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10+ phrases that can be irritating or offensive

It's possible to rub someone the wrong way without even realizing it -- all because you used the wrong expression at the wrong time. Calvin Sun discusses 10 such expressions and looks at how you can sidestep problems by being careful when you use them.

It's possible to rub someone the wrong way without even realizing it — all because you used the wrong expression at the wrong time. Calvin Sun discusses 10 such expressions and looks at how you can sidestep problems by being careful when you use them.


Some phrases sound fine to us, but they can provoke a negative reaction from others. And from a career perspective, such a reaction can be deadly. After all, getting along with others is key to your career, and speaking correctly is key to getting along with others. You might look at some of these phrases and think to yourself, "There's nothing wrong with saying that" — and you might be right, depending on the context. I'm not suggesting that you should never use the phrases I've listed below. I am suggesting, though, that you be aware of what you're about to say and consider, if appropriate, some alternative wording.

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1: Calm down / get a grip / chill [out] / take a chill pill / relax

These phrases, when said to an upset person, are intended to make the person less upset. Unfortunately, they usually have the opposite effect, like that of throwing gasoline instead of water onto a fire. You're probably going to make things worse. In all the classes I've run on customer service, I have heard of exactly one instance in which this phrase worked. Therefore, stay away from it, because the odds are against you.

When people are upset, they usually have to calm down of their own accord. Nothing you can say can make that process faster.

2: What's the problem? (when taking a help desk call)

This question can sound confrontational. In addition, the other person might think you're implying that the "problem" is with him or her personally. Better alternatives include, "What's going on?" or asking specifically about a person's computer, e.g. "It sounds like your computer has a problem."

3: Okay? (at the end of an answer)

As a stand-alone answer, "Okay" is okay. Your co-worker says, "I'll be back in 10 minutes," and you answer "Okay." Or someone falls in the parking lot, and you run over and ask, "Are you okay?" That's okay as well. On the other hand, a problem potentially arises when you're answering a question such as, "When will the patch be available?" If you answer, "It will be ready by Thursday afternoon, okay?" it could strike people as an impatient answer. In general, try to avoid appending that "okay" to your statements or questions. I realize it's common in parts of the United States, but it can be taken the wrong way. Dropping it takes nothing away from your previous statement. It still will be okay.

4: That's not my job

This one is tricky. We all have multiple responsibilities and heavy workloads. Yet we need to be careful about giving the impression that we're passing the buck.

If you're asked to do something that you know is someone else's responsibility, say so positively, for example, "That is xxx's responsibility." Granted, you still run the risk of appearing to pass the buck. But you can do something else to be helpful. Explain where to find the right person or provide the correct phone number. In other words, still try to impart value.

5: What's up? / What can I do for you?

These phrases are great if you're trying to get work done, and a visitor stops at your cubicle. The phrases are polite but still carry the message of, "Please get to the point, because I'm busy." But if you do use these phrases, make sure that really is your situation. If you use them in other circumstances, it might be taken the wrong way.

6: Do you hear me?

If you're really interested in whether someone has heard and understood you on a particular matter, this phrase is the wrong one to use. That person could interpret the phrase as an implication that the two of you disagree on the matter or that you're aggravated with him or her. If that's not the case, you may have unnecessarily created a problem or alienated the person. Alternatives might include "Are we okay on that?" or "How clear was I?" or "I hope that was clear."

7: You don't understand / you're confused

I always used to wonder why Professor Woodward, in my contracts class, would say, "That's an interesting way of looking at it" or "I never thought of it that way." Then I realized he was really saying, "What an idiotic statement" but was too polite to say so out loud.

Even if the other person is confused, saying so usually doesn't help things. Better, therefore, to focus on the issue rather than the person. Consider saying instead, "I'd like to make sure everyone is clear on this" or, "I sense some confusion here."

8: He / she (third-person references in the person's presence)

Dale Carnegie once said that a person's name is, to that person, the sweetest sound in the world. Failing to use it can cause a problem. Let's say John, your co-worker, comes to you to discuss a matter, during which time, he asks a question you can't answer. You call in Sue, and when Sue arrives, you say to her in John's presence, "He wants to know the answer to..."  Your failure to use John's name in this case could offend John. It would be better to simply use his name and say, "John wants to know the answer to..." If you don't know someone's name (e.g., the person is a customer, and you need to call your supervisor/boss to come over), simply ask for the name before speaking to your boss. Then, use that name when you do. The other person will be much happier.

9: Mister

If you're going to use Mister, always follow it with a surname. Using "Mister" by itself is considered rude. If I am addressing a male person whom I don't know, I will say "Sir."

10: You didn't...

Using "you" can make the other person defensive, because it may sound as if you're being accusatory. Put the focus on the action rather than on the person. Besides, that person might not have been at fault. If you say to a caller, "You didn't submit a request form," the statement could cause offense. And if the caller did submit the form, but it's still in transit, your statement would be wrong. Better to say, "I haven't received the request form."

11: Of course

Avoid using this phrase as a synonym for "Yes." Answering a question with "Of course" carries with it the unspoken follow-on, "you idiot." A matter that's obvious to you may not be obvious to the other person.

I can think of only one instance where "Of course" is okay as a substitute for "Yes": when you're giving unexpected good news to the other person, and thus the other person will be happy at your answer. So "Of course" or even "But of course" is appropriate as an answer to these questions:

  • "The project finished ahead of schedule and under budget?"
  • "The problem's been resolved?"
  • "You're paying for lunch?"

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

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