Basic Mandarin: Lessons 1 & 2

Lesson 1

Mandarins always appear straightforward, friendly and helpful when offering an opinion, asking you to do something, and so on. Do not be taken in! The following translations will help you understand what they really mean.

Advice Please !
I don’t have a clue what to do with this.
See also Give me a steer on that and Run it past me.

A few thoughts …
Thank you for showing me this piece of work. It is utter rubbish for the following reasons.

As appropriate (as in “please deal with this as you consider appropriate”)
You may bin this, but don’t blame me if you are found out.

Blind Copy
None of the official recipients know that you have a copy of this sensitive note, therefore you cannot possibly contribute. But see “For Information“ – you’ll be blamed when it all goes wrong.

CC-ing (as in “can you cc me into that”)
Copy lists can be used in a number of subtle ways. Senior staff can ask to be added to a cc list to ensures that a junior person does not receive full credit for an idea, as it will then look like their idea. Or junior staff can add senior colleagues as a way of ensuring that they are blamed for a very stupid idea.

Concerned (as in “I was concerned to hear”)
A senior official is about to explode.

Used by senior officials to express the view that a particular junior official is quite possibly the most incompetent person it has ever been their misfortune to come across. Particularly devastating if used in conjunction with “concerned” and/or “surprised”.

Draft Please!
Please graft for hours producing a coherent and impressive letter so that I can fulfill my teacher-fantasy by needlessly amending it.

Final Draft
The first version on which anyone senior bothers to comment, as they can’t be bothered to look at the five previous drafts.

For Information
Don’t even think of commenting on this but if anything goes wrong I’ll remind everyone you knew what was going on.

Give me a steer on that
I don’t know how to decide on this one. Please make a decision for me and I’ll nick any good ideas you have.

Happy To Discuss
There’s a whole lot more here than meets the eye and that I haven’t told you. Should ring alarm bells.

Hope This Is Helpful
I’m well aware that it is not helpful at all. Please don’t contact me again.

I would be interested in your views on this
This is a load of rubbish but as it emanates from a senior official I want you to be the first to say so.

Please Deal!
Do all the work on this yourself.

Please do not hesitate to contact me
Please do not ever contact me again. If you really insist, try in two weeks time when I am on leave.

(I have) Reservations
“If you do this then you’re an even bigger fool than I thought.”

(Nicholas Bevan reported that he had in 1973 taken the minutes of a meeting chaired by the Prime Minister that discussed a paper prepared by officials.  Mr Heath opened the discussion by describing the paper as "f***ing awful".  After taking advice from colleagues, Mr Bevan recorded the Prime Minister as having 'expressed reservations' about the paper.)

Run it past me
I don’t really know the answer but obviously can’t admit to it – so can you help me and then I’ll incorporate your excellent ideas and take all the credit.

Seeking your agreement
Preparation is at an advanced stage, or it’s already happening. If you have any concerns, no-one wants to hear them.

Another classic senior official understatement. Signifies utter horror, disgust and fury.

Thank you for bringing this to my attention
“Damn, I hoped nobody was going to mention that/find out about that.”

Thinking Outside The Box
A favourite used by bosses who want to patronise staff into action. It means “don’t be so boring:- Come up with something other than a briefing note and photo call!”

Up To Speed (as in “Are you up to speed?")
Have you got a brain? Very vague term which is often used as a way to catch you out. If you admit to being up to speed you can be asked devilishly complicated questions. However, if you admit to not being up to speed you are made to look a fool as if you are not even able to grasp a short introduction to a simple issue.

Watching Brief, Maintain a
Used when you are not in the lead on a subject but senior officials will expect you to know something about it.

We Spoke.
Lets other people know that we have spoken and have a plan, but not what that plan is. (Always followed by a full stop.)

(I would) Welcome Views (on this)
Does anyone have any ideas – I don’t - although I want to appear very consultative. See also “Get a steer“, “Advice please“ and “Run it past me“.

You may recall
You will if you’re any good.

You will recall that
No you won’t.

You will wish to be aware
No you won’t, it’s bad news I’m afraid.

You may wish to consider [doing this]
Do this or else!

You Should Be Aware
Even worse news – not my fault, honest.

Lesson 2

Mandarins work to a different clock and calendar than the rest of the population. Here is a brief introduction.

Bring Forward (as in “Please BF these papers”)
I would like to see these papers again in due course. (See below for a translation of this other very useful phrase.)

Close Of Play (often abbreviated to “cop”):- The deadline is vaguely at the end of the day – resulting in several more e-mails to establish exactly what the actual deadline is. Also strengthens the fraternity against non-cricketing colleagues.

In the New Year: by Easter
In the Spring: by 30 June
In the Summer: by 30 September or (if really desperate) by mid-October when Parliament resumes.
In the Autumn: by Christmas
Around the end of the Year: by end-February

Holding Reply
Forgot to do a Minster’s case or “treat official”? Quick! Draft a letter explaining how complex the issue is and that you’re consulting colleagues. Gives you another month not to do it in. See also “interim report”.

Desperately overdue and should have been answered a week ago.

In Due Course
In a very long time …… if I remember.

Interim Report
A short document explaining why the full report will be late, how complex the issues are and how hard you are working on it. With luck, people will forget about the whole thing until you’ve moved to another post. Similar to “holding reply”.

Kick Into The Long Grass
Don’t want to focus on this one at the moment or for the foreseeable future. Basically its “Parked“ in a long stay car park.

On The Back Burner
Increasingly overtaken by more modern expressions such as “parked“ or “kicked into the long grass“ but basically it means that you just had a stupid idea or identified a ridiculously complex problem but no one has the courage to tell you know, so lets just shelve it and pretend we will use or solve it later.

Increasingly popular. It means “lets just not talk about or deal with that ‘issue‘ and hopefully it will either go away or be dealt with by someone else.”

A state of grace in the run up to an election or (in the Treasury departments) in the run up to the Budget. Any amount of laziness, delay or cock-up can be excused by saying “it’s all rather tricky during Purdah”.

May be put at the bottom of the pile and forgotten.

Take Forward
Give the appearance of making progress whilst in fact never reaching a point where the issue has successfully been taken forward.

If from a Minister’s office = It isn’t really but we would like a response some time.
If from an official to a Minister or senior official = A decision has already been taken.


Please follow this link to access further lessons in Mandarin. 

And this link will take you to lots of miscellaneous but interesting information about the civil service and civil servants.


Martin Stanley

Spotted something wrong?
Please do drop me an email if you spot anything that is out-of-date, or any other errors, typos or faulty links.