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Six “positive” expressions you say that can actually be offensive

You may think you are complimenting your co-worker by calling them “assertive” or “articulate” but some words come with a lot of baggage.

Six “positive” expressions you say that can actually be offensive
[Photo: Flickr user theilr]

Some expressions sound innocuous, even complimentary. But in the wrong context, they’re insulting–and convey messages that are just the opposite of what we intend.

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The following six common words and phrases may seem positive, but come loaded with a lot of baggage.

1. Assertive

We often use this word for friends or colleagues, who are confident and well-spoken. Indeed, in my book, Taking the Stage: How Women Can Speak Up, Stand out, and Succeed, I emphasize that women should be assertive. But when used simply as a label for a particular woman (“Maria is certainly assertive”), the word can take on negative overtones. Too many individuals still link “assertive” with unattractive qualities like aggressiveness and bossiness.
So scrap the label and find alternatives for describing female colleagues and acquaintances. Simply say, “She is confident and well spoken,” or “I like Sara’s willingness to speak up at meetings.”

2. Sensitive

At face value, this word is normally a positive description of someone who has emotional intelligence, and uses that ability to express feelings and interpret the feelings of others. All this is good. But the word “sensitive” has long been used as a backhanded compliment towards women. It’s often used to imply that she is too “emotional” to lead or be taken seriously. When it is applied to men, the word plays against the stereotype of what many think of as “male”–qualities like boldness, strength, and authority. “Sensitive” can suggest “overly sensitive,” unable to take criticism or a joke.
It’s important to recognize that of course both men and women can and frequently do have a sensitive side. But when you express that view, try saying “Malik gets people,” or “Sarah is a consistently thoughtful person.”

3. Well-rounded

This expression compliments individuals whose talents shine in various disciplines such as academics, sports, and the arts.
But when used to describe an athlete, or even a distinguished scholar, the expression implicitly reinforces stereotypes. If you have to qualify “athlete” with “well-rounded” the implication is that athletes are not generally well rounded. Such a generalization demeans the many athletes who give back to their communities or have remarkable second careers when their playing days are over. And why can’t a Nobel Prize winner in physics also be an excellent tennis player.
Applaud any athlete (or scholar) you know for his or her breadth of knowledge and accomplishment. But do it not by juxtaposing “athlete” or “professor” with “well-rounded.” Simply describe the breadth of accomplishments of that person. For example, don’t say “Jeremy Lin is a well-rounded athlete.” Say, “Jeremy Lin, who is a star basketball player for the Atlanta Hawks, has a Harvard University degree in economics and is fluent in both Chinese and English.”

4. Idealistic

This term praises those who value ideas and set lofty goals for themselves. Those are admirable qualities.
But the word can be pejorative when describing Millennials or other young people. The implication is that these “idealists” are not interested in hard work or pursuing difficult paths to success. It suggests that this generation is out of touch with reality.
So talk about idealism, yes, but do so in the context of specifics, not vast generalities about a group.

5. Sharp as a tack

This expression means “extremely clever or astute.” Who wouldn’t want to claim this attribute? But like the other expressions mentioned in this article, “sharp as a tack,” when referring to certain groups has a negative tinge.
Specifically, these words, when used to describe older people, have negative implications. It suggests the norm is confusion, and that a particular individual is astute despite their age. When First Lady Barbara Bush died this year, a TV commentator said she was “sharp as a tack.” Better to treat people of any age as individuals. Use specifics, such as “she remained politically active into her 90s,” rather than these dangerous descriptors.

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6. Articulate

This is another word that on its surface may feel like a compliment, but it can carry unintended baggage. While it’s an adjective that can be a useful descriptor, it has problematic connotations when applied to groups where racist stereotypes suggest those individuals are typically less eloquent. For example, former President Barack Obama was called “articulate” as though being so was out of character with his background.  If you want to compliment someone’s communication style, better to do so directly by saying something like, “Mike is a great public speaker,” or “Sandra puts together concise and compelling presentations.”

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About the author

Judith Humphrey is founder of The Humphrey Group, a premier leadership communications firm headquartered in Toronto. She is a communications expert whose business teaches global clients how to communicate as confident, compelling leaders

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