As a lover of words, I’m admittedly biased in my belief that what you say is just as important as how you say it. But when it comes to workplace communications, I know from experience this is true.
We all know anything offensive or profane should be avoided, but there are other, more subtle words that can be nearly as damaging. Here are a few—plus what to say instead.
1. What Not to Say: Me, Myself, and I
Obviously you can’t totally remove these words from your workplace vocab, but there are definitely times when you should avoid them.
One example: A few years ago, I was working on a project with several other people. We each contributed equally, and when we were ready to present our results to our manager, we chose one individual to be our spokesperson for the presentation. But when she got up to speak, she began by stating, “I gathered all the research and historical data on….”
The rest of the team looked at one another with surprise, but we assumed she was just nervous. Yet, throughout the presentation she continued to attribute all the work to herself. By the end, our manager was compelled to ask if the rest of us did anything to contribute, and our spokesperson immediately realized her oversight and apologized.
While this may have been a case of nerves, putting words like, “me,” “I,” and “mine,” on your watch list is a good idea if you want to avoid accidentally taking credit for your colleagues’ work—or, worse, looking like you did it on purpose.
What to Say Instead: We, Us, and the Team
Whenever you’re tempted to speak in the first person, think first about who else is involved with whatever you’re writing or talking about. For example, if you’re about to update your manager on a process you’re implementing to help onboard new hires, ask yourself who else has or will be helping you make this happen. Whenever possible, include the names of anyone who is contributing their time or talent. And, if that list is a bit too long, just say “we” or “the team.”
Being careful about how you attribute the work you’re doing ensures everyone you work with will feel appreciated for their contributions—and will help you avoid taking credit for someone else’s work.
2. What Not to Say: Can’t, Won’t, Don’t
I promise, there will be times when you really can’t—or won’t—do something at work. But that doesn’t mean you should be super verbal about it when it happens.
During my first tour of duty as a manager, I had a junior employee who told me once that he “couldn’t” do something I’d requested of him. Bad move. My immediate reaction was that he was flat out refusing to do what I’d asked, which certainly didn’t paint him in the best light.
It turns out, though, he was completely overloaded because he’d taken the initiative to help out on a few other projects so he could expand his expertise. He “couldn’t” help me out because he was overcommitted. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—definitely not as bad as straight up refusing to help. But I guarantee, if you just say “can’t,” “won’t,” or, “don’t,” your give off the impression that either you don’t have the skills to handle the task or that you just don’t want to do it.
What to Say Instead: Priorities, Workload, Timeframe
Instead, explain why it would be a challenge to handle the task. And be honest. If you just don’t like the work and don’t want to do it, you probably need to suck it up. But if you have 18 other projects in line ahead of this one, it’s totally reasonable to explain that you have a full plate and six other high-priority projects that you’re already committed to. And that you can add another one—assuming that your current priorities are reshuffled or deadlines are pushed.
3. What Not to Say: Marketing Speak (a.k.a. Buzzwords)
There’s a reason that things like Corporate Slang Flashcards and Office Lingo exist—there’s no faster way to annoy your colleagues than to drown them in buzzwords. Several years ago, I sat in on a meeting where several new people from satellite offices were being introduced to the rest of the team. We went around the table to share our backgrounds. We got to one man, who simply said, “I worked on the Street.” We all laughed immediately, given 90% of the people in the room were former investment bankers or traders. Just about everyone was “from the Street,” yet this guy brought the marketing speak into the mix and ended up looking pretty foolish.
What to Say Instead: The Truth
I know it may seem obvious, but when a simple word will do, use it. Buzzwords don’t make you sound “in-the-know,” they just makes you sound contrived. When you’re tempted to say, “We systematically maximize the user experience,” instead say, “Our customer service is top-notch.” Say what you do and who you are, and leave the frilly words to advertising agencies.
The words you use, whether you’re into them or not, matter a lot with the people you work with. Choose them carefully, and I assure you, your interactions with them will be far more agreeable than if you’d said what immediately came to mind.