What Not to Say at Work

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Has a coworker ever said something that made you cringe?  I’m not sure what I was expecting when I read this list of phrases that business etiquette expert Barbara Pachter thinks should be taboo from the workplace.  Taking into account that she’s the author of The Power of Positive Confrontation, a book about being more assertive, I could better understand why she thinks saying things like “I’m sorry to bother you” and “Can I ask a question?” are big no-no’s.  But I still couldn’t totally embrace her list.

Today, I work from home, but in the past, I’ve been an intern, employee, and on-site ESL teacher in several offices in the United States and France. While each workplace was unique, I can’t imagine any of the people there judging coworkers simply by their language; it was more about their actions. The only intensely judgmental workplaces I’ve experienced are in books or movies (remember Patrick Bateman’s freak-out over his colleagues’ superior business cards in American Psycho?), but I’m sure there are people reading this who would say that they’ve worked, or are working, in a place where this is the norm.

For those of us lucky enough not to be the real-life equivalent of Anne Hathaway’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada,” I feel like there are different standards.  I couldn’t help but make my own list of things you shouldn’t say at work.  Here goes:

1. “You need to be there.” Even if a company retreat or party outside office hours is supposed to be fun or useful, maybe I have commitments in my personal life that make it hard to give that extra time.

2. “When are you going to have a baby?” In France, this question is de rigueur for women in committed relationships, regardless of how well you know them personally. While it’s kindly meant, it’s always rubbed me the wrong way.  How do you know someone isn’t struggling with health or fertility issues?  Or maybe they just don’t want to have children.

3. “When are you getting married?”  This is basically the US equivalent of the French baby question.  If you’re guilty of asking it, remember: even if you mean it in a nice way, relationships can be complicated, as can people’s views on marriage. It’s probably best not to say anything, even if you’re talking to someone who’s been in a committed relationship for a decade and still hasn’t tied the knot.

4.  “That’s not my job.” Okay, I’ve only actually heard this once in real life, but it shocked me. I understand it’s frustrating when someone asks you to do more than you’re qualified or paid for, but you and your coworkers are all in this together. There are nicer ways to turn them down — say “I’m sorry, but I don’t know how to do that,” or “I don’t have permission to do that,” for instance.

5. “There’s a mandatory meeting tomorrow.”  In most work environments, meetings are unavoidable… and often unnecessary. It turns out I’m not alone in my utter hatred for meaningless meetings: lots of articles like this one advise managers about how to make them more effective and even pleasant to attend.

Of course, my list, like Pachter’s, is based on my own opinions and experience. What are the things you think should never be said at work?

Alysa Salzberg

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