“Some people have a way with words, and other people...oh, uh, not have way.”
― Steve Martin
1. “Don't say _____”
I was recently with some friends shooting the you know what, and was surprised to be interrupted by someone who said I should “choose a different word” for the way I was describing something. I chose another word (that meant the same thing as the original word, but I digress) then spent the rest of the dinner sort of uncomfortable/taken aback/annoyed. I mean, I can say whatever I want. I can use whatever words I want. Right?
As a general rule, you shouldn’t tell people what to say/not say (definitely not 9 things they shouldn't say eeek). I get it. BUT, I’ve been thinking a lot about words. You’ve heard it since you were in kindergarten — words hurt. Words matter. So it’s important to be careful with their use. To think about how they make people feel. And while I’m not actually super calculated in my wording, and have said all of the things on this list — I understand that mental shifts are important — metacognition, all that mumbo jumbo.
So while I still don’t think you should actually verbally interrupt anyone to tell them what not to say — I do think it’s important to personally be aware of subtle differences in language. What we might be saying without realizing it.
Disclaimer: life is complicated, we are complicated, situations are complicated. Sometimes these things make a lot of sense and are the right thing to say. So say whatever you want to say — just think about it first. Like, always. In everything. :)
2. “I can’t…”
“Can I go to the bathroom?” “I don’t know, can you?” I’m sure we’ve all heard this from a teacher, parent, or friend who thinks they’re real slick. But it’s a great lesson to learn — can/can’t are such disempowering words. Of course, there are things we literally can’t do (become a unicorn, teleport) but in terms of the normal, everyday asks — guess what? You can.
When I was younger, I remember my dad asked me and my sister what “we had to do” in life. “Make the bed, eat dinner, go to school..” we rattled off all the things we thought we had to do. Surprisingly, he kept responding with, "nope, you don’t have to." Moral of the story — the only thing you have to do is die. Whoa. Heavy for children, but obviously memorable. And true! You can do whatever you want — if it’s a priority.
When someone says they can’t do something, they're just saying it isn’t a priority. And that’s okay! “I can’t” is a self-imposed restriction. It undermines your own power and agency. A better response is “I don’t”. “I don’t” is a choice. It’s empowering. “I don’t ride rollercoasters” I CAN, but I don’t want to. Or maybe it’s just “I can’t right now” or “I can’t in this moment” and that’s okay. But you can. Big difference.
3. “I’m sorry..”
Pay attention to how many times you say sorry in a day. When you’ve done nothing wrong. Or even done anything at all. You might be surprised (especially if you’re a woman). Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be sorry for anything — if you do something wrong, absolutely apologize. The problem is saying sorry as a filler word.
There’s been a lot written about the gendered nature of sorry. Women who say sorry for just being. Taking up space. Sorry I opened the door when you were coming in, sorry I am using the copy machine and you need to, sorry I got close to brushing against you but didn’t actually, sorry I don’t want to buy your whatever, sorry I have plans tonight… you get it. But why are you sorry? Just say no if you can’t do something. No explanation necessary.
Sorry is a word we say when we feel the need to say something — even when we know it doesn’t make sense. If you feel like you’re in someone’s way, just say “excuse me”. Say thank you. We say sorry because we want to be polite, but it actually gives away our power when there is nothing to be sorry for. I love this idea I’ve seen online to say thank you instead.
4. “I’m sorry, but..”
No, you aren’t. If you were sorry there wouldn’t be any buts. The “I’m sorry, but” is just a way to try to make a statement without sounding aggressive. It ends up sounding defensive or unsure which undermines the point you are trying to make. The attempt to be polite is not polite.
This one is simple: you’re either sorry or you aren’t. The but negates the sorry.
5. “Everything happens for a reason”
When something bad happens to a friend or family member, it’s hard to know what to say. But the oft used “everything happens for a reason” -- while well-meaning -- undermines that person’s experience. Let me explain.
Sometimes bad things just happen. To good people. To “bad” people. There is no rhyme or reason. Human existence is random, it’s chaotic, and struggle is inevitable. When someone is going through a traumatic, soul crushing, life changing experience — they don’t want to hear it. Looking for the “reason” something happened to you is a fools errand. An attempt to control your life in a world that can’t be controlled.
This is a phrase that’s often used in religious circles as a form of comfort, but I’d argue this is not only not comforting, but it’s bad theology. Nowhere in the Bible does it say we are owed a pain-free existence (in fact, it says the opposite).
The only thing we can control is our response to situations. We can find a reason in hindsight, sure. A meaning, or a truth that will help us to move forward. But that’s much different from the mindset of “this bad thing happened to me because of ______” That’s just not true.
