Things you've been surprised you've had to explain at work

This is for bits of knowledge or basic skills that you used to think were nigh-universal, but your job made you realize are emphatically NOT. I have definitely become less naïve about the knowledge gaps that can exist. Now I’m always striving to find the balance between not assuming someone understands something, but also not assuming I need to immediately launch into something they already find obvious.

Example1: I work in payroll. Ever since the US federal W-4 changed dramatically at the start of 2020 thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, I’ve been getting numerous questions along the lines of “Umm… how on earth do I fill out this mess?!” (This question is NOT one of the ones that surprises me.) If it’s an email, I can just copy and paste a response I’ve developed about how I can’t give tax advice, but the IRS has a tool at that might help. When it’s a phone call, I give them that same address and/or how to search for it. The part that startles me is that, while I’ve been reading out the web address, on more than one occasion a caller has asked me what a “hyphen” is. I would honestly have never thought that was an obscure word.

Example 2: I get that not everyone is great at math, but I seriously underestimated how many don’t even understand the underlying concepts. There is one particular employee who calls me every time his union settles an upcoming rate increase. If he knows his current hourly rate, and what percent the increase is going to be, that should be enough information for him to figure out what his new hourly rate is going to be, right? Nope. He has no idea what to type into the calculator. (He also can never remember how to look up the salary schedules on our intranet site that would flat out tell him the new rate, but that’s a different topic!)

This same guy also simply cannot comprehend an hourly rate with more than two places after the decimal (his particular salary group typically has three, but some employees have as many as six). The first time he called, the new rate was something like $32.008/hr, and his brain exploded. When I explained that it’s “just a liiiiittle under thirty-two dollars and one cent,” he responded confidently with, “Oh, so it’s thirty-one dollars.” I always feel so bad, as though I’m talking down to him, when I end up saying things like, “It’s more than 32 dollars and no cents, but less than 32 dollars and 1 cent,” but he’s so utterly baffled otherwise!

Example 3: A caller wanted to know why her net pay was lower than she expected. I pulled up a comparative previous check, and looked at the gross, taxes, and deductions for each (which is also something they can do on our intranet site, instead of sitting there listening to me breathe while I flip back and forth, line by line. They seem to expect I’d have some 2-second answer off the top of my head.). “Well, I see your tax amount is different. Did you make a change to your withholding recently?” “Nope, no, I didn’t change anything with my withholding.” I looked in more detail. “Someone went under your ID and changed the withholding status from married to single… you didn’t make that change?” I was getting nervous, because we’d recently had another employee get hacked, and it’s not pleasant. “Oh, yeah, I did that,” she responded. “I didn’t know that would change how much tax came out.”

That one still makes me laugh years later. What did she think that question was on the W-4 for? The IRS isn’t throwing a mixer!

When I was in the Air Force, we got a new Airman who didn’t know his left from his right. The first time I told him to turn a knob to the left, I was very surprised to see him point to his right and say “this way?” I don’t know how he got through basic training. He had a lot of issues and was kicked out for “failure to adapt to military life” about a year after he got to our unit.

I was training someone on the computer at work and I was using keyboard shortcuts. The person knew how to right-click and get menus, but had no idea that the extra characters next to the options were shortcuts. They were so psyched about using Control-V and Control-C, and kept calling out new ones they discovered in menus.

I watched a coworker explain to a new guy (who was not stupid in other areas) how to read a ruler.

“This is a quarter-inch, so this is an eighth of an inch…”
“Wait, an eighth of an inch is LESS than a quarter of an inch?”
…long sigh…


Can we kick people out of civilian life for failing to adapt?

How to localize data for re-entrant code.

I always liked the phrase “No, your other right.”

Aw, that’s sort of cute!

I once had a coworker say that “Excel is down.” :roll_eyes:

In this sentence I understood how, to and for. Theoretically I understand the concept of ‘localize’ but not in this context.

I learned early on that I get more mileage calling it a “dash”.

On topic… since we started doing telehealth I’ve had to determine, over the phone, whether patients have a smartphone. It turns out a substantial minority of people have no idea what a smartphone is or whether their phone has apps. I knew this would be a problem with very old patients, but it turns people as young as 60 don’t know if they have a smartphone.


You aren’t expected to understand. CS grads from one of the country’s finest technical institutes should.

Thank you.

I was once on a web assist call. Actual customer was an older lady, so her adult son was helping. OK, fine. I actually had to explain to an adult who was theoretically skilled enough to help another adult with her computer what the difference was between Shift and CAPS LOCK.

I had to help a employee find Google.

She was a Branch Manager. :astonished: :scream:

Many years ago when I worked in a battalion PAC, I was astonished that I had to explain to a couple of soldiers that the reason they did not get their direct deposit paid into their bank account was because they closed the account.

I once had a new employee who was shocked when he found out he was scheduled to work on Christmas. I explained to him that he was one of the junior people working and other people with seniority got preference for getting Christmas off. He said that wasn’t it; he was shocked that anyone had to work on Christmas. He apparently felt that every business was closed on Christmas and everyone got the day off.

I explained to him that he worked in a prison and there was never any time when everyone was off and we left the prison unguarded.

Left-right confusion is an actual condition. It can be related to differences in brain structures, as outlined in this article:

There’s also some evidence that it’s related to left-handedness, and to cross-dominance.

I guess he didn’t stack up.

so wait because my pre school teacher had a thing against left handedness and actually changed the hand i used is why i confuse left and right 50 times a day ? …nice to know that …