If you’ve ever had someone ask you with genuine concern, “Are you feeling alright?” when really you’re just tired and didn’t have time for a shower that morning, you know that communication can be tricky. Maybe that person meant well—but now you might spend the rest of the day thinking (spiraling?) about how you look so terrible that your coworkers quite literally think you’re ill.
You can say something with the very best of intentions, only to cause major offense. These conversational faux pas occur pretty frequently in a work environment. And understandably, you’d like to do your best to avoid them (along with the awkward pauses and strained relationships that tend to follow).
I’m here to help! Here are seven common well-meaning phrases you should cut out of your workplace vocab right now—and what to say instead. You’ll be much better off, I promise.
1. “Don’t take this personally…”
This qualifier is enough to make anybody immediately cringe. Sure, you’re attempting to make it clear you aren’t trying to lob a personal attack. But guess what? This phrase almost always prefaces something that can only be taken personally.
Oh, and while you’re at it, stop starting sentences with “No offense…”—another passive aggressive qualifier that only exists to tee up a negative comment.
Instead try: Zipping your lips and keeping quiet. If you want to give your coworker constructive criticism, it should be about their work, not about them as a person.
Alright, this isn’t exactly a phrase—it’s only one word. But…
Think of the last time you were on the receiving end of a comment like, “This looks great, but…” If you’re like most people, you heard that three-letter word, gritted your teeth, and began mentally preparing for the criticism coming your way.
Instead try: Swapping “but” out for “and.” Saying something like, “This work looks great, and with a few simple tweaks we’ll be ready to go!” sounds way less menacing, doesn’t it?
3. “You’ve done well for someone who…”
One time, an older gentleman attempted to praise me with a comment that sounded a little something like this: “You’ve done alright for someone who’s so green and inexperienced.”
Thanks? What kind of compliment focuses on pointing out your flaws and shortcomings? Spoiler alert: A backhanded one.
Instead try: Saying, “You’ve done well.” Full stop.
4. “You should…”
For those of us who can be a little more demanding (I’m blushing over here), this one rolls off the tongue way too easily. Believe me, I understand—you’re only trying to help out by providing a little bit of direction.
But in reality, it just comes off like you’re doling out demands. And if you aren’t even in a position of authority? Well, it sounds pretty condescending. The person you’re talking to can’t help but feel that you’re doubting and insulting their own expertise and strategizing ability.
Instead try: Asking if they want advice and then phrasing your suggestion as just that—an option, not an order.
5. “I’m not one to toot my own horn, but…”
We all know the humblebraggers who kick things off with a seemingly bashful comment. But what do we all hear when someone claims they’re not trying to toot their own horn? A foghorn, basically.
Your attempt to express some humility is admirable (though likely insincere). However, it’s really only making you look more arrogant.
Instead try: Just tooting your own horn! It’s OK to talk about something you’ve accomplished (as long as you’re not putting down anyone else, of course).
6. “It’s fine…”
Occasionally, I’ll pass something I’ve written along to my dad. I value his opinion, and I like to keep him in the loop about the things I’m working on. His response? Typically something like, “That looks fine.” It’s enough to deflate me right on the spot.
Why? “Fine” can be an extremely positive word that anybody should be pleased with. Look it up and you’ll see that it sometimes means “of superior or best quality”—like fine dining, for example. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are multiple definitions of the word and “it’s fine” is more commonly used to describe something as incredibly mediocre.
Instead try: Selecting a different adjective. (Ahem, I hope you’re reading this, Dad.)
Here’s another short word that can hold a lot of meaning. Many of us have the tendency to toss out a “maybe” when we aren’t quite ready to commit to a firm answer.
I can understand that you were only trying to buy yourself more time before sharing a final response. But “maybe” can be taken differently depending on the situation and the person. Optimists will take it as an enthusiastic yes, while pessimists will assume it’s a firm no.
Instead try: Owning up to the fact that you need to give the situation a little more thought. You’ll save yourself the confusion and countless headaches.
Communication isn’t always easy. Wires get crossed and suddenly you’re left with a mess on your hands. While you can’t wave a magic wand and get rid of all misunderstandings, you can be extra conscious of the way you’re communicating. So please, do yourself and everyone around you a favor and stay away from these seven phrases!