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  1. Blog
  2. Culture & Professionalism
  3. March 20, 2024

13 Words & Phrases You Should Stop Saying at Work

No more over-apologizing

woman holding a laptop at work
Photo courtesy of Anna Nekrashevich

Language is powerful. Whether offering an opinion, providing feedback, or collaborating with your team, clear and concise communication is essential for fostering empathetic understanding, building relationships, and achieving goals. But communication in the workplace is often anything but simple. 

If you work in a corporate atmosphere, you’ve likely heard idioms like, “boil the ocean,” “herding cats,” or “ducks in a row” thrown around. Maybe you’ve even heard phrases alluding to physical violence like, “we dodged a bullet” or “let’s roll with the punches” become normalized colloquially. This kind of office jargon unnecessarily overcomplicates communication. Not only is it simply confusing, but it can also be triggering, isolating, or have discriminatory origins. Even overusing words like “just” or “sorry” that seem innocent at face value can damage your reputation at work.

Being more mindful of the language you use can go a long way in creating a more welcoming, inclusive, and respectful work environment for everyone around you. It's so important to be intentional about the words you use to ensure they accurately convey your message and intentions. Here are 13 common words and phrases to avoid using in the workplace and what you can say instead. 

Read more: 7 Toxic Traits & How to Deal with Them in the Workplace

Non-inclusive, offensive phrases you should stop saying at work

You can have an important impact on your company’s culture, no matter your seniority level. Actively contributing and building an inclusive workplace through language can lead to more innovation and diversity of thought, experiences, and perspectives. When you’re communicating at work—whether written or verbally—ask yourself these questions before using a word or phrase you’re unsure about:

  • What do I mean by this word or phrase? 

  • What am I trying to say about this person, group of people, or situation? Is this the best word to use? 

  • If describing people, would I use the same word for another person or group representing a different demographic? 

  • Does this word convey my true meaning or hide it? 

These four words and phrases are just a few examples of non-inclusive terms you should never use, regardless of the circumstances.

1. “Guys”

“Guys” might seem like an informal, friendly greeting, but it’s male-coded and therefore not inclusive of anyone else who doesn’t identify as male. Terms like “ladies and gents,” and “dudes” also fall under this umbrella as well. Instead of addressing a group with gendered language, you can use gender-neutral terms like y’all, everyone, team, folks, or simply refer to people by their names.

2. “Bottom of the totem pole”

The phrase “bottom of the totem pole” is often used colloquially to refer to someone who holds the lowest position or status within a group or organization. Sometimes it’s also used to refer to the priority of a task or project. However, the phrase is offensive and culturally insensitive because it misrepresents the meaning of totem poles in Native American culture.

In many Indigenous cultures, totem poles are important symbolic structures that represent family lineage, cultural stories, and spiritual beliefs. They are not hierarchical structures where being at the bottom is necessarily negative, so using the phrase “bottom of the totem pole” to indicate low importance at work can perpetuate stereotypes and disrespect the cultural significance of totem poles. Instead, use terms like “lowest-ranking,” “entry-level,” “least senior,” or “low priority.”

3. “Pow-wow”

The word "pow-wow" also originates from Indigenous culture. Historically, it referred to a gathering or council among Native American tribes for various purposes, including socializing, making decisions, and celebrating cultural traditions. In the workplace, the term has been appropriated and often used casually to refer to any informal meeting or discussion. This casual usage can be disrespectful to Indigenous cultures and diminishes the significance of the term.

Instead of using “pow-wow” in a workplace setting, it's more respectful to use alternative terms such as “meeting,” “discussion,” or “gathering.”

4. “That’s crazy”

Using phrases like “that's crazy” or “that’s insane” is problematic because they’re dismissive and insensitive, especially when discussing a serious topic or someone's lived experiences. The words “crazy” and “insane” have connotations of mental illness or irrationality, which can be stigmatizing and hurtful to people who have struggled with their mental health. Describing something as “crazy” can especially undermine the validity of women and other marginalized groups’ perspectives, making them feel even further unheard and invalidated. 

Consider using more descriptive language to express your exact thoughts and reactions. For example, you could say “that's surprising,” “that's unexpected,” or “that's intense.”

Read more: 10 Adjectives to Stop Using to Describe Women

Phrases to avoid that undermine your confidence at work

You should never use self-deprecating language in the workplace, even if it’s meant to be humorous. Be confident in your opinions, articulate your thoughts clearly, and provide support or rationale to back your ideas. Every idea has the potential to contribute positively to discussions and brainstorms, and leading by example encourages an open-minded environment where innovation and collaboration are welcomed. These five phrases will undermine your confidence at work.

5. “This may be a stupid idea, but…”

By prefacing or framing your ideas as "stupid" or inferior from the outset, you undermine your confidence and credibility. It signals that you lack faith in your own abilities, which can in turn negatively impact how your ideas are perceived by others. Self-criticism can lead others to view your thoughts as less valuable or worthy of consideration and may cause them to dismiss your ideas before fully evaluating their merits.

When you have a thought, opinion, or idea, share it with confidence. If you don’t feel safe or comfortable sharing your ideas—especially if you feel particularly uncomfortable voicing an opinion that challenges the mainstream, dominant group—you may be working in a toxic environment without psychological safety.

