Have you ever noticed the knee-jerk reactions people have when you use certain phrases or words?
It’s not that those words are offensive in and of themselves. But their meanings tend to conjure up connections in the brain that triggers an emotional response.
While we can’t completely avoid using these terms all the time, we can be mindful of how and when we use them, and the impact they can have. In some cases, those words can mean something different than what we intended.
I’ve compiled a list of “cautionary” words that can wreak havoc on meaningful conversations. There are more words, I’m sure, but this brief list should get you started thinking about the way we convey meaning in our everyday conversation with our word choices.
At first glance, “compromise” seems like an innocent word. After all, people use it all the time in the act of negotiating. The problem stems from the implication that we must give up something in a compromise in order to get something else, which is counterproductive. Do compromises ever give you everything you want in the arrangement? Usually it means all parties involved are not getting something they want. Compromise doesn’t give you the results you ultimately seek, which is a win-win situation.
What if we switched out compromise in favor of collaboration? If we collaborate on a work arrangement, a deal, or a new song, a sense of equal partnership is implied. Even saying the word aloud – collaboration – has a different feel to it. It feels more inclusive than compromise. With collaboration, everybody wins.
Think how much more productive our members of Congress would be if they chose to collaborate on legislation rather than compromise?
Some years ago, a young writer I met at a conference explained that she stopped referring to herself as a freelancer. “Whenever I told a client that I was a freelance writer, they tended to hear only the first half of the word and assumed my services were free.”
The woman made a good point. If you are starting out on your own and you identify yourself as a freelancer, are you unwittingly setting up an expectation among potential clients that your services are cheaper than other independent contractors?
A better option is “independent” or no descriptive term at all. Do you really need to identify yourself as an independent anything? In most cases, just saying, “I’m a business writer” or “I’m a photojournalist and graphic designer” are sufficient enough on their own to explain what you do without adding a “freelance” description.
I will write this once and never again: I hate the word “hate.” It’s such a strong, angry word that incites aggressive responses in people. I prefer the word “dislike,” which I suppose reflects my kinder, gentler approach to life.
I refuse to say or write that I hate another person, only that I dislike their opinions, dislike their attitude, or dislike the way they dress. Other comparable but less suggestive words: detest, loathe, abhor. Yes, they are as strong as hate, but they’re not nearly as hateful.
Another word that appears innocent enough at first glance, but can suggest negative meaning to some people because it makes them feel self-conscious, especially about their appearance. Diet, much like the word compromise, implies a loss of something or giving up something to get what you want. In this case, diet implies giving up certain types of foods that you enjoy in order to lose pounds. In fact, the word diet has almost become synonymous with “sacrifice.” Diet also implies a short-term solution to an eating problem.
The alternative phrases that I prefer are “eating habits” or “meal plan.” Rather than say, “I need to go on a diet,” which sounds negative and not enticing, instead say, “I plan to change my eating habits,” which is more positive and forward thinking.
Ever notice a person’s facial expression or physical reaction after you said no to their request? They sometimes look like they’ve been punched in the gut. No is one of those words that has an explosive effect, like a gun going off in the middle of the quiet evening.
While many times, saying no is necessary, there are ways to say no with less force and impact. For example, if your child asks for a snack before dinner, don’t just say no; instead, say “Yes, but after you’ve finished your dinner.” Or, to answer a worker’s request to leave work early, you can respond, “Yes, but please turn in your monthly reports before you leave.
This has become one of the most overused phrases in business writing. Have you ever caught yourself writing to a client, “I’m sorry for getting back to your request so late.” It might sound sincere, but it also comes across as lacking confidence
In this instance, it might be better to use “thank you” to introduce the note. “Thank you for notifying me of your problem. Let me look into it and see how we can fix it for you.” This response sounds more positive and engaging without putting yourself down in the process.
Don’t get me wrong. Apologies are necessary if you are truly sorry about something that happened. But to continually use “I’m sorry” in business communications gives the impression that you lack confidence in yourself.
Whether used in personal discussions or in business communications, be aware of the words and phrases you use. Some can create negative feelings where none was intended.