8 Phrases to Eliminate From Your Work Vocabulary

Young man talking to female colleague by watercooler

By Alison Green

We all have certain fallback phrases we use at work. But some of them can be seriously annoying to co-workers and alarming to managers.

Here are eight phrases you might use at work without much thought – but are worth removing from your office vocabulary.

1. "Are you busy?" This one is likely to make your conscientious co-workers cringe. Few people want to say, "Nope, just browsing some celebrity gossip." And someone who is busy may still be available for an interruption, depending on what you need. They might be perfectly willing to make time for something urgent or important but not want to be interrupted to discuss the upcoming employee potluck. Instead say, "Do you have a few minutes to talk to me about X?"

2. "Can you please come by my office?" Like phrase No. 1, this is frustrating because recipients have no idea what you want. Is it important enough to prioritize above other pressing responsibilities? Or can they defer until later in the day if they're busy? Do they need to bring something to take notes with? Are they going to be put on the spot about a project when they would prefer to have a chance to review notes before meeting? If you're the boss, should they be bracing for a serious conversation? Or is it no big deal? Spare people the speculation and explain what you'd like to talk about.

3. "I'll try." You might think this is a reasonable response to an assignment or request if you're not positive that you can do what's being asked or meet a deadline. But it will leave your manager unsure of whether or not you're actually committing to get it done. Of course, you don't want to commit to something that you're too overworked to complete, but in that case, explain what you're thinking. Rather than leaving it at "I'll try," it's better to say something like, "I think X might get in the way of that deadline. But if it starts looking like that will be the case, I'll come back to you well in advance to figure out how to prioritize."

4. "That's so fattening!" Your co-workers don't want to hear you pass judgment on what they're eating. You're not the diet police, and you should avoid any temptation to comment on the calories in co-workers' meals, the number of snacks they've had that day or the unhealthiness of what they eat.

5. "It's not my fault." It's not that you should take blame when you're not at fault. But a more constructive formulation that doesn't focus on who is – or isn't – to blame will reflect better on you. For example, say, "I think what happened was X. And to avoid it, we'd need the marketing department to do Y earlier in the future. I'll talk to Sarah about getting that on our client checklist." However, on the other end of the blame equation ...

6. "Sorry." There are indeed times when you should apologize at work, such as if you've inadvertently offended someone or created additional work for a colleague. But some people tend to over-apologize, offering up regrets for everything from needing to ask a question to a project flaw that wasn't anyone's fault. Over-apologizing can make you seem weak and overly deferential. You may inadvertently end up taking responsibility for things that weren't your mistakes.

7. "I can't keep up with my email." This is like saying to your co-workers, "You can't count on me to read and retain even important messages you send to me." It will raise doubts about your ability to keep on top of your workload and make you seem unreliable. If your manager hears you say it, she's likely to wonder if you're letting tasks slip through the cracks or not getting back to clients.

8. "Gentle reminder." If you've ever prefaced a follow-up to a colleague with "just a gentle reminder," there's a good chance that it's making your recipient grind her teeth. The phrase often comes across like you're saying, "I worry that you might be offended by a normal business communication, so I feel I like approach you delicately." You don't need to tiptoe around or patronize your co-workers. It's okay to be direct and say, "I want to remind you about this because of X."