6. “Sorry”

While it's important to hold yourself accountable for true mistakes, it's equally important to avoid over apologizing. Focus on addressing your mistakes promptly, learning from them, and taking corrective action when it’s necessary. Reserve apologies for situations where you genuinely feel you have made a mistake or have caused harm, and use language that accurately reflects the severity of the situation.

Constantly saying “sorry” for minor issues (even situations beyond your control) diminishes your confidence and displays uncertainty. Avoid starting your sentences with, “Sorry, there’s something I’d like to add…” when you speak up in meetings. Simply say, “I’d like to add something.” Similarly, don’t say, “Sorry for all the questions,” when you’re clarifying something you don’t fully grasp yet. Instead, say, “Thank you for your patience, I appreciate your help.

Read more: An Ally’s Guide to Apologizing in the Workplace in 2024

7. “Just”

Overusing the word “just” can become a habitual language pattern that detracts from the clarity and effectiveness of what you’re trying to communicate at work. When you say something like, “I just wanted to check in” or “I'm just following up,” it can make your message seem less important or urgent. Using “just” can also convey a lack of confidence in your abilities or knowledge on a subject.

When requesting something from a coworker or offering an opinion, rephrase your statements to convey your message directly. For example, instead of saying, "I just have a quick question," you could say, "I have a quick question."

8. “I feel like…”

Similarly to “just,” using phrases like, “I feel like…” or “I think…” at work can weaken the impact of your statements. Instead of making a clear, authoritative statement, you're framing your opinions as unsure or tentative suggestions. 

In order to present your ideas confidently, state your opinion and back it up with solid reasons. For example, instead of saying, “I feel like we should consider restructuring the project timeline,” you could say, “We should consider restructuring the project timeline, because these deliverables are going to require more time than what’s currently allocated.” This subtle change can help emphasize the validity of your ideas.

9. “If that makes sense”

Using “if that makes sense” can weaken your authority in the workplace. It may give the impression that you're seeking validation or approval from others, rather than confidently delivering your message.

Instead of assuming that your message is clear, it's more effective to actively seek feedback and ensure understanding. Simply asking, “Do you have any questions?” or “Is there anything I can clarify?” allows for more productive communication and demonstrates your self-assuredness.

Read more: How to Stop Using Filler Words Like ‘Um’ and ‘Like’

More unprofessional and toxic phrases you should stop saying at work

10. “That's not my problem” 

Dismissing an issue as “not your problem” can make you appear disinterested, apathetic, or unwilling to take initiative for the success of your team. This can damage your reputation and impact your workplace relationships. 

Instead of dismissing something or someone with “that's not my problem” or “that’s not my job,” there are ways to say no professionally or offer a more constructive, solution-oriented response. Depending on your bandwidth, you could say:

  • While this falls outside my usual scope and expertise, I'm open to assisting in finding a solution.

  • Let's work together to address this issue and prevent it from becoming a larger problem.

  • I'll take ownership of finding out who can help with this and ensure it gets resolved.

  • Even though this isn't my area, I'm interested in understanding more and seeing if there's a way to contribute.

  • I don’t currently have the bandwidth to take this on, but I’m happy to poll my team and see if anyone can help.

Note: In scenarios where you’re consistently taken advantage of, it’s absolutely okay to reinforce your boundaries and say no to unpaid work in a diplomatic way. If you need help setting boundaries and communicating your needs at work, here are 10 email templates to get you started. 

11. “We’ve always done it this way”

This statement reflects a reluctance to embrace new ideas, methods, or improvements. Approaching challenges with a mindset of “We've always done it this way” can stifle creativity and prevent the exploration of more effective solutions.

Here’s what you can say instead:

  • “You’re right, our methods may have worked in the past, but we should always strive for improvement. Let's evaluate our current practices and identify any opportunities to stay ahead of the curve.”

  • “Why don't we try something new and see how it works? We can experiment with different approaches and learn from the results.”

  • “I'm open to suggestions. Let's think outside the box and see if there are any innovative ideas we can implement to improve our processes.”

12. “That’s actually a good idea”

This isn’t inherently a negative phrase, but adding the “actually” comes across as condescending. Saying “actually” suggests you weren’t expecting a good idea from the person you’re addressing. The implication of surprise can come across as belittling or dismissive of the person’s capabilities or contributions.

When responding to a good idea, express your appreciation without any qualifiers or skepticism. You can say, “That's a great idea, thank you for sharing,” or “I really like that suggestion, let's explore it further.” 

13. “I told you so”

In a collaborative environment, it's important to encourage teamwork rather than focusing on your individual victories or proving you’re always right. Saying, “I told you so” can be perceived as unprofessional behavior since it demonstrates a lack of empathy, humility, camaraderie, and respect.

Instead, you can say:

  • “Let's focus on finding a solution rather than dwelling on what went wrong.”

  • “Let's work together to find a solution.”

  • “What steps can we take to prevent this from happening again?”

  • “Even though things didn't go as planned, I'm confident we can overcome this.”

  • “Let's take a moment to reflect on what we can do differently next time.”

Read more: Uptalk & The Importance of Normalizing Women’s Speech Patterns

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