Government-adjusted comment seriousness scale

I have this habit, unusual in the federal government, of saying what I mean. Some of my coworkers find this refreshing. But sometimes it leads to trouble. For example, when reviewing a workgroup document and finding a statement reflecting a decision that I felt hadn’t been adequately discussed, I wrote (roughly) that “No one has responded to my previous comments on [that decision] and I can not support [that decision] until we have a discussion.” I really meant literally that I could not voice my personal support for that decision until we have had some discussion of the policy merits in the workgroup. But this statement (like, apparently, many of my statements) caused somewhat of stir, resulting in their manager calling my manager, saying something like “I just don’t don’t know what it means when Josh says he can’t support [the decision].”

In the wake of the this, um, misunderstanding, my mentor, a wizened and diplomatic long-time employee, explained to me that people in the federal government are not used to people saying what they mean. They work on an adjusted scale of diplomatic language. For example:

Gov’t Speak Literal Equivalent
“We have some questions on the document.” “We think the document has some issues that need to be fixed.”
“We have some comments on the document.” “We can’t approve of this document until the changes we identify have been made.”
“We have some concerns with the document.” “We are strongly opposed to the spirit of this document, and will fight to make sure it doesn’t go out without major changes.”

Since “concerns” is as bad as it gets, indicating serious political conflict, I can see that on a scale like this my statement must have either just been confusing or sounded like the nuclear option. The question now is whether to change my communication style or idealistically soldier on, because I believe people in the government ought to say what they mean. So far my solution has been to write what I want and trust my coworkers to temper the language. But this is probably not a long-term solution.

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