WORKPLACE / SEP. 14, 2015
version 8, draft 8

5 Words That Will Scare the Hell Out of Your Co-Workers and Why

The office is a volatile place. Even the most cool and collected of individuals can be set on edge with a single alarming exclamation from a colleague. Even if muttered unintentionally, certain words can be the catalyst that puts a peer on the path to a nervous breakdown. And I’m not even talking about words that need no explanation, like “downsizing” or “restructuring.” Some of the most common words in the English language can be incredibly damaging to a worker’s psyche and can affect how they go about their business for the rest of the day.

See Also: The Secret to Reducing Stress and Increasing Productivity

1. "Except"

“Except”, “but”, “it’s just that”, “of course”… nothing good has ever come after these words. The worst part about these words is that not only do you know the person saying them is about to drop a bombshell on you, but just hearing the word caused you to forget what the first half of the sentence was in the first place. “You really did a great job on that presentation, except for that piece of celery stuck in your teeth through the whole thing.” If your boss said that to you, would you really be thinking about how well you did in your presentation? No! You’d be running your tongue all through your mouth trying to make sure there’s no other incriminating food scraps on display. Or the situation could be much more serious: “We’d love to promote you, except we’re in the middle of a budget crisis right now.” As a hard-working employee, why do you care that the higher-ups are facing a budget crisis? All that matters to you is the first part of that sentence: you’re not getting the promotion. Once the word “except” comes into play, you’ve checked out completely.

2. "Problem"

“We ran into a bit of a problem.” “We’re facing a tough situation.” Anything like that sounds like someone didn’t do their job. The problem with using the word “problem” (see what I did there?) is that it could mean absolutely anything. “There was a problem with the TPS reports” could mean something as innocuous as the pages weren’t numbered, or it could mean the file got corrupted and hundreds of pages of work are irretrievable.

If you’re constantly going to your coworkers with a “problem,” they’ll grow tired of it pretty quickly. It’ll seem like they’re constantly bailing you out of a jam, and as if they’re always covering your behind. They might soon start to wonder if they should stop covering for you altogether and let you fall flat on your face. If they never have “problems” like you do, why should they be the ones picking up your slack? Not only that, but if they start to neglect their own work because you make it seem as if your “problem” is much bigger than theirs, they’re definitely going to be unhappy with you if the boss starts putting the hammer down on them. The fact is that everyone has problems at work; it’s the ones who can’t deal with them that don’t last very long.

3. "Urgent"

As far as I’m concerned, everything at work is urgent. It’s literally the reason you’re there for eight hours a day, five days a week. If some tasks weren’t urgent, there’d be no reason to be there all day, every day. It’s when too many emails, messages, or tasks start getting marked as “urgent” or “important” that the labels start to lose their meaning. I can understand an email being marked “urgent” when it has to do with an immediate change in policy, or if the CEO is visiting that day. But just like calling everything a “problem,” if “urgent” could mean anything from “the company president wants to speak to you” to “the cafeteria won’t be serving hamburgers today,” it’s hard to take that little exclamation point icon seriously. Truthfully, if something truly is urgent, email is the last place you should go to make everyone else aware of the situation. First of all, most people don’t check their email more than two or three times per day. Second of all, everyone has a voicemail or cellphone nowadays, so there really is no excuse for not getting in touch with someone. The only time I’d take an “urgent” email seriously is if the subject was “First to respond gets an immediate raise.”

4. "Don't"

Especially if the next two words are “stop believing.” I swear I will report you to HR.

Anyway, if someone in the office shouts “don’t!” or “stop!” or “wait!” then chances are everyone will freeze on the spot, regardless of what they’re doing. In fact, any interjection at all will cause productivity to grind to a screeching halt. If you’re talking to a coworker, remember there are other people around you who are probably focused intently on whatever task they’re working on. Any loud noise at all is going to startle them and make them lose their train of thought. While the other words on this list are more psychologically damaging, interjections like “wait!” are much more visceral. We’re all pretty jumpy when we’re at the office, so try to keep everything as low-key as possible, okay?

5. "Try"

As Yoda says, “Do or do not, there is no try.” When someone in the workplace says they’ll “try” to get something done, what they really mean is: “Now that I said I’ll try, if it doesn’t happen I can at least say that I tried.” It takes all the blame off the person, regardless of the importance of the task at hand. Picture a colleague having missed a deadline saying “I tried to get it done by Friday but I had too much going on.” While it might seem like a valid excuse (perhaps they were completely swamped with other work-related mandates, and the task in question was sprung on them at the last minute), the fact is plain and simple: he didn’t do the job that was required of him. Whereas he could have assumed complete responsibility by saying “I didn’t do it; I’ll get to it right now,” saying he “tried” implies that he put maximum effort into completing the task, even if you know that he was already packing his things at 4 o’clock on Friday afternoon to go home for the weekend. This isn’t kindergarten: you don’t get an A for effort.

On the other hand, when you ask something of a boss, and he says he’ll “try” to get it done, you can safely assume that’s a euphemism for “fat chance, sucker.” If you’re asking your supervisor to put a good word in for you at next month’s meeting with the CEO, the last thing you want to hear him say is “I’ll try.” A simple “no” would suffice; at least then you’re not acting as if you’ve pulled one over on me.

See Also: How to Work for an Idiot

I could go on about other words that are much scarier to hear in the workplace, such as “overhaul” or “consultants,” but I don’t want to absolutely terrify you; Halloween is next month, after all. Come to think of it, there’s an idea for a decoration: a well-groomed man in a suit and tie eerily whispering “uurrrrgennnnnt” and “prooooblemmmmm” every time you walk by a cubicle. Much scarier than some of the other creations I’ve seen in my time.

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