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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.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

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.

119 comments
bobt57
bobt57

Another great list of tips for dealing with customers Calvin. I have used the phrases, "what can I do for you today" or "how can I help you today" and you have me wondering if these phrases might also be taken the wrong way. I always try to be polite and try not to come off as impatient, I would like to know what you think. Thanks Bob

LibertySon
LibertySon

I think people need not be little whinny babies and get themselves in emotional order instead of choosing to get upset at trivial uses of the English language. What a bunch of idiots people are most of the time. That's why the world is the way it is. Stop wearing it on your sleeve.

david.lavie
david.lavie

The one line that raises my hackles is the "is it just me or....". Yes it is just you. dave

Balefire
Balefire

In this blog post, People who get butthurt over phrases because they misinterpret them them as a personal offense.

FakeUser3720547398
FakeUser3720547398

What's up? It really isn't my job to criticize this, okay? But Jody Gilbert missed some things, of course. What you didn't do mister was leave out the other agitating phrases! Do you hear me people? You don't understand the science of aggravation. You're just confused. If anyone is offended by this post they need to calm down, get a grip,chill out, take a chill pill, and relax! If not I'll just have to ask what your problem is.

Loong
Loong

"Do you understand what I'm saying?" and "Do you get me?"

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

"uh-huh" It is the most pig headed, ignorant grunt someone can possibly offer you and I get it from the vast majority of my American manufacturers and clients. After a conversation, I say thank you or thanks for your help etc. before ending the call and I hear, 'uh-huh'. Then the phone hangs up. What's wrong with - you're welcome, have a nice day, thanks for calling, take care, even f-o would be better but 'uh-huh'??? that just makes me want to reach through the phone and remove a throat. I know all nationalities have their slangy quirks, you guys play on how Canadians say 'eh' a lot, which I also hear it everywhere, if not mostly in the UK but it seems to be more emphasized in Canada, especially the Eastern provinces and maritimes. I don't mind, its a common trait of Canadians and I even notice when I say 'eh' in America (dead giveaway). Its not rude or used as a way to address someone saying goodbye or thanking you. But, 'Uh-Huh'? what kind of a two-bit, ignorant, slang reply is that to ANY comment?

jnuzhjp
jnuzhjp

Not forgeting to use "Will all due respect...." before u are at the edge of offending someone is useful.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

I don't know why people bother saying "No offense, but..." It is always followed with something they KNOW is offensive, so they DO intend it to be offensive. No offense? Then don't 'kin say it if you don't want me to take offense to it! :D

btompkins
btompkins

And I always thought the phrase "What can I do for you" was me being polite to whomever called or came to my desk. I want to sound like I am ready to help, what would be a good thing to say in addition to hi or hello? Calvin, I always look forward to your posts and save the ones I think apply to my work situation for reference later. Thank you, Bob

mdhealy
mdhealy

Which usually means, "everybody had better agree with ME."

KSoniat
KSoniat

... makes me feel the opposite. At least I only hear it infrequently now.

creativenrg11
creativenrg11

When there's some kind of problem, whether outage, misconfig, or solving a project tactic, and I describe certain parameters or constraints, I'm often met with "huh, is that true?". No, I'm lying. I'm just making it up because I like the sound of my voice. Just because you don't believe it or are just learning it doesn't make the data questionable. "Are you sure?" or "Could you provide the source?" would be so much better responses because they don't seem to question integrity, instead they address the true issue: information.

alpaca
alpaca

Not necessarily offensive but it really gets my goat - I know it shouldn't - when someone responds to an assertion with the single word "Correct". Justifiable homicide?

