She calls a spade a spade! (Idioms we use to describe our colleagues)

by Kate Woodford

boss_angryContinuing our occasional series on idioms that relate to the world of business, we look this week at phrases that we use to describe our colleagues. Of course, there are many idioms for describing people’s characters, but the sort of phrases that we use about our colleagues often relate to a few particular subjects.

One of those subjects is how politely and carefully we speak to each other at work, especially when giving our opinions. Two common idioms are used to describe the sort of people who always give their opinions in a very clear and direct way, even if this upsets people. We may say they (UK) do not mince their words(US) do not mince words or that they call a spade a spade: Anna doesn’t mince her words and it can cause offence./He calls a spade a spade and not everyone likes it. Meanwhile, if someone is often rude or impatient with colleagues that they consider to be stupid, we may say that they do not suffer fools gladly: Rob’s a slightly scary character – he certainly doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

People sometimes describe a colleague that they have just met, (especially a boss) as ‘scary’. After getting to know the colleague better, they may decide that they are not so frightening after all. In this situation, you may say that the scary person’s bark is worse than their bite: Yeah, he’s slightly intimidating when you first meet him, but you’ll find his bark is worse than his bite.

Another subject that we tend to talk about in relation to work is how well people get on. Someone who often says things which annoy people, usually without intending to, is sometimes said to (UK) rub people up the wrong way/ (US) rub people the wrong way: He just seems to have a habit of rubbing people up the wrong way – I don’t think he can help it. If there is someone who you don’t get on so well with because you have different opinions about most subjects, you may say that you don’t see eye to eye with them: I don’t see eye to eye with Maria – never have done.

Finally, someone at work who often behaves in an uncontrolled or unexpected way, sometimes causing problems for their colleagues, is sometimes described as a loose cannon: He’s seen as something of a loose cannon by other team members.

Think about the people that you work or study with. Would you describe any of them using these idioms?

9 thoughts on “She calls a spade a spade! (Idioms we use to describe our colleagues)

    1. Hi Richard,

      Although both ‘spade’ and ‘chink’ have been used as racist insults, I cannot find any evidence that their use in these phrases is in any way racist. For example, ‘spade’ in this phrase means the garden tool, whereas the racist use comes from the suit in playing cards.

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