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These 8 expressions can make you sound insensitive at work

Especially when working remotely, it’s important to take care with your language, to not be misconstrued.

These 8 expressions can make you sound insensitive at work
[Photo: ivan101/iStock]
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The pandemic has separated many of us from our coworkers. Working from home is likely to continue playing a major role in the reconfigured workplace.

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The result is that some remote workers may feel detached, isolated, and unable to get the same warmth from their officemates that they once did. Zoom and other digital communication tools can exaggerate the distance we feel and leave us with a sense of estrangement.

All of this has implications for the language we use. More than ever, we need to abandon expressions that might demonstrate emotional insensitivity. Eliminate the following if you want to show concern for the feelings of your coworkers:

1. Whatever

This word is used quite often in casual conversation, but when used in today’s office environment it can feel like someone is dismissing us.

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Suppose you’re having a conversation with a colleague and you say, “We need more time on this proposal, are you free for another call later this week?” and your colleague responds with “whatever.” He may mean that he’s available any time, but the implication is that he may not even want a meeting. Or is fed up with meetings!

Or suppose you suggest to your boss that you can approach a project in two different ways and she says “whatever.” She may mean choose whatever approach you think best. But the curt “whatever” can also mean “don’t bug me about it.” Avoid this word because it can unintentionally send a negative message.

2. No problem

This turn of phrase is used a great deal. The speaker may mean, “I’m glad to respond to your request.” But it doesn’t come out that way.

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Suppose your manager has just requested something of you and finishes by saying “Okay?” In response, you say “no problem.” While your intention might be to show that you’ll do whatever has been requested, you are responding with two negatives—and they don’t add up to a positive. In fact, there is an undertow to “no problem.” It’s as if the speaker is saying, “well, yeah, you’re giving me some mindless little thing to do, but I’ll do it anyway.” For example, perhaps you’ve been asked to grab a coffee for your manager or print out an agenda. We don’t respond with “no problem” when the assignment is big or attractive.

A better, more positive response is to say “I’d be glad to,” or “Of course.”

3. No way

This expression provides an abrupt way of pushing back on a request. It’s harsh. The very fact you are saying “no way,” suggests you are not open to a request or working together to solve a problem.

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In face-to-face communication with a friend, “no way” may be accompanied by a big smile and a laugh. It could be another way of saying “That’s awesome!”

But in business and on digital communications it doesn’t work so well. If your manager asks for a report by a certain date and you say “no way,” you’ll be in trouble. Without positive body language cues, “no way” can sound negative and sharp, making the other person bristle.

4. Understood

There are times when “understood” might be the proper affirmative. But it also can come across as curt, especially these days, when many people are looking for an emotional connection. If a colleague is telling you that things have been tough at home with kids and work pressures, responding with “understood” can feel dismissive, as if you are too busy to fully share those concerns.

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Instead, respond more fully. Tell the speaker you know it must be tough, you appreciate that they’ve shared this with you, and ask if there’s anything you can do to help. Now the speaker feels regenerated by this conversation with you.

5. Totally

You might get away with this among friends, but in the office it’s often too casual and, almost invariably, imprecise. If someone is asking if you agree with their observations, “totally” is rarely accurate. It suggests you either haven’t listened to, or don’t fully understood what they are saying.

Instead, reply with sensitivity and specificity. You might say, “I know how you feel about stay at home orders,” or “I completely understand that you’re under a lot of pressure.” Those fuller sentences will underscore your emotional connection.

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6. I hear you

Again, another curt reply. Usually it’s positive—but it can have an edge to it. If people are sharing, they want you to do more than acknowledge you’ve heard their words. Speakers want to know what your response is.

Instead, say “I hear that things may be getting to you, and that the stress is just too much.” Or “I hear that things are going better, and that’s great.” Be specific.

7. Guys

Nobody wants to feel left out, and this expression leaves out anyone who doesn’t identify as a man.

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“Guys” and its near kin, “you guys” and “hey guys,” should have no place in today’s office. (Using “guys and gals” is no better. It sounds terribly dated, like a line from an old movie, and still leaves out nonbinary people. Plus it divides the room along gender lines.) Better to say “team” or “colleagues,” or “everybody.”

Also never use “guys” in relation to power. As in “the guy who’s CFO” or “the guys at the top.” This may be true, but it’s a sad comment on an organization, and shouldn’t be emphasized with that choice of words.

8. You’re being sensitive 

This expression is often used in response to a complaint. At its heart, it’s a put down. You’re telling the listener, “The problem is yours. It’s not the workplace or anyone else’s behavior.”

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Let’s say an employee says she doesn’t want to return to work as the office reopens. She says she’s afraid of catching COVID-19. “Oh, you’re being too sensitive,” her HR manager might say.

Avoid this expression because it shows that you are not listening with any empathy to what the other person is saying. It’s better to hear the other person out fully and see if the problem can be addressed in a constructive way.