Decoding baffling work expressions – ostensible vs. actual meanings unveiled

What does your boss mean when she refers to things being “on the product roadmap”? You’ve never been made privy to a roadmap let alone seen any evidence of it producing anything. Come to think of it, you’re in the services industry so what products are under discussion anyway? It’s all very confusing. Sometimes the only possible response is to furrow your brow, cast your gaze downwards and hope someone else will jump in with an appropriate response.


Some of today’s most popular work expressions require nothing short of a phrasebook to decode them. Fortunately, The Economist recently published a list of popular workplace idioms accompanied by both their ostensible and actual meanings (). Let’s take a whistlestop tour of some of the most common ones to make sure everyone’s eyebrows, our own included, stay firmly in place.


“I hear you.”

Ostensible meaning: You’re making a legitimate point.

Actual meaning: Be quiet.


“Let’s discuss this offline.”

Ostensible meaning: We shouldn’t waste other people’s valuable time.

Actual meaning: Let’s never speak of this again.


“We should all learn to walk in each other’s shoes.”

Ostensible meaning: Shared understanding results in better outcomes.

Actual meaning: I need you to know that my job is a living hell.


“I’m just curious…”

Ostensible meaning: I’d like to know why you think that…

Actual meaning: …because it makes no sense to anyone else.


“It’s great to have started this conversation.”

Ostensible meaning: We’ve raised an important issue here.

Actual meaning: We’ve made absolutely no progress.


“I wanted to keep you in the loop.”

Ostensible meaning: I am informing you of something minor.

Actual meaning: I should have told you this weeks ago.


“Do you have five minutes?”

Ostensible meaning: I have something trivial to say.

Actual meaning: You are in deep, deep trouble.


“It’s on the product roadmap.”

Ostensible meaning: It’ll be done soon.

Actual meaning: It won’t be done soon.


“We’re moving to an agile framework.”

Ostensible meaning: We will work iteratively in response to user feedback.

Actual meaning: We’re literally planning to go round in circles.


“It’s a legacy tech stack.”

Ostensible meaning: It’s a rat’s nest of old and incompatible systems.

Actual meaning: None of this is our fault.


“We are a platform business.”

Ostensible meaning: We provide an ecosystem in which others can interact.

Actual meaning: Let’s pretend we are a tech firm and see what happens to our valuation.


The above expressions are but the tip of the iceberg. Our language is sometimes so nuanced, particularly here in the UK, that people may leave meetings with a very loose grasp of the topic and little to no idea of what is expected of them next.


As Reed Hastings of Netflix and Ray Dalio of Bridgewater state, the only way forwards is “radical candour”. The concept is that bracing honesty is required to run a business efficiently. Valued at amounts with so many zeros in them that they lose meaning for most people (actual meaning: for the author of this article), we would clearly all be well advised to follow suit.


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