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I was speaking to a native Canadian when he told me during a video game progress:

"I'll pick up the slack"

I got upset with him because I know that slack has a negative connotation which means he was being offensive to me. However, he said that:

"Seeing you're not a native and I am, you don't know better the expressions we use here and their intent."

(even though I have a Bachelor's degree and he doesn't).

Aside from him pulling a red herring's argument, he's not being very clear about this. Further, he said:

"When Canadians say 'I'm picking up your slack' they mean it in an innocent, positive way. They mean that they're just going to pick up the work that's left to be done".

According to him I'm wrong and I don't have a right to argue because I don't live there like he does and I 'just have book smarts' (which we all know isn't true because a degree teaches you critical thinking), so I apparently wouldn't know the English language and their expressions better than him.

"I'll pick up the slack" apparently means "I'll do the work that's left to be done" and has nothing to do with me or the fact that I'm slacking. He even said: "I wasn't calling you a slacker". I'm sorry but it doesn't sound logical at all. Doesn't it imply that I was slacking? In this context we were on a team, fighting a game enemy. So if he was being productive in the game and he wasn't referring to his own slack - and I was the only one falling behind - surely he was implying my slack?

I would like to debunk this. Is he right? Am I wrong? Could someone please clarify this?

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  • 3
    Sounds like he was right, and you were wrong.
    – user453441
    Commented May 27, 2019 at 22:54
  • I've no idea why you'd get so upset with a comment during a video game session, a situation where gentle joshing is de rigueur.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Oct 20, 2022 at 19:18
  • A non-native speaker shouldn’t really argue with a native speaker about how the language is used. And it’s the slack, not your slack.
    – user205876
    Commented Oct 20, 2022 at 21:31

3 Answers 3

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I'm an American.

If someone is "picking up your slack," they are taking on the work that you are not doing. There's not an inherent connotation about why you aren't doing that work. In many cases, you have slack to be picked up because you're overloaded and too busy doing something of higher priority.

To my knowledge, "picking up slack" and "slacking" do not have a relationship.

The (real, this time; n.1) origin of the phrase comes from sailing. When a sailor is pulling on a "line" (a rope), there's likely to be some amount of slack in the line he's putting down. Another sailor is needed to "pick up the slack" and ensure the line doesn't get tangled. In this context, "picking up the slack" is purely about teamwork; the first sailor is unable to pick up that slack because they are busy adjusting the line, so the second sailor is needed.

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Contrast these two statements:

"I'll clean up the mess."

"I'll clean up his mess."

The former leaves the source of the mess completely ambiguous, and no accusation of who made the mess is evident.

The latter places the responsibility for the mess on someone, which could lead to conflict.

In the example you cited, "slack" isn't attributed to anyone. Perhaps it was due to bad luck, game latency, or a loose cat on a keyboard. We don't know. The speaker is simply saying "I got it covered."

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This sounds like a conflict of one's experiences clouding one's definition. As explained here, it's generally neutral, though it's not the first time people have steered the phrase negatively. The fact remains that it's not inherently negative and definitely depends on context. Assuming you accepted his comment and said nothing more and you started getting treated negatively, then by all means, they're trying to gaslight, or just trying to simply avoid confrontation. Or, they want to make fun of you.

But, let's say the same scenario happens but you don't get treated different and they still view you just as good as before (not preventing you from doing things in game), then it's definitely a harmless and innocent phrase.

The fact remains that slack is slack. Whether it's because you're slacking or because you're occupied and genuinely can't get to something, it doesn't make it wrong that there is slack. And if a team just jumps in to help, commenting on the existence of slack or not, then that's probably more just a sign that you're on a good team. They probably trust you pull your weight, they see that you're getting overloaded, and they simply take some stuff away, understanding that there is absolutely nothing negative from it. It's not the first time I've had people pick up my slack at work - and it's genuinely because we were NEWLY assigned 2 projects that were "due five weeks ago", and we need to get them done now, despite already working on 3 projects also supposed to have been due yesterday. Oh, and then suddenly everything we did is wrong and we have to restart all of the projects.

None of us did anything wrong; but suddenly there is slack everywhere because of all the work.

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