BigBlueMarble
BigBlueMarble

In southern states, it is not merely socially acceptable to address people as "Ma'am" and "Sir," it is considered courteous and respectful. Likewise, referring to people one knows with "Miss" or "Mister" pre-pended to their name, e.g., "How are you today, Miss Cathy?" In northern states, this seems to typically come across as unbelievably rude and sarcastic. Ironically, southerners *do* frequently (but not always) use the word, "Yankee" with disdain. Yet "Yankee" seems to be a word embraced with pride by Northerners - especially New Englanders. Go figure. :)

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

is bound to offend somebody somewhere on a daily basis. Until we get it through our thick skulls that defensiveness is our problem, it's not going to matter much what we say to whom when. etu

RocketEng
RocketEng

I hear this one on a weekly basis: "I was led to believe..." I'm with maecuff; Have the gonads to own up to your position.

JimInPA
JimInPA

Listed in order of irritation 1. It is my understanding - this is a total cop out used by members of management and even some peers as an out in case they are later proven wrong. 2. Does that make sense? - 2 of my colleagues always say this after they explain something. I think it is the condescending tone more so than the phrase. 3. I'm just gonna put this out there - just say it already. There is no need to preface it. If you say it we know it's out there.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

And when I want to irritate someone. I'm make use of them all preferably at the same time liberally spotted with some pithy anglo saxon I try never to unintentionally irritate though. My aditional to the list is I agree completely. When said by someone who has a history of doing nothing more than agreeing...

rtashman
rtashman

Calvin Great job on the list. Rick

RFink
RFink

That's a good word. I'm amazed how a word that means miserly can cause so many problems.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"2: What's the problem? ... the other person might think you?re implying that the 'problem' is with him or her personally." "5. What's up? / What can I do for you? ... The phrases are polite but still carry the message of, 'Please get to the point, because I'm busy.' If you use them in other circumstances, it might be taken the wrong way." "11: Of course ... Answering a question with 'Of course' carries with it the unspoken follow-on, 'you idiot.'" And from other posts: "The use of "no problem" instead of "you're welcome". ... Infers that what I might have been the source of a problem unless he/she clears it up." I'm sorry if some choose to read meanings into what I say when there's nothing there. That isn't going to cause me to pre-examine everything I say for possible misinterpretation. If I think you're the problem, or I'm too busy to chat, or I think you're an idiot, I'll tell you outright. Incidentally, there's only one person I normally call an idiot - myself, and I do it on a daily basis.

yogiwan
yogiwan

The one that bugs me is "ya know" If I knew, we would not be having this discussion

wizard57m-cnet
wizard57m-cnet

this blog post is 3 years old, I think he's gone. However, to try and answer, those phrases are probably going to depend on context and the "way" they are asked. In a sharp, short manner, it would be rude...in over cheerful manner, you'd make a great door-greeter at WalMart. So, keep it polite and cordial.

darpoke
darpoke

that your post makes you come off as an arrogant, abrasive person with a less than thorough typing style. Omitting the word 'to' after the opener 'I think people need' might be grammatically correct but it impedes the apparent intended sentiment, as does the lack of a comma after the first logical clause - it would read better as '...babies, and...'. Additionally, a 'whinny' is the sound a horse makes. Given that your use of the English language is all that I have had on which to base that judgement, might you agree that it can be more important than you've given credit? I'm sure you're a perfectly reasonable person and nothing like the description at the start of my post; I mean no disrespect at all. I am merely trying to make the point that the language we use can be hurtful to others - as well as give an impression of its user - and it's not for us to decide how others feel about the things we say. With that in mind, it seems reasonable to give a little more thought to what we say and how we say it. That's just my two cents.

JamesRL
JamesRL

But it isn't just call centre staff, its management as well. I don't mind it as someone agreeing in the middle of a conversation, its when they end a chat with it instead of "thanks" or you are welcome or any polite way to close off a conversation. I'd rather here an insincere "Have a nice day" instead of "uh-huh" which kinda tells me I'm not with a couple of real consenents. James

darpoke
darpoke

I've never been convinced as to the usefulness of that phrase. It's up there with, 'I'm not being funny, but...' and 'no offence, but...' (in the UK at least). It implies that you are aware of the imminent offence you are about to cause but have every intention to continue unabashed. For me, that usually serves to somehow heighten the offence.

