When I started my first job, I was the youngest person in my organization. No, really. Although I could legally drink (barely), every single one of my 300-or-so coworkers was older and more experienced than I was.
I felt like the lone kid at the adults’ table—and worse, I probably acted like it. (Exhibit A: My email signature was hot pink and in Lucida Calligraphy font.) But looking back, I shouldn’t have let it affect me so much.
Here’s what I know now: It doesn’t matter how much experience (or gray hair) you have compared to everyone else. You were hired to do a job and work with the people around you. The more you can position yourself as an equal, the more you’ll be treated like one. While you shouldn’t go to the other end of the spectrum and act like you’re more important or experienced than the rest of your team, you should never feel afraid to present yourself confidently as a peer. (Oh, and this is true whether you’re in your first job or joining the ranks of upper management.)
How do you do that? Here are a few commonly used words and phrases to avoid—they instantly make you sound inexperienced—plus what to say instead to come across as the capable, competent professional you are.
1. “I don’t know.”
You certainly don’t need to have all the answers all the time. None of us do. But answering your coworkers’ questions with, “I don’t know,” and a blank stare can make you look like you’re not up to the job.
Alternatives to saying, “I don’t know.”
According to Muse writer Sara McCord, you have a few choices depending on the situation. You could try:
- Offering up what you do know—for example, “Well, I can tell you that the report went to the printer on Friday.”
- Saying that you’re interested in the same info they are—for example, “That’s exactly the question I’m looking to answer.”
- Bringing in someone who likely knows what they need—for example, “Let’s loop Devante in to confirm.”
2. “I have to ask my boss.”
It doesn’t matter what level you’re at in your career, there are certain things you’re going to have to run up the ladder. (Even CEOs have to ask the board for approval on important matters!) But that doesn’t mean you have to end every conversation letting others know that you’re not the one who can make the final decision.
Alternatives to saying, “I have to ask my boss.”
Try sounding like a thoughtful collaborator who wants to make sure everyone’s on the same page, rather than the lowly subordinate. For example: “This all sounds great—let me just run our conversation by a couple people on the team before moving ahead.”
3. “Is that OK?”
This phrase comes up at the next step—when you actually are running something by your boss or presenting your plan to get something done. You do want (or need) their approval, but you don’t want to sound like you have no idea if your recommendation is a good one or not.
Alternatives to asking, “Is that OK?”
Skip this line, and instead say something that starts from the assumption that your idea is sound, but still makes it clear you’re waiting for your manager’s go-ahead. For example: “Let me know by Friday whether I should proceed.” If your plan isn’t OK, they’ll let you know.
4. “I am the [junior-level job title].”
Here’s a secret—if you have a not-so-impressive job title (and we’ve all had ’em), you don’t have to broadcast it to everyone you work with, particularly if you’re reaching out to potential clients or partners who are higher up than you are.
Alternatives to introducing yourself with an unimpressive job title
Make it clear what you do and where you work without giving your title. It’s still honest, but it makes you sound a bit more experienced. So in your next cold outreach email, try trading, “I’m the junior marketing assistant at YYY Co,” for, “I work in marketing at YYY Co, and I’m reaching out because…”
5. “Very,” “ridiculously,” “extremely”
It’s Professional Writing 101 to remove unnecessary adverbs from your language, not only because we all want shorter emails, but also because these additional words tend to add emotion into what should be straightforward, fact-based communication.
Alternatives to unnecessary adverbs
Just cut them—and use a more specific, stronger verb or adjective to get your point across if you need to. Which sounds like it came from a calm, cool professional: “I’m incredibly eager to get started, but I’m insanely busy this week—could we aim for next week when things will be way calmer?” or, “I’m eager to get started, but booked this week. Could we aim for next?”
6. “Hi, I’m Julie.”
In a social setting, it’s perfectly fine (in fact, expected) that you’ll introduce yourself by first name only. But in a professional or networking setting, it can make you sound unsure of yourself, like you’re someone who just happened to walk into the room, rather than someone who was invited to be there.
Alternatives to introducing yourself by first name only
Share your full name and why you’re there. For example, “I’m Julie Walker, from the marketing team.” In a more casual environment, you might skip your last name, but make sure you still state your purpose.
7. “I” and “me”
Research has found that people with higher status use the word “I” less. Muse writer Aja Frost says: “Reducing your use of the word ‘I’ can actually make people view you as more powerful and confident.” Filtering language—in phrases like “I think” and “I feel”—tends to soften what you’re saying and makes you sound less sure of yourself.
Alternatives to saying “I” and “me”
Reword what you’re saying to avoid “I” and “me,” and state your points directly instead of filtering them. So instead of, “I would be so grateful if you would consider meeting with me next month. I’m very interested in your work, and I would love to meet you in person,” you could try something like: “Would you be available for a meeting next month? It would be great to learn more about your work and meet in person.” The former veers into fangirl territory; the latter sounds like one accomplished professional addressing another.
8. “I’m available at whatever time is convenient for you.”
Really, are you? If the person you’d like to meet with wrote back and said that 5:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning was convenient, I’m pretty sure you’d disagree. (And even if you didn’t, you’d look like you have nothing going on in your professional or personal life.)
Alternatives to saying, “I’m available at whatever time is convenient for you.”
State a preference for when you’d like to meet, then indicate that you’re happy to make another time work. You’ll sound similarly agreeable, but also show that you have an important schedule of your own. For example, try something like, “Tuesday and Thursday afternoons work well, though I’m happy to be flexible.”
9. “I hope to hear from you soon!”
Ending your emails hoping and praying that you’ll hear from your recipient makes it sound like you think there’s a good chance you won’t, which might imply that you don’t think you or your message are important.
Alternatives to saying, “I hope to hear from you soon!”
Project confidence that the conversation will continue, with something like, “I look forward to discussing,” or, “I look forward to hearing from you.”
Regina Borsellino contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.