Careers and Employability Service
Services and advice for alumni

Decoding workplace language

Two men looking at a despatch notice in a warehouse

The process of gradually decoding what everyone else seems to be so competently talking about can be time and energy consuming. However, learning the lingo during your first few weeks will pay off and help you to feel more confident in your new job. Suddenly, you’ll realise that you’re no longer an outsider with little comprehension of what’s going on, you’ve become part of the inner circle and can 'talk the talk' as well as everyone else!

Understanding the language of your organisation 


Acronyms and specialist jargon

When faced with a new acronym or specialist jargon that you don’t understand, simply ask.

You may feel self-conscious posing a ‘dumb question’ and think it better to stay quiet, or you might be tempted to try and bluff your way through, but these strategies are unlikely to help long term. Let’s face it, it will be more embarrassing to have to admit you still don’t have a clue what people mean a few weeks down the line.

Try not to worry about not knowing stuff; you’re new and people will accept that you are still picking things up, so embrace this and just ask. You could even compile a quick reference guide.

I remember starting a work placement at 18 with a construction company and didn't know what ASAP meant. That created a few laughs. Later on I worked in the defence industry, which is acronym 'soup'.

Acronyms become a common language, you get used to it eventually but I was never afraid to ask either in a meeting or later on with work colleagues what things meant. Most people don't even realise they are using acronyms that you may not understand, but they are happy to translate if you ask them.


Andy Callaghan, UoN alumnus, PhD Marketing, 2016

Read our blog - An intro guide to start-up lingo


Management speak

Anyone for a thought shower? Perhaps we could run some ideas up the flagpole? Who knows, it might help us to peel the onion!

Google ‘management speak’ and you’ll find endless phrases that paint intriguing images, cause amusement (or irritation), and often mean very little. That said, people do use them.

So, beyond understanding what someone is trying to communicate when they use management speak, can such expressions tell us anything about the culture of an organisation? Maybe.

Use of one phrase studied in isolation is unlikely to provide deep insight. However, if you hear certain phrases repeated often consider if any reoccurring themes emerge. Perhaps they tend to focus on generating ideas or maximising profit? Whatever the theme, it may tell you something about how colleagues view their work or the broader focus of your organisation.


The written word

There’s no getting away from writing things down at work, whether it be composing emails, writing reports, instant messaging, explaining data, or many other tasks besides. Like all things linguistic, context is important. What is preferable, or indeed acceptable, may be completely different across different organisations so it’s worth observing how others communicate in writing and noting both everyday practice and official protocol.

You might also ask yourself:

  • Who will read what you write? Keep in mind how they’re likely to react, and remember, there could be a primary and secondary audience as things get passed on
  • What are you trying to communicate? Are you trying to explain, persuade, challenge, direct, praise or something else? Consider the tone of your language and how this aligns to your purpose
  • Have you proofread the document? When dealing with important or sensitive subject matter build in time to draft and then revisit your work later with fresh eyes. This will give you an opportunity to review the content and correct typos

Plain English Campaign - download a range of free guides


Body language

Our facial expressions, hand gestures, movements, and postures all communicate meaning and contribute to how people interpret the words we say. So, when you’re at work you might want to consciously check in with your own body language to make sure that the signals you’re giving off visually are consistent with the messages you are giving orally and remain positive.

You could try things like using eye contact and smiling to start interactions, adopting open postures and mirroring to build rapport, and nodding to demonstrate active listening. Plus, by tuning into non-verbal cues you can also begin to read colleagues and better understand their position. If you sense that what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing don’t align, it might be worth trying to gently explore this further.

The Conversation - Body talk: how body language affects workplace morale



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