

    “Did your mommy do this?” is problematic because young children are often socialized to just agree with an adult when asked a question without fully considering an answer as just one example.

    I am a university lecturer. When I speak to my students, I have to be careful about what I put forward as hard fact vs. theory vs. research trends vs. opinions. That clarity can carry over to areas outside of the classroom, but isn’t nearly as policed as what the OP describes.

  58. CatPerson*

    My thought is that OP is literally the only person in the entire office who thinks that stating “We’re out of toner” is egregious. I mean, how would you go about warning the temporary boss? “Your employee Tom is really a problem and you’ll have to be careful. He states things like we’re out of toner and we have no way to know exactly what he means!”

    I guarantee that temporary boss would look at you like you have an eye in the middle of your forehead.

  59. Introvert girl*

    Hmmm, this looks like someone or some people in power have a (neurological) problem with understanding language and it’s nuances, so they expect everyone to adapt all the time. When you work in an environment like that for a long time, you start to think this is normal.

    1. allathian*

      Yeah, sounds like it. Some people who have trouble dealing with uncertainty of any kind might thrive in this environment.

  60. B*

    I once had a manager who was an absolute joy of a person and an absolute terror to work for because of insistence on nitpicky compliance with meaningless formalities like this. We would often spend the better part of a workday going back over documents to ensure that everything was formatted and abbreviated using my manager’s own idiosyncratic, nonstandard styles. If this practice served any important purpose, it was never effectively communicated to us. Then whenever we shared anything externally, we’d either need to change half of those stylistic choices to make the work product look reasonable to an outside audience, or else we’d get comments back written in normal-person style that we’d then have to conform. This single tic just about ruined my job and I would have quit over it if my manager hadn’t left first.

    TL;DR – by requiring people to adhere to rigid conventions that don’t matter, you just alienate people and make them less likely do well on the stuff that matters.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      Oh, I don’t know. This kind of thing is really important in some fields that are heavily regulated. As OP says, people’s lives could be impacted if something is stated or understood wrongly. It’s not implemented without good reason usually, so I’m assuming it probably does make things easier at that company if everyone takes that manner of speaking and writing in order to be consistent. It’s not really to be controlling. Factual language is also much easier to translate, or terms may need to be universal.

      So I really, really wonder about Tom and his refusal to do so. Is Tom so uniquely skilled the put up with it?

    2. Hoya Lawya*

      “We would often spend the better part of a workday going back over documents to ensure that everything was formatted and abbreviated using my manager’s own idiosyncratic, nonstandard styles. ”

      Hang on, there. I’m all for letting people say “the toner is out.” But style guide consistency is important, and if the manager wants to set his own style guide where the company doesn’t have one, that’s her right. And the manager may have had perfectly sound reasons for adopting those styles.

      1. I edit everything*

        Except that the manager in B’s story had a style guide that no one else used, and would have to be abandoned for external communications. And the implication of the “the manager left so I didn’t have to” end of the story is that the new manager *didn’t* use the same idiosyncratic style, and thus, there was no good reason for it.

        I’m all for clear style guides, but it shouldn’t have the effect of muddying communications.

  61. No Tribble At All*

    I’m appreciating everyone chiming in with what parts of their field require high precision — it’s fascinating! Shoutout to the breadth of professions here.

  62. Coco*

    I wish there were more examples than the toner statement of what Tom says because that statement is kinda meaningless without more context.

    Is he saying it to someone who is in charge of printers, toner supply, or otherwise has a stake? Or is he just making a statement like I could say ‘I like chocolate.’ when I am not expecting anyone to give me chocolate, stop or start eating chocolate , show me pictures of chocolate, etc? He may just be making a comment to himself.

    1. I'm just here for the cats!*

      I was wondering that too. Like maybe he came back to his desk after printing something and just commented on the toner. Not stating anything specific because he’s handling it.

  63. Gail Davidson-Durst*

    Speaking as someone who works with controls auditing and compliance, this is both weirdly rigid and weirdly lax. Anything where it’s that vital to be perfectly clear and use specific wording should never be left up to “we train humans to do this and rely on them to remember.” Process and technical controls need to be in place to keep that kind of rigor. Just being draconian with fallible employees about always remembering to do something a certain way is a recipe for failure. Holy cow.

  64. MissDisplaced*

    I understand this kind of environment. In some fields I think it can be quite normal, especially in writing if not in speaking informally. I got my lecture once from our Regulatory person over a casual comment! Never forgot it.

    That said OP, I also don’t think it your job to manage Tom while Dick is away.
    If you do actually like Tom, I think you can give him a ‘heads up that you know Harry to be a stickler about language and protocol, and that Harry is likely to not care for Tom’s casual attitude, and that it might, you know, behoove Tom to be more careful around Harry.

