Words are powerful. They communicate a lot about our character, priorities, and work ethic—sometimes without us even realizing it. They can persuade someone to be on our team and embrace our ideas, or they can alienate other people and contribute to workplace tension. At their best, words can inspire creativity, collaboration, and positivity.
This explains why it’s so important to choose your words carefully, especially at work. No doubt you already know you shouldn’t openly profess your hatred for the company you work for, your job, or a colleague. (By all means, feel free to vent to friends and family, but keep the negative talk out of the office.) But there are other less obvious phrases that can also undermine your professionalism and/or contribute to a hostile work environment. Here are 14 words and phrases you should nix from your workplace conversation.
“How much do you make?”
In the U.S., it’s generally considered rude to solicit information about a person’s financial life, which is thought to be personal information (just like a person’s health status or sexuality). For the most part, a person’s financial standing really isn’t your business.
A possible exception is if you’re concerned you’re being shortchanged at work—perhaps, for example, you’re a woman who believes you’re being paid less than a man for doing the same job. (Sadly, this is very common.) In that case, this question may be appropriate so long as you pose it in a private setting, acknowledge that the question may be uncomfortable, and make it clear that the person can choose whether or not to divulge this information.
“I can’t do that” or “That’s impossible”
Responding to a request with “I can’t do that” is dismissive of the requester’s needs, conveys a pessimistic attitude, and may imply that you’re not a team player. Even if you really can’t do what’s being asked of you, you can communicate that in a more constructive way.For example, perhaps you could say “I won’t be able to complete that project by this Friday, but how would next Tuesday work?” or “I see the value in that idea, but I’m concerned about X, Y, and Z. Could we brainstorm a middle ground?” or “I’m unable to do A because of B, but what I can do is C.” In this way, you won’t get stuck with work that really can’t be done, but you will position yourself as a creative thinker and team player.
“I don’t have time for …” or “I don’t have time to talk to you”
Whether at work or outside of the office, this phrase is rude—plain and simple. Even if you don’t have time to talk, phrase it in a less dismissive and more constructive way. For example, you may say, “I’m in the middle of a project at the moment, but can we chat at [X time]?” This shows you care about the person and will be happy to help at another time.
“I don’t know”
The issue here isn’t that you may not know something; you’re not superhuman, after all. Instead, the issue arises when “I don’t know” is offered as the end to a conversation or line of inquiry, especially if someone has come to you for assistance. Rather than shutting down the dialogue with a brusque “I don’t know,” consider employing more constructive responses. For example, “I’ll find out” or “Why don’t we ask [coworker]?” conveys that you’re happy to help, even if you don’t know the answer to the person’s question right away.
Saying that you’ll try to do something—instead of saying that you will do something—conveys a lack of confidence in your ability to get something done. This can cause coworkers or managers to in turn lack confidence in your abilities. For example, if you say you’ll “try” to have a project ready for the presentation to the board, you’re going to become a source of worry (i.e. a liability) for your team. Eliminating this phrase from your vocabulary is easy: Simply say you will do things, instead of saying you’ll try to do them.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with saying “I think,” it’s just that there are alternative phrases that can help you sound like a more confident speaker. To understand this, put yourself in the listener’s shoes. Would you feel more assured if the person speaking to you said, “I think this will suit your needs,” or “I’m confident this will suit your needs”? It’s not a major difference, but it’s a small change that can help the listener (whether it’s a client or a coworker) feel like they’re in good hands.
“It’s not fair”
It can be incredibly frustrating to encounter an injustice at work. But telling your boss “It’s not fair” conveys immaturity, because that’s a phrase more commonly uttered by children than professional adults. This isn’t to say you should ignore the issue; address it in a constructive way. Ask to speak with the offending party, calmly and clearly state the facts, and respectfully propose a solution for moving forward.
“Let me be honest” or “To be honest …”
Tossing this phrase into the middle of a conversation can feel like a red flag to the listener. They may feel like the fact that you’re being honest mid-way through the conversation means that you weren’t being honest up until that point. Assume your listener believes you’re telling the truth and avoid giving them a reason to think otherwise.