AmethystWoman
AmethystWoman

if you are originally a yankee, move to florida, then relocate to say, North Carolina, you will be called a "half back". you have moved "half back" up north. yup. north too cold, south too hot, middle is JUST RIGHT!

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

If a Southern uses this phrase, he is NOT interested in the welfare of the subject's soul. "God bless her" is one of the most devastating remarks a Southerner can make about you. "Cousin Billy, God bless him, he's always doing this or that or ..."

Wcoyote1
Wcoyote1

And the pervasive defensiveness seems to have infected society as a whole (granted, there are exceptions). Over the last decade, we've had so much political correctness shoved down our gullets that to be remotely offensive to another person nearly seems to be a capital offense.

cupcake
cupcake

when someone prefaces a question with "can I ask a question?"... I would LOVE to be a smarta@@ and tell them, 'you've already asked a question.', but I *try* to refrain. At least while I am at work!

Blau67
Blau67

How about ... "Uh".. used after every 3 - 4 words in some supposedly 'intelligent' discussion or even"ya know" ! Uh, ya know? Nuf Said! Blau

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

Has anyone used that word since Mark Twain was alive?

jdclyde
jdclyde

lack of comprehension on your part does not equal a lack of communication on mine. B-)

neilb
neilb

No? Why NOT? Aren't I worth it?

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

I didn't realize I'd implied that, my bad. I meant purchasing agents, tech staff, engineers, and eve C level staff of large US companies. "uh-huh, I went to college!" :D

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

Nikko McBrain's road diaries always use 'kin in them, which I find great for forums without being rude and those who get it, get it.

john.a.wills
john.a.wills

This use of "God bless him" seems to parallel the shift of "silly" (cognate with Dutch zelig, German selig) from "blessed" to "stupid". I can't say anything good about his intelligence, so I'll say something else good about him.

AmethystWoman
AmethystWoman

I am a yankee living in the south. You are so right. If someone says "bless her soul" then you know she (or YOU!) are really a moron! But they are just being polite...

Data Nut
Data Nut

So many people seem to be LOOKING for something to be offended by. Some have the cahones to throw it right in your face. Even if it's one of those roll-the-eyes-ya-gotta-be-kidding ones you can just forget about calling them on it. Then you'll get their righteous indignation and the "how DARE you be offended at me!" attitude... at which point they've made up their minds (and they will never ever change them) that you are totally unreasonable and not worthy of their attention or respect. When it is really THEY who have become totally unreasonable by not considering why someone said something. Sooooo bad, certainly nowadays with international communication becoming the norm. NOOO!!! You must interact with me using MY rules and MY rules only. And if you even think something that I find offensive I will proclaim to the world how you are lower than lowly pond scum. Oops! I guess that's a teeny weeny bit of a sore spot with me too!

MikeGall
MikeGall

Q"Why does X happen?" "Ya know it's complicated. Just do X." Okay which is it, something they should know, or something complicated that needs expertise that they might not have? Either way, ya know is not the correct response to the question, it implies that they are wasting your time. It's complicated communicates "I'm not going to explain", or worse "I don't know and so can't explain, and am not going to bother to research the issue", or even worse "I know you won't understand so I'm not going to bother".

hilld
hilld

I work mostly with a z/OS server (mainframe). Even some of the nettech guys are surprized that it can supply all web services. The answer heard most often is really?

Refurbished
Refurbished

I have frequently heard it used to describe older computer languages that are still used but no longer as popular as they once were.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

A congressman from VA used it last year in a public forum and caught hell from those who didn't know what the word means.

neilb
neilb

Given your spelling. ;\

jdclyde
jdclyde

did you say something? :p

jdclyde
jdclyde

now the I use FF with the built in speel cheeker. :p