    But honestly, that is on Tom to do or not do as he wishes, and Harry if he wants to enforce it.

  65. justcourt*

    Sounds like Dick’s instructions to OP about helping out Harry were not sufficiently clear and precise.

  66. I edit everything*

    I think if I worked here, I would just never speak. Written communication, fine. But I have a hard time stringing a spoken sentence together in normal speech. I’d end up sitting there for five minutes between sentences, constructing them in my head before I opened my mouth. By the time I’d gotten it right, whoever I was talking to would have wandered off.

  67. MLH*

    Sounds like the same kind of insufferable types who have a pitch a fit when a server says “no problem” instead of “you’re welcome.”

  68. Lindsay*

    This reminds me of The Giver and the importance of “precision of language”…yikes.

  69. DawnShadow*

    Buy. Popcorn. Update us on what happens. Seriously. You have no skin in this game, you can just watch all the drama unfold from your window above it all. How often does that happen?? I worry for you that you can’t seem to enjoy this.

  70. I'm just here for the cats!*

    Ok I can understand that there are specific rules for the language especially for STEM, military and other professions. However I think this is a bit much as these types of workers are people and don’t speak like that all the time.
    Someone mentioned air traffic control. Yes the person is going to be very specific talking to pilots and such. But if the printer didn’t print because it’s out of toner they’re going to be Printer is out of toner.

  71. Bob*

    You could be the opposite, GM bans words that describe defects or design flaws under the theory that ignorance is bliss (as ignorance will bend reality and make the defects and flaws vanish).
    That would be worse, but your current corporate culture is very messed up. I would never accept a job at your company even if i single handedly had the expertise to bring you infinite revenue.
    Obviously you need exacting standards, but trying to turn people into drones who only talk in a specific manner that you choose to believe prevents human frailty is idiotic.
    I think you have invented a new Dilbert worthy paradigm. I get the feeling there is a synergy gag here somewhere as well.
    You need a culture of intelligence, engineering acumen, redundancy, and people who work well together, not one that rewards people who talk like robots. And i hope your company also pays people well for their mission critical work and has excellent benefits and work/life balance.

  72. Ellie*

    I notice the majority of the comments think that the company must be overly rigid/at fault here, but I work in a military adjacent field, involving some safety critical software, and it doesn’t seem that odd to me. The toner example might be a placeholder for something else, but occasionally you do get military commanders who would take it to this level. Where I work, we need to be extremely precise in written communications, and I’ve been lectured about changing my spoken language as well for not speaking precisely enough (think using words like ‘plan’ instead of ‘intend’, or ‘will’… ‘we plan to have this done by X, with this many people’. It helps not to create false assumptions on what we can do). At any rate, if not complying with this is a serious issue then I’d believe the OP that he’s limiting his future job opportunities at a minimum, and may even end up getting fired if he annoys the wrong person.

    Having said that, if you’re not his manager, I really wouldn’t worry about it. He’s been warned, let him make his own bed.

  73. Jennifer Juniper*

    That company sounds like it would be perfect for me! I’m autistic, so I like things to be clear and precise. I have trouble understanding ambiguous communication, much less the typical buzzword-filled corporate jargon.

  74. Casey*

    First of all, of course this is weird and rigid and strange.

    Second of all, I would feel such relief if I worked here! I had a professor (not even in my major. I just took a couple classes with him and liked talking to him) who insisted on being super precise with language to the point that he was often a jerk about it. But I eventually got to the point where I could hold a conversation with him without being nitpicked (as much) for imprecision.

    And, of course, now my brain is completely rewired, which means I often start sentences, then restart when I decide that the first option was too vague to even be said aloud. It’s like I have that professor in my brain challenging me every time I’m even a little imprecise.

    This is almost certainly not healthy, just like this work environment probably isn’t that healthy for everyone, but god does it feel good to have standards to follow!

  75. malp123*

    This sounds less like “Can I help my incoming superior overcome a potential issue” and more like “I have an issue with this person, can I tell my superior on them”.

  76. So Not The Boss Of Me*

    What strikes me: while the consensus seems to be that this workplace is an outlier, AAM often points out that businesses and bosses can require all manner of stuff from their employees. Yet her general tone seems dismissive of this company’s rules. It’s possible they want everyone cross-trained in this skill, or they could just be picky. People are told it’s required in the interview. Tom isn’t trying and failing, he’s refusing, adamantly refusing, to follow very precisely explicit rules odd his workplace. He’s insubordinate. These rules aren’t abusive or illegal and they have at least some value to the company’s mission.
    1. Certainly not OP’s problem.
    2. I, personally, would find it exhausting to need to find out what Tom means by “we’re out of toner”, or whatever he’s on about, when he could have said it precisely in the first place. All day, every day, it seems. It’s not my job to hold his hand through a bad toner trip.

