Sloppy language exposes sloppy thinking. Use the right words.

Published by Peter on

This morning I went off the rails over a bit of false wisdom.

The post said, “Loyalty is not staying with a company forever. Loyalty is giving 100% and getting 100% in return.”

I tried to hold myself back from replying, but when person after person commented amen! and yes! and so right!, my inner pedant got the better of me.

The definition of Loyal at Merriam-Webster Dictionary online

The original poster added, “Loyalty is a two-way street.”

But here’s the problem with that: it literally is not.

Loyalty is very much a one-way street.

Loyalty is not about giving 100% only when you know you’ll be getting 100% back. Loyalty is giving 100% no matter what. By its very definition, loyalty does not require any repayment.

They’re not talking about loyalty. They’re talking about fairness.

I’m sure a lot of people who saw my response rolled their eyes and thought, “C’mon, man. You know what they mean. They mean you don’t owe loyalty to your employer.”

And that’s right. Employment is a contract. Employers show time after time that loyalty by employees will not only go unrewarded, but will often be exploited. Employers are only too happy to take as much as an employee will give. Few employers will set boundaries for employees who won’t set boundaries for themselves.

You don’t owe a company your loyalty, and you shouldn’t expect loyalty from a company.

But you should expect fairness. You should expect to be fairly compensated for your work, and the company should expect you to give a fair effort for your paycheck.

There is no street here. This is on a beach. It’s a confusing sign.

Sloppy thinking and miscommunication lead to bad outcomes

The words we use matter, for many reasons. Today I’m writing about two of them:

Sloppy thinking

Using the wrong words may mean that you haven’t thought things through. You haven’t identified what’s truly important, or why.

If what you truly value is loyalty, then you might not care too much about fairness. Loyalty is about having someone’s back no matter what.

But if what you value is fairness, then loyalty might seem a dangerous concept. Loyalty can be exploited and misused.

It’s not that the two can’t coexist, but if you don’t understand the difference, then you might not understand how they conflict.

This is true in lots of human interactions, not just loyalty versus fairness. Freedom versus security, for example. Or love versus attention. Or love versus admiration. Or happiness versus joy.

Using the wrong words may simply be a matter of having a poor grasp of vocabulary. But it also might be a symptom of sloppy or incomplete thinking. If you’re not sure what is truly important to you, then you may go through life perpetually disappointed or feeling like other people are constantly betraying you.

This is often because of the second reason:


The language of fairness is different from the language of loyalty. Fairness removes emotion and focuses on measurements and equality. Loyalty is deeply rooted in emotion, focusing on one party’s faithfulness and devotion to the other, no matter how unbalanced the relationship may be.

Loyalty celebrates power imbalance—the more unbalanced a situation, the more loyalty is required to keep the faith. Fairness seeks to eliminate imbalance and strives for equality.

So when you walk into a room where fairness should be the focus (e.g. salary negotiations), using the language of loyalty can confuse the situation.

If the situation is inherently imbalanced, the powerful party may want to use the language of loyalty to legitimize and perpetuate that imbalance. For example, a loyal employee would endure a year with no raise or bonus without complaining. A disloyal employee would be malcontented and drop into quiet quitting.

Side note: Quiet quitting is “doing the bare minimum the job requires.” But when the company is paying the bare minimum the job requires, then it’s entirely reasonable for the employee to do the bare minimum. “Quiet quitting” is language designed to judge and criticize an employee for giving back exactly what they are getting. It may be 40% for 40% rather than 100% for 100%. But this should have nothing to do with loyalty.

Saying what you mean is not pedantry

I’ve talked about lazy thinking and poor communication in the past, and the need to use the right words, in terms of clear writing.

Being clear about what you mean is important for good communication. And you can’t be clear in communication if you aren’t clear in your own head about what you mean.

So even though I sometimes wonder if I’m just being pedantic, I have seen time and again how imprecise language can cause something that starts as a tiny misunderstanding to spiral out of control until relationships fall apart or people get fired from jobs.

Usually, the people who suffer the most don’t understand their own role in the process because they are focused on something (like loyalty) that is not the true issue (like fairness).

So anyway, that’s why I went off the rails this morning when I saw a bunch of people claiming that loyalty is about giving 100% and getting 100% back.

I worry that many of those people will be too quick to abandon good jobs when they fail to see “loyalty” from their employers, instead of looking for fairness. They may go through life getting more and more bitter and disappointed, as employer after employer fails to show them sufficient “loyalty.” That creates a self-perpetuating cycle of cynicism and resentment, rather than a process of growth and empowerment.

All because they haven’t thought it through enough to identify their core issue, then insist on putting the right language to it.

I can help

Let’s talk. I have seen far too many preventable workplace and personal relationship problems stem from sloppy thinking or lazy communication. I’d love to help you avoid following in their steps.

And don’t worry, I don’t mark down for spelling or grammar mistakes. (Though I do demand use of the Oxford comma, appreciate the proper usage of “enamored of” rather than “enamored with,” and prefer the more correct spelling judgment over the also correct but less desirable judgement.)

I don’t mark down for spelling.
But I might laugh about it.


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