6. “I know how you feel”
No, you don’t. Again, this is a well meaning phrase. Something you say when you don’t know what else to say. But, again, has the opposite result. You are actually lying when you say this. You can imagine how someone feels. Maybe you went through something similar? But it was still something that happened to you. In your life. So you know how it makes YOU feel. Very different.
Last fall a lot of crazy things happened to me in the span of a few weeks (I refer to it still as my twilight zone — it was that level of cray) Anyways, part of it was the ending of a relationship. I still talked to that person a lot and they knew I was upset so they tried to pep talk me out of it "I know you feel _____ " they said. Again, super well meaning. The problem was that what they thought was the problem was the least of my problems. My point being: it’s other stuff for everyone. Things they may not want to share with you. Things that are happening at that moment or in their life before that have shaped the way they respond to things. On the surface it may seem like you’ve been in their shoes — but you never truly can be.
We think we are being empathic and understanding, but don’t confuse empathy with genuine experience and emotions — you will never live someone else’s life.
This phrase also reeks of one-upmanship. You are essentially making someones experience about you. Shifting the conversation to you and your experience — in effect telling that person that they are not unique, cutting off the conversation completely.
Just listen. Reverse your initial reaction of “I know how you feel” to “I can’t imagine how I’d feel” or “I hear you” maybe even “I can relate” but you don’t know how they feel. And you never will.
7. “I’m too busy to ______”
Nope. Busyness is a lie. It’s a humblebrag. It’s an excuse. You can have a lot going on. You can be focused on things in your life — but you aren’t too busy to ______.
Everyone has priorities. If your priorities take up so much time that you can’t do something else, just say that. “I’m focusing my time on ______.” not “I’m too busy to _______.” If you wanted to do something, you could make the time. If you really couldn’t then your life is not in order. You are in chaos and using busyness as an excuse to fill up your life.
This article in the Wall Street Journal sums it up well, “Instead of saying “I don’t have time” try saying “it’s not a priority,” and see how that feels. Often, that’s a perfectly adequate explanation. I have time to iron my sheets, I just don’t want to. But other things are harder. Try it: “I’m not going to edit your résumé, sweetie, because it’s not a priority.” “I don’t go to the doctor because my health is not a priority.” If these phrases don’t sit well, that’s the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice. If we don’t like how we’re spending an hour, we can choose differently.”
So how do you spend your time? Is it keeping you from your priorities? Are you using busyness as an excuse?
8. “I’m just not a ______ person”
I’m not a math person. I’m not an outdoorsy person. I’m not a crowds person. I’m not a blah blah blah. You know it. You’ve heard it. I’m sure we’ve all said it. And maybe it’s true… sort of. Maybe you don’t like those things, or don’t want to be that type of person, or have believed the lie that you aren’t — but you could be.
It’s okay if you don’t want to do something — I don’t want to skydive. It’s not that I’m not “the skydiving type of person” I just don’t want to. And that is okay! What’s not okay is doing or not doing something because I’ve bought into some lie of who I am or what my identity is.
I read the phrase recently that “to become more you, be less you” and it really resonated with me. I’ve written about it before, but I think we often put ourselves into boxes of who we are. Who we aren’t. I’m not the type of person who would _____. But maybe we are. Maybe that label is holding us back?
Just be honest with yourself. It’s okay to say that you just don’t want to do something. Or that you just haven’t learned it yet. But remember that, if you want to, you CAN be that person who ______. Don’t label yourself.
9. “Don’t be ______”
When we see someone upset, our knee-jerk reaction is to say, “don’t cry”, “don’t be upset”, “don’t _____”. And again, well meaning, but this isn’t helpful. Telling someone one of these variants is basically telling them how to feel. That their emotions are not valid. You are unintentionally trivializing real feelings.
This isn’t just for the typical sad emotions. You hear a lot these days online from people who think they can tell others how to respond to current events. "Don’t be outraged." "Don’t be offended." "Don’t be a crybaby/snowflake." "There are kids starving and you’re mad about ______?!"
Have you heard of the “not as bad as” or “relative privation” fallacy? Basically, it’s the fallacy that when you compare something to the best or worst case scenario, your situation is no longer important. “You can’t be sad about ______ because this much sadder thing also exists” “You can’t be outraged about the wage gap when women are being enslaved in other countries” Umm… you can be both. Hello.
We are free to process emotions and feelings about whatever we want however we want. I mean, isn’t the definition of a sociopath someone who doesn’t? Don’t tell people how to feel, even if you have nothing else to say. Just listen to people. It’s uncomfortable, sure. But we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.