  77. Bobina*

    I’m late to this one, but like many others who have worked in industries where mistakes have serious consequences for life/the environment, this doesnt seem weird to me. The point many people here miss is that when you have a company that deals with safety critical anything, the most effective way to increase overall compliance is to have a company culture where nobody is exempt from the rules. It doesnt matter if you are a receptionist, nuclear engineer, cleaner, CEO, whatever. Company rules apply to everybody, and that means everybody complies. Does it feel pointless when you are in your office complying with HSE rules meant for people in the field. Yes. But does it mean that those safety habits become ingrained in everyone? Also yes. Which is what the company wants. Because then the overall rate of incidences falls.

    Dick is the real problem here for, mainly for hiring someone who straight off the bat refuses to adhere to company guidelines and culture. If Tom got fired while Dick was out I wouldnt be shocked or surprised.

    1. Jennifer Juniper*

      That would make things easier for everyone except Tom – who I don’t feel sorry for in the least.

    2. Amy Sly*

      Agreed. Sure, it’s odd, but if the company thinks this rule is important and should apply to everyone to the point of announcing in the applicant’s interview that it will be required, then it needs to apply to everyone. Dick knowingly hiring a person who refuses to follow the rule makes him just as poor a fit for the company as Tom.

    3. Jill*

      I totally agree with you and it doesn’t even need to have a safety component. Aside from the fact the toner example seems like he’s annoyingly pragmatic (hard to say without knowing ordering procedures), having someone who’s so willing to flaunt company policy “just because” is ridiculous and kills morale. My last job upgraded everyone to Microsoft 2016, 1 person in the entire organization was allowed to use 2010 “because she liked it” and I spent hours fixing compatibility issue requests, her people couldn’t send stuff to her and vice-versa, all because she didn’t want to learn a new menu layout. When enough people have 1 special thing, soon you’re bending backwards for everyone in the office.

      1. Bobina*

        asdflslhghgfnjshsg *keyboard smash*

        That last example would drive me nuts. And is a good example of why, as you say, when you let 1 person bend the rules (without a valid reason) it can lead to chaos, inefficiency and also kill morale.

        Also I cant believe IT didnt “accidentally” have her software magically upgrade all by itself one weekend.

  78. JerryTerryLarryGary*

    See, my annoy ed follow-up question would be what are you doing about it? Because the example statement should be followed with “And I’m fixing it” “Who knows how to change it?” “Where do we keep it?” “Who orders more?”
    The imprecision bothers me less than passing the buck, but if his particular brand of toddler imprecision tends to lead to more work by others to figure out the problem and what he’s done, I can see how it’s annoying.

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      I once (not my proudest moment) hung up on a coworker because of something like this. We were on the same on-call rotation, and during his on-call week (so I was off call and working on my normal projects), he called me and simply said “X is throwing Y errors at Z plant.” We had a bit of back and forth, but he wouldn’t provide more information and would not respond to my suggestions of how he could troubleshoot. When it became abundantly clear that he did not want me to help him with his call, he just wanted me to take it for him, I was at a loss of what else to say, so being young and having far less chill than I do now, I hung up on him, which made him pretty angry. You’re right that “we are out of toner”, followed by nothing, is a lot like a teenage kid opening a fridge full of food and saying “There’s nothing to eat in this house”.

  79. Len F*

    This kind of incredible conciseness makes sense if you are, say, being shot at by enemy soldiers, and need clear radio communications so that you can call in an air strike or something. When seconds count.

    I’m having a hard time seeing how seconds count when determining whether to order more printer toner or simply replace it. Unless your office is routinely being shelled, or something.

    So… yes, your workplace reads as bonkers. Not that I think you can or should necessarily try to change anything, but just to add outside perspective.

  80. Zztop*

    I wonder if this whole situation is actually just LW’s perception. I worked with someone who took everything that company said at 100% truth in her own mind, no exceptions. At times she would argue with the boss that she read in the HR welcome packet on x topic and that the boss is doing it wrong. Turned out her interpretation was so rigid and odd at times that she butted heads with many people.
    LW – if your boss doesn’t care how Tom speaks, why do you care? And the toner example, is this you questioning the issue or the whole department?

    1. EventPlannerGal*

      I am wondering the exact same thing. OP says this level of precision is not strictly necessary in their department, Tom was hired despite making it clear that he disliked the rule, Tom is not following the rule and has faced no repercussions, and it sounds as though nothing has actually happened as a result of Tom not following the rule. That really makes me question if this rule actually exists in the way that OP believes it does.

