7 things to avoid saying at work, and what to say instead

Words carry power. At work, they can either help you succeed or be your downfall. Knowing which words and phrases help (and which absolutely don’t) can give you that extra edge in the workplace.
Elliyani Mohamad Ali
Chief Editor, gradsingapore

Have you ever felt like your colleagues avoid speaking to you, unless it’s absolutely necessary? You try to have small talk with them, but it doesn’t go far. Your emails get easily ignored, and no one seems to want to work with you, even though you’re good at your job.

If that’s the case, it’s possible that your soft skills need some major tweaks. To get to the root of this mystery, start with assessing your communication skills. Ask yourself: do you keep saying the wrong things at work?

Chances are, you can tell by your co-workers’ body language. If they’re pursing their lips and going “Hmm, never mind, it’s fine” before walking away, then you know you didn’t say the right thing. So, think back on your previous conversations, and ask yourself if you’re guilty of this list of “banned” things to say.

Don’t say: “I don’t know.”

You just started your first professional job, so naturally, you’re still learning the ropes and don’t know a lot of things. But just saying “I don’t know” shows a lack of initiative and that you don’t care enough to find out. In an office environment, you have to show that you’re reliable and action-oriented. Ask your colleagues on how you can help them find the answer that they need or suggest solutions.

7 things to avoid saying at work, and what to say instead_I don't know

Don’t say: “We've always done it this way.”

Maybe the company you’re working for adopts strict sets of procedures and protocols. So if someone comes along with new, radical ideas, you may be right to be practical and shoot them down with “we've always done it this way”. But this gives you a bad impression of someone who’s not progressive or forward-thinking. Even the least agile industry need to innovate and adopt new ideas to survive in these challenging times.

7 things to avoid saying at work, and what to say instead_We've always done it this way

Don’t say: “This will only take a second.”

Firstly, what are the chances that the help you need from someone literally only takes one second? Secondly, it can be quite rude to disrupt someone’s work when you march over asking them to help you with your task right at that very moment. Once in a while, this may be acceptable for some of your nicest colleagues, but anything more is just plain annoying and inconsiderate. Here’s a rule of thumb, your colleagues are working too and may be rushing through something important. Always give them an option to wrap up what they’re doing before coming to help you.

7 things to avoid saying at work, and what to say instead_This will only take a second

Don’t say: “ I can’t/won’t/don’t.”

You’re only human, you can’t do everything. But sometimes, that doesn’t mean you should say the words can’t/won’t/don’t. It won’t paint you in the best light, even if you had a valid reason for flat-out refusing something. All it does is give you the impression that you don’t have the capabilities to do something or that you just don’t want to do it. Instead, explain why you’re not doing something you’re told to and suggest a solution.

7 things to avoid saying at work, and what to say instead_I can't won't don't


Don’t say: “Are you pregnant?”

Actually, this advice is suitable for outside the workplace as well. Just don’t ask this question. If someone is pregnant and wants to tell you, then she will. Otherwise, just ask any other questions but this. Similarly, if you’re new to the team, it is best not to ask too personal questions until you get to know them better.

7 things to avoid saying at work, and what to say instead_are you pregnant

Don’t say: “I'll Try.”

Although you probably mean that you’ll try your best to succeed, to your co-workers and boss, all they see is your lack of confidence. In fact, they’re already mentally making alternative plans for the task that they expect you to fail. Instead of saying “I’ll try”, share with them your concerns on why you may not be able to do the task well enough.

7 things to avoid saying at work, and what to say instead_I'll try

Don’t say: “I’m Sorry.”

Obviously, if you’re accepting responsibility for an error you’ve made, then feel free to apologise. Showing remorse and apologising for it, especially if you’ve hurt someone, is a fundamental part of life. But take a moment to reflect on how overused this phrase is. When you start with “I’m sorry to bother you…” you’re already undermining your credibility. Instead of apologising repeatedly, turn it around and thank the person instead.

7 things to avoid saying at work, and what to say instead_I'm Sorry


If you’re still unsure of the right things to say, remind yourself that the office is where you work and so you need to maintain a professional attitude. Adopt a positive mindset, be considerate and do your best in everything. And if you can’t, then explain yourself. Your team will understand. All in all, take extra precaution in what comes out of your mouth so that everything you say will promote your professionalism, not hurt it.