Workplace jargon is among the more annoying parts of work culture. But what if some of the catchphrases we hear at the office actually have hidden, make-or-break meanings?
A former corporate professional laid out eight examples of coded language used in toxic workplaces that are major red flags.
You’ve definitely heard managers say “circle back.” But how about, “blue-sky thinking” or “thousand-foot view?”
These are just some of the common workplace phrases that probably set your teeth on edge if you’re like a lot of professionals out there.
Why we talk this way at work is a mystery, but Awande, a TikToker, mindfulness coach, and former corporate professional said it’s more than just annoying.
“One of the things that used to send me into a mental tailspin working in toxic workplaces was the coded language used by higher-ups,” Awande said.
Especially since she is neurodivergent, language that isn’t direct can be particularly confusing for her, and she found that “higher-ups would get frustrated with me because I wasn’t picking up on what they were trying to say.”
Awande explained that coded language is often “used just because maybe what they want to say is either illegal, they shouldn’t be saying it at all, it’s frowned upon, or they really just don’t want to come up with the truth.”
Photo: SeventyFour from Getty Images / Canva Pro
Over time, she learned that while most corporatespeak is ultimately harmless, in toxic workplaces, there are eight examples of coded language to watch out for.
1. ‘We’re kind of slammed.’
This is basically code for “not gonna happen.” As Awande shared, “If I ever wanted to address a concern or an issue, and then a higher-up would say to me, yeah, well, we’re kind of slammed, we can’t really get to that right now… I started to realize that meant that they might not ever get to it.”
Instead, she said, “They might just try to wear me down and I won’t ever complain about it ever again.”
2. ‘If you respect me, I will respect you.’
Awande said this is a major red flag that indicates your boss has an authoritarian view of power and expects to be given a level of respect that is probably inappropriate and definitely won’t be reciprocated.
As she aptly put it, “I realized what that meant was, ‘If you see me as your boss, I will see you as human.'”
3. ‘Let’s take this offline.’
This kind of coded language is used in toxic workplaces when someone wants to discuss something one-on-one instead of in front of others on, say, a Zoom call. And that’s usually a huge red flag.
“In other words, I may say something to you that you might consider wildly offensive, or that I’m not allowed to say,” Awande explained, “and I need there to be zero proof of me ever having said it.”
4. ‘Assume positive intent.’
“We all know there’s nothing positive about this one,” Awande bluntly said. This is similar to number three but with an extra bonus of gaslighting.
“Again, I’m going to say or do something that is not okay, but instead I’m going to manipulate you into thinking that you’re just not seeing it the way it’s supposed to be seen,” she said.
5. ‘We will look into that.’
This one couldn’t be simpler even though it is the exact opposite of the words themselves. As Awande put it, “We will in fact not look into that,” and she advised that if you hear this one, “do a ‘Frozen’ and ‘Let It Go,'” cuz it ain’t happening.
6. ‘We wear many hats.’
This is code for “you are going to be doing more than what your job description says and we’re not going to pay you extra for it,” Awande explained, before adding, “Oh, and we expect you to do it with a smile.”
7. ‘Be the bigger person.’
Awande said this one comes when you’ve been “offended” or “mistreated,” and the hidden meaning is, “We want you to accept that, get over it, and move on.” It’s a way of ducking responsibility and shifting blame onto you, rather than whoever wronged you so that management doesn’t have to do anything about it.
8. ‘We are family.’
Awande described this as everyone’s “favorite” because we’ve all heard this at work. “That one does not need any explaining,” she joked. If your boss says “We are a family,” you can pretty much predict that all of the previous seven toxic phrases will show up too because they’re all pretty much encapsulated in this one phrase.
Awande suggested that when situations like these arise at work, to ask for clarity if you need it, especially if you too are neurodivergent.
But it’s also important to take caution, of course, because these phrases are major red flags. And work is hard enough without having to deal with people who won’t — or can’t — say what they mean.
John Sundholm is a news and entertainment writer who covers pop culture, social justice, and human interest topics.