    2. Michelle H*

      Interesting. I will say this. As I mentioned below, my dad worked for an aeronautical firm (government contractor/engineering work) in the 60’s and 70’s and the engineers were expected to speak rather like that. He used to tell me how much tension there could be between the secretaries (yeah, that was the word back then) and the engineers for that very linguistic reason. He would even talk like that at home, and it drove him crazy that both my mom and I never bought into it.

      Me: I’ll be ready in five minutes, Dad!
      Him (six and half minutes later): Michelle, why aren’t you ready? You said five minutes! If you needed more than five minutes you should have said so.

      That was my childhood. He did it even after he retired, too.

      1. RagingADHD*

        Sorry, the word for that is not “engineer.” I am also related to engineers in aerospace. They are able and willing to adjust their communication style to personal vs work contexts, and relate to their spouses and children without being exhausting and domineering.

        Your dad was either undiagnosed neurodivergent, or just acting like a jerk to you. Possibly both.

        1. Michelle H*

          Hi! I am not sure if I offended you or if this was an attempt at humor, but I found your comment very hurtful. If it was the former, please know that I absolutely did not intend to imply that all engineers were like that at home or even in general. I was merely attempting to relay my own, personal experience, as well as that of my father.

  81. Roxie Hart*

    Jeez, I’m exhausted reading this letter, I wouldn’t want to work in a place like this. My last job (at a horrid company) had a super strange way of communication as well. Everything was spoken in with unpreciseness but people would get annoyed at follow up questions. I would get one word or unclear answers to everything. I still have awful flashbacks.

  82. Craig Rangoon*

    Nearly every comment here about how weird it would be work for this company, and here I am: Wistful at the notion of working somewhere where there’s any kind of communication guidance.

  83. not neurotypical*

    I too work in a field where miscommunication could, in some cases, be fatal.

    Speaking concisely and precisely IS difficult, particularly in the heat of the moment. I’s a mental habit that must be practiced daily in order to become routine. I think that’s why this company requires people to aim for precision in all communications.

    “We have no toner” and “this machine is out of toner” are two different situations with two different remedies: If the machine is out of toner, then someone who knows how to replace it needs to do so. If there is no toner, then either the person in charge of purchasing needs to order some or, if printing is necessary that day, someone has to run out to buy some. Why bother to say anything at all if you’re not going to specify which it is?

    I personally would love to work with people who strove for accuracy in communication at all times, and I would not feel at all friendly toward someone who deliberately disregarded such a norm.

  84. Jesse*

    I need to work wherever this is – precision in language would solve about 90% of the problems I run into in office work!

  85. Workfromhome*

    #1 If you want deadlines (I know I do ) and they wont set them set them yourself. “Hey boss project A will take me about 20 hours of work and with also being on project B and C I have about 4 hours a day free for A so it should be competed by end of day on the 20th. If anything changes I’ll let you know. Are you OK with this”. If they say yes then send a follow up email “As discussed project A will be delivered at latest July 20”

    Then if the project really does need to be moved up or something else given priority its on them to speak up. The first time they imply that something is not delivered as soon as possible you just pull out the email and say “Hey boss we agreed on the 20th did I miss an email or something where you changed the date?”
    Some people are just bad about setting deadlines because they have too many things to juggle but some don’t do it on purpose because they are bad at prioritizing or lazy and want a way to blame others when things don’t go the way they should “I told you it was a priority (even though I refused a deadline) or you knew how important this was but its still not done?” If you set your own deadlines you control the planning and its on them to disagree.
    I’ve always been a fan of the Here is my plan and silence will be taken as agreement/signoff.

  86. Michelle H*

    I highly suspect that this company might, indeed, produce products related to planes and government contracts and that they are very, VERY old-school. I only say this because my dad talked like that and he was an engineer for a government contractor in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He used to tell me that it came from military/engineering speech, but it drove me crazy as an 80’s teen

  87. RagingADHD*

    Using those type of protocols in client-facing documents & correspondence, or in official reports or work product, makes a lot of sense and there would be quite a few industries where it’s necessary.

    Using them in general, casual conversation around the office? Totally bizarre.

    Like, are you not supposed to say “I’m going to lunch now” unless you are physically in the doorway? Or “Thank God it’s Friday” without referencing that “According to my calendar it appears to be Friday, and in my personal faith I express thanks to a diety?”

    Is this even a real expectation in every single context, or OP are you perhaps over-applying them?

  88. Huh, weird*

    I was onboard with this company policy until OP wrote that it extended even to things like toner. For official communications or anything that goes to the customer sure, but for literally anything?? That’s madness.

    1. Hank Stevens*

      I know it’s sort of taboo to say a story might not be grounded in reality here, but the “toner example” put my BS detector in to motion! The OP talks about a precise culture, yet I found the examples to be bland and vague. Weird is the word of the day.

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