What Not To Say

March 19, 2014


It’s part of the human condition. Every once in a while, usually without malevolent intent, we allow a thoughtless remark to leap off our tongues and speed past our lips. Once released into the atmosphere, the remark stings and sometimes consequences follow.

Even established professionals can be tripped up by such a remark. Consider the case of Ellen Degeneres, the genial, Oscars-hosting comedian and daytime talk show host. Known for an interview style that allows her guests to shine, viewers report they find it nearly impossible not to like the openly gay, female host with a pixie haircut who urges her viewers to “be kind to one another.”   

This may explain why so many people expressed surprise at Ellen’s callout to Liza Minnelli during this year’s Oscars opening monologue. Looking at the 68-year old “Cabaret” star, Degeneres said, “Hello to the best Liza Minnelli impersonator I’ve ever seen,” adding, “Good job, sir.” The barb fell flat with the live audience and incited a uniformly negative reaction on social media.

The event serves as the perfect reminder that few skills can be more important than knowing when not to say a single thing.


What not to say

What should you avoid saying at work?

Everyone at work, including students, interns, and new professionals, should avoid saying anything that might be perceived as racist, sexist or showing a lack of tolerance. Additionally, before you speak, develop some sensitivity to others’ emotional states and their hot button issues.

This means you should be particularly cautious before delivering a pithy joke with a cutting punch line. Avoid any sort of practical joke that might embarrass or humiliate a coworker or colleague. It's bad business etiquette. Further, you may need to work with this person for years, and making a colleague look silly or less than professional will not facilitate a good working relationship.

With regards to your boss, avoid saying anything that might call into question your loyalty. Even when your boss makes a decision with which you disagree, unless that decision is illegal or immoral, support your boss. Never criticize your supervisor or boss publicly, especially among your peers.

As to other work colleagues, in the course of your day-to-day work, disagreements will arise. When they do, it’s critical that you avoid snarky remarks that may hinder a business relationship instead of facilitating it.

Caveat: If someone says or does something that you believe to be a threat to your safety, immediately meet with your supervisor and a representative of the organization’s Human Resources department.


Toss-off phrases to avoid

In addition to the above, entrants to the world of work should avoid a whole slew of toss-off phrases that tend to creep into conversations unconsciously. Though the use of any one of these phrases is unlikely to offend a coworker or supervisor, they can hamper the student, intern or new hire who needs to position himself or herself as an up-and-coming professional.

Among the phrases that can rub an employer the wrong way are the following:

1. “It’s not fair.” Welcome to the real world. Life’s not fair. Some people are born with great looks, superior intelligence, and family fortunes. The rest of us struggle to keep pounds off, need to hit the library to study hours on end, and are more likely to make purchases at the local thrift shop than at Tiffany’s. Accept reality and move on. Instead of whining and complaining about another boring document review or the pittance of a raise you just received, build a substantive case that clearly demonstrates your abilities and/or worth. Then, present that case to people who can act on it.

2. “That’s not my job.” Especially when you enter the world of work, anything anyone asks you to do is “your job.” No matter how insignificant you think the request may be it’s undoubtedly important to the person who assigned the task. Please note, this doesn’t mean you must accept every assignment. If your plate at work is genuinely full, it’s always appropriate to look at a supervisor and say in a pleasant, non-argumentative voice, “I’m currently working on these three projects. If I take on this new assignment, we’ll need to reprioritize some of my other work. How shall we accomplish that?”

3. “I’ll try.” This sounds harsh, but it’s the reality of many workplaces still emerging from the Great Recession: “Trying” is a lovely thing. However, professionals are judged by the results they deliver. Focus on producing results and use language that communicates your understanding of assignments and a commitment to return with results rapidly.

4. “I’ve always done it this way.” Today’s workplaces require supreme flexibility. Everyone needs to adjust to the exigencies of changing circumstances, the preferences of certain supervisors, and most importantly, the needs of unique clients. In such an environment, doing the same task one way all the time is a recipe for disaster. Be open to the possibilities. Show a willingness to learn new processes and procedures.

5. “No problem.” When you turn in an assignment and the recipient says, “Thank you,” please avoid responding, “No problem.” Those two little words immediately devalue the assignment and the work you’ve done. In fact, if you utter these words without thought, I’m willing to bet you’ll eventually encounter a supervisor who will answer back, “Well, it was a problem for me, and that’s why I assigned it to you.” When someone says, “Thank you,” simply respond, “You’re welcome.”


What You Need To Know

Successful students, interns and new hires think before they speak. They consciously avoid saying anything that might offend others and limit the use of toss-off phrases.



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