7 Well-Meaning Phrases That'll Always Be Read the Wrong Way
Let’s face it—communication can be tricky. You can say something with the very best of intentions, only to have another person instantly take offense.
If you’ve ever had someone ask you with genuine concern, “Are you feeling alright?” when really you’re just tired and didn’t even have time for a shower that morning, you know exactly what I mean. That person was well-meaning with her question—but, now you need to spend the rest of the day knowing you look so terrible that all of your co-workers quite literally think you’re ill.
These conversational faux pas occur pretty frequently in an office environment. And, understandably, you’d like to do your best to avoid them (and the awkward pauses that follow them).
I’m here to help! Here are seven well-meaning phrases that will pretty much always be taken the wrong way. Cut them out right now, and you’ll be much better off—I promise.
1. “Don’t Take This Personally…”
This qualifier is enough to make anybody immediately cringe. Sure, your intentions are good—you’re attempting to make it clear that you aren’t just lobbing out a personal attack.
But, guess what? This phrase almost always prefaces something that can only be taken personally. In most cases, you’re better off just zipping your lips and keeping quiet.
Oh, and while you’re at it, stop starting sentences with “No offense…” as well. That passive aggressive qualifier is another one of those phrases that only exists to tee up a negative comment.
Alright, this isn’t exactly a phrase—it’s only one word. However, it’s an important one to note.
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 yourself for the inevitable criticisms that were coming your way.
Instead, try swapping that pesky word 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 Pretty Well for Someone Who…”
One time, an older gentleman attempted to praise me with a comment that sounded a little something like, “You’ve done alright for someone who’s so green and inexperienced.”
Understandably, I was taken aback. What kind of compliment focuses on pointing out your flaws and shortcomings? Spoiler alert: A backhanded one.
Yes, you can go ahead and assert that you’re trying to offer a sincere round of applause. But, let’s be honest—you’re really only being passive aggressive.
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 can understand it—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 strict demands. And, if you aren’t even in a position of authority? Well, this sounds pretty condescending.
That person can’t help but to feel that you’re doubting and insulting his own expertise and plan of attack.
5. “I’m Not One to Toot My Own Horn, But…”
We all know those people who kick start a major bragging session with this seemingly bashful comment. But, what do we all hear when someone claims she’s not trying to toot her own horn? A fog horn, basically.
Your attempt to express some humility is admirable (albeit, likely insincere). However, it’s really only making you look more arrogant.
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.
But, there’s a problem here. “Maybe” can be taken way too many different ways. Optimists will take it as an enthusiastic yes, while pessimists will assume it’s a firm no.
I can understand that you were only trying to buy yourself more time before sharing a final response. However, you’re better off just 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.
7. “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.” Admittedly, it’s usually enough to deflate me right on the spot.
Why? “Fine” is actually an extremely positive word that anybody should be pleased with. Look it up and you’ll see that it means “of superior or best quality”—like fine dining, for example. But, that doesn’t change the fact that there’s something about it that just sounds incredibly mediocre.
So, do everybody a favor and select a different adjective. Ahem, I hope you’re reading this, Dad.
Communication isn’t always easy. Wires get crossed and suddenly you’re left with a mess on your hands.
While you can’t yet control how everyone perceives you (can we get working on that, science?), you can be extra conscious of the way you’re communicating. Stay away from these seven phrases, and you’ll be much better off!
Photo of co-workers speaking courtesy of Martin Barraud/Getty Images.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, self-development, and the freelance life. In addition to writing for The Muse, she's also the Career Editor for The Everygirl, a columnist for Inc., and a contributor all over the web. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her rescued terrier mutt or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author