You have probably come across people who have said stupid things. You may have wondered how someone could say something so silly — and you might still remember and laugh about it. Here are 10 examples I have run across. When read here, they are funny. But when you say them on the job, you could endanger your career or reputation.
1: "If Tanya did that, she's in big trouble"
Dissing someone to a third party always carries risks. Doing so is even riskier when the person being dissed is the assistant to the boss. Are you thinking no one is this stupid? Think again.
I once called the headquarters of a major company and reached Tanya (not her real name, of course), the assistant to the CIO of the company. After I explained why I was calling, Tanya gave me the name and contact information of a director, who was on the CIO's staff. In other words, the CIO was this director's boss.
When I called this director and explained how I got his contact information, the director freaked out at me and badmouthed Tanya. I ended the conversation and then contacted Tanya again to tell her what had happened. Weeks later, I discovered that this director had left, or been asked to leave, the company.
2: "Your wish is totally unnecessary"
Someone once responded via email to an immigration topic I had posted, saying that I was wrong. The person's email then went on to precisely state the same thing I had stated in my post. In other words, his refutation made no sense at all. After several back and forth exchanges, which became increasingly snippety on his part, I finally told him that regardless, I appreciated his taking the time to contact me and that I wished him all the best.
He responded that my wish was unnecessary.
3: "We have an in-house Titanic expert and have no need for outside speakers"
A few years ago, I contacted a local university about the possibility of speaking about the recovery and burial of Titanic victims. The person I contacted gave me this response, referring to one of their professors, who also had done research on Titanic.
Upon hearing this answer, one has to wonder if they would similarly have turned down, for example, the son of survivor Richard Norris Williams; Dr. Ryan Parr, who through DNA analysis identified the "Unknown Child of the Titanic"; or Dr. Robert Ballard, who in 1985 discovered the wreckage of Titanic.
4: "[The boss] went home to take a nap"
I plead guilty.
During a summer of college, I worked at a camp as the assistant to the director. One day, not feeling well, he said that would go home to take a nap. Later that day, his own boss called, and I told him exactly what the director had told me. A week or so later, during an event at the camp, I met my boss's boss, and he privately and good-naturedly told me that I "should never admit that [my] boss is mortal."
5 and 6: "I just sent the report out to our clients; I hope my boss likes it"
Using ammonia by itself is great when cleaning. Using chlorine bleach by itself is great when cleaning. However, combining the two might be unwise.
Telling people that you just distributed a report to your clients is fine, because it shows your diligence and perseverance. Telling people that you hope your boss likes your report is fine, because it shows that you seek the boss's approval for your report. However, putting the two statements in tandem indicates that you have given your boss a fait accompli. That is, you are saying that even before getting the boss's approval or review, you sent out the report. Now, after the fact, you hope the boss is okay with the report.
Saying these statements I tandem is bad enough. Saying it on Twitter or Facebook is 10 times worse.
7: "Please get help and try later"
The only thing worse than a user-unfriendly voicemail system is one with obnoxious announcements. If you press the wrong key too many times while in an Audix voicemail system, the "Audix lady" will give you this condescending message, then hang up on you. Far better instead to route the caller to the receptionist or to a general voicemail box.
8: "No, it's NOT okay"
Years ago, when my second daughter was still young and cell phones were rare, the two of us were in downtown Philadelphia. I needed to make a call, so we entered a retirement home apartment building that had a pay phone. We had been to this building many times, because an elderly friend, now deceased, lived there. As I picked up the phone to begin to dial, I noticed a security guard approach us, as if to ask if we needed help. I nodded and smiled to him and said, "It's okay." Upon hearing my words, the guard glared at both us and said "No, it's NOT okay." I got the message — that we were not supposed to use the pay phone — and we left.
I later wrote to the executive director of the organization that managed this apartment to outline my concerns: that the phone and lobby gave no indication that the phone was only for resident use and that as frequent visitors, we had a reasonable expectation of being able to use the phone. Of course, I also mentioned the rudeness of the guard. I received a profuse apology, and I never saw that guard again at the building.
I once had a co-worker who had a reputation for putting his foot in his mouth. Once, during a training session on conflict management, we saw a short video in which a female office worker berated a male colleague over sloppy work.
When the video ended, my co-worker's first words were, "PMS."
10: 慢走 Man zou
A little knowledge, it is said, can be dangerous. The term 慢走 man zou, literally "go slowly" when said to someone in China, is a wish that their travel will be safe.
A few months ago, I was a guest, along with others, at a banquet in Hefei, China. Naturally, as we all were leaving, I said 慢走to our host. At that point, everyone around me broke out in laughter. They explained to me that in this situation, the HOST says 慢走 to the GUEST. For the guest to say so to the host, as I did, actually constitutes rudeness.
Lessons to be learned
What can we learn from these examples? First, think before you speak. What sounds reasonable to you might sound foolish to the listener. Be especially alert if you are dealing with people from a different culture. Second, avoid showing disunity within your organization when speaking to someone outside. Finally, if a thought or idea really isn't necessary to the conversation, it's best to consider keeping it to yourself.
What's the dumbest thing you ever heard someone say? What's the dumbest thing you yourself have ever said (so far)?
Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.