8 phrases to avoid at work—or at the Thanksgiving table

Want to vex the boss, annoy the in-laws, get the stuffing beaten out of you? Try these tired phrases. Everyone else, avoid them like last week’s mashed potatoes.


Ooof. That was dumb.

If you ever feel that way after an ill-considered comment—whether in the conference room or at the Thanksgiving table—you’re not alone.

It’s a problem of both business life and shoveling down watery mashed potatoes at the in-laws’ house. We all can slip into over-relying on jargon, clichés and vapid phrases.

Well, it’s time to quit them—cold turkey.

A slew of internet articles reveals that social unease about language is widespread. In the latest, “9 words and phrases that make you look less smart, less competent, and less accomplished than you really are,” a writer from Business Insider generously assumes that we’re brighter than we sound.

Here are a few tips before you irk bosses and dinner companions alike.

Don’t say:

1. “I can’t.” Instead, say “I don’t.”

Think about it. If you say, “I can’t,” to the colleague trying to fob work on you, you may unintentionally project inability or incompetence. “I don’t” conveys a conscious choice.

Similarly, “I don’t eat brownies (or pumpkin pie),” works better than, “I can’t eat brownies.” The tactic helps with any goal, whether it’s procrastinating less or working out more, Business Insider notes. If it’s something you simply do not do, there’s no point in pressuring you.

Then again, you could channel your inner Bartleby and say simply, “I would prefer not to.”

2. “Leverage.”

For the love of Pete, we at Ragan/PR Daily have warned you against this phrase. Then some idiot staff writer went and used it anyway.

A leadership blog wants us to cut it out. Unless you’re in high finance conducting a buyout, or you’re using a physical lever to pry grandma from her chair after thirds on the stuffing and gravy, it’s a lazy word. Of course, this advice comes from an organization whose name, Thought Leadership LLC, is near the top of our list of phrases to avoid.

Options: “use,” “rely,” “draw upon,” etc.

3. “Like I said.”

Forbes cites this as one of 10 phrases you use that are killing your business. It won’t win you any points with your brother-in-law at the turkey table, however obnoxious you find his politics. The assumption behind the phrase (I already explained this and you’re too daft to remember) is no better if you say, more grammatically, “As I said…”

Whether you tell your teammates, “Like I said, it’s not in the budget,” or grouse at your feeble great-grandpa, “Like I said, old man, Marbury vs. Madison settled this in 1803,” you are likely to offend. Luckily, the fix is easy. Drop the first three words. (Also, no revered elder ever appreciated being called “old.”)

4. “Whatever.”

Ooooh, want to see steam come out of the ears of your boss or colleague? Do you enjoy watching your father-in-law’s face turn purple? Dismiss a comment with a roll of the eyes and a peeved, “Whatever.”

“This is part of a ‘set’ or family that goes with ‘Totally,’ ‘Like’ and ‘Um,'” a source for a previous story told Business Insider (whose editorial staff really seems worried about not saying dumb things).

5. “Shut up!”

OMG, are you still using this phrase? Shut! Up!

Naturally, you shouldn’t curtly tell a co-worker to pipe down—but that’s not what Business Insider is talking about. Try, “Wow, that’s great!” or, “I’m thrilled for you!”

Otherwise, you risk having Uncle Harold plant that whipped-cream-topped pecan pie right in your face.

6. “Win-win.”

Use this phrase, and your loathed business rival will immediately declare that his plan is “win-win-win.” Quick, tell him yours is actually a “win-win-win-win”! Sadly, this could go on all day.

As for Thanksgiving, neither the Lions nor the Vikings will be happy with “win-win.”

7. “I’m just kidding.”

No, says Undercover Recruiter.

Passive aggression is seldom welcomed, whether you’re ribbing a client about his toupee or telling Aunt Myrtle her turkey’s too dry. (Just kidding! You know I love the taste of cardboard.) An exception is allowed for insulting Uncle Vyacheslav’s favorite hockey team while tossing down vodka shots in front of the TV. Clear out the furniture first, however, for the brawl that will follow.

8. “It is what it is.”

No doubt about that. Also, it’s not what it’s not. Either way, try using this phrase when underlings ask you to proof the newsletter they wrote. Sigh and roll your eyes as you say it, and see how it goes over.

The phrase is equally unlikely to please your anxious mother-in-law as she sits down at the turkey table, sweaty and flushed from nine hours in the kitchen.

Whatever. Like I said, just shut up.

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