“Sweetheart,” “Hun,” or “Darling”
These words are directed almost exclusively at women—and this hints at inherent sexism. Using pet names is infantilizing and condescending, and it undermines professionalism in the workplace. In fact, these words have a long history of being used to diminish women’s contributions and make them feel less than equal in the workplace, which is why it’s so important to eliminate them from your vocabulary. A good rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t use the exact same word or phrase with everyone, then you shouldn’t say it to anyone.
“That’s not my job” or “That’s not my problem”
If your boss makes a request, then it has become your problem. If the task is within the bounds of your time constraints and abilities, it may be worth the extra effort to be a team player. If you truly don’t have the wherewithal to take on the task in question, then it falls to you to point this out respectfully. You may say to your boss, “I’m happy to take this on. Given that I’m already working on projects X, Y, and Z, how would you like me to prioritize these tasks so that I’m able to get this done?” Pointing out that you’re already working at capacity may be enough for your boss to take the request elsewhere, or at least ease off other deadlines while you complete the project in question. If the requests keep coming, then it’s probably time to sit down with your manager and re-evaluate your job description.
If a coworker comes to you with a request, try to put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if you put yourself out there and a coworker responded with “Not my problem”? Most likely you’d feel pretty lousy. You don’t have to help, but you can at least decline respectfully and offer a helpful suggestion such as, “That’s not my area of expertise, but I’m sure Vince would be able to help.”
“This may be stupid,” “This may be a dumb question, but …,” or “This may be a silly idea, but …”
Prefacing your ideas or verbal contributions in this way conveys to the listener that you don’t really believe in yourself or the ideas you’re presenting. Essentially, you diminish your ideas before you even share them. And that means that anyone who’s listening will be less likely to take your ideas seriously. Practice eliminating these phrases from your vocabulary and focus on allowing your ideas to stand on their own two feet instead. When you believe in the value of your contributions, your coworkers will be more likely to do so, too.
This one is incredibly common, so don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself using these filler words. The occasional “um” or “uh” isn’t going to damage your credibility at work. The trouble arises when there’s an over-reliance on these words or when they appear in someone’s language so frequently that it’s tough to follow the thread of their conversation.When used too often, filler words such as “um” and “uh” can make it more difficult for the listener to comprehend the message you’re trying to convey, which can lead to misunderstandings or the impression that you’re a poor communicator. A simple way to cut down on filler words is to take a breath before responding to someone. That way, you can gather your thoughts before you speak so you don’t stumble over your words.
“When are you due?”
Unless you are absolutely certain a woman is pregnant, experiencing a healthy pregnancy, and comfortable speaking about her pregnancy at work, you should avoid asking. Worst case scenario, you incorrectly assume the woman is pregnant, which is one of the many reasons to avoid talking about someone’s appearance entirely. Many women face workplace pressures around maternity leave and they may not appreciate discussing their pregnancy status.
“Who are you voting for?”
There’s a reason conventional wisdom holds that people should avoid discussing politics (and religion) at work. Chatting about these highly personal and potentially controversial topics at work can cause tension between coworkers and may create a hostile work environment. If things get too tense, some employees may even be motivated to seek jobs elsewhere. You’ll help keep the workplace civil by keeping your voting record to yourself.
If you’re guilty of using these phrases at work, don’t beat yourself up. It’s easy to fall into negative language patterns without realizing it. The first step in eliminating these phrases from your vocabulary, is to become aware of whether you use them.
To that end, spend a week or two jotting down any instances when you employ these words or phrases so you can get a sense of how often you rely on them. (You may want to enlist a trusted coworker to help you notice when you use negative language patterns.)
Then, start making an effort to replace these words or phrases every time they crop up in your language, even if it means re-phrasing a sentence out loud. Practice this often enough, and you’ll start to find that positive, constructive language comes to you just as easily as these phrases ever did.