Why proper language is crucial in the executive suite

Profanity, verbal tics, and generational patois can undermine your credibility and hinder your career growth.

I worked directly for a CEO many years ago. I was the company’s first director of communications, the only woman in the top echelon, and the youngest by a good 10 years.

As someone who appeared poised to push her fists through that particular glass ceiling, I was careful. Very careful.

I dressed conservatively, in suits. I listened more than I spoke. And I watched my language.

Though society has relaxed considerably since the padded-shoulder days of the 1980s, it still makes sense for writers and other communications professionals to conduct themselves carefully in the executive suite. After all, you’re playing in someone else’s sandbox. (If you want to behave exactly as you like, you’ll have to start your own business.)

Here’s how the rules work:

1. Be friendly but don’t talk too much. The CEO and other executives don’t want to be your friends. They’re busy people, and they have lots of work to do. Let them take the lead. If they appear to want to chat, then sure, join in. But if they’re all business, then get right down to it.

2. Try to remove your verbal tics. Tics are those almost-involuntary expressions we use—like verbal spackle—to fill in the holes when we’re trying to think and speak at the same time. We all have them. Mine is “uhhhh.” When I talk in public, I try to be conscious of it and edit it before it leaves my mouth. Your tics might be different. Maybe you say, “ummm,” or, “you know?” Or, “uh huh?” Or, “really?” Or maybe you have that aggravating Valley Girl uptick by which your voice rises at the end of each sentence making every statement sound like a question? You know what I mean? Warning: This uptick is now spreading to men.

3. Don’t swear. I spent my formative years in a newsroom where we all dropped F-bombs in every other sentence. Honestly, the F-word seemed like the most perfectly calibrated noun, adjective, and/or verb for so many situations. Once I had moved into the executive tier, I worked hard to stifle this habit, because I noticed my boss never swore. I didn’t succeed in fully eliminating it until my children were born. The caregivers we hired never swore (incredibly, they even said “oh my gosh,” in lieu of, “oh my God”), and this finally shamed me into changing my ways. Now that my kids are 20-somethings, I’ve started swearing again, if only to keep up with them-but I never do it in front of clients.

4. Don’t use language that can date you. Wouldn’t you roll your eyes at someone who said “groovy” nonfacetiously? Words like, “cool,” “tubular,” “rad,” “wicked,” and “awesome” fall into the same category. Each generation has words it really likes—and then it overuses them. This is perfectly fine in everyday conversation, but you don’t want your CEO to be reflecting on your age and/or your seeming immaturity. Keep him or her thinking about your excellent work rather than your verbal style.

5. Keep confidential information confidential. My boss always said, admiringly, that I knew where all the bodies were buried. (Just to be clear, it was a metaphor.) He knew he could trust me never to blab—not just because I’d signed a confidentiality agreement, but because that was the way I operated.

I liked my boss, so I found it easy to follow these rules.

Still, you must understand this: You can disagree with your bosses. You can even dislike them. But if you want to operate in the executive suite, you’d be smart to follow Albert Einstein’s advice: “You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.”

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