Watch Your Language


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451262-002 It started innocently enough. My former colleague had made an error, found it and immediately rectified it. And then, in the true spirit of proactivity, emailed the client stating that she had made an error, explained how it was corrected, copied me to keep me updated and closed with an apology.

Her exact words were… “I hope my error did not cause you any incontinence.”

Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here. While there is such a word as incontinence, I’m pretty sure she meant to say “inconvenience.”

Did she use spell check and grammar check? Yes. Was everything spelled correctly and grammatically correct in her sentence structure? Yes again.

Did she re-read it carefully before she hit the send button? I’m guessing probably not.

Look, we all do it. Rush through something because we’re in a hurry to check off one item so we get to the next. But, it really does pay to carefully read and re-read whatever it is you’re sending or presenting.

While we’re on the subject of being careful.

It’s also a good idea to think about the words you use with a client, prospect, or colleague, whether they are written or spoken. Some can have negative connotations.

For example, when you begin a sentence with “obviously”, there’s a good chance it will come across or “heard” as condescending. And while you think what you’re saying or writing is providing clarity, your audience could be hearing you say something like…“You’re an idiot, so I’ll explain it for you.”

There are a lot of similar phrases with negative connotations. And I know they’ve been written about before. But, here are just a few others I’ve heard over the years that always make me curious, along with my reflex reaction to each.

“Customized to fit your needs.” I think… “You don’t have a clue what we’re looking for.”
“To make a long story short.” I think… “Get comfortable, this is going to take a while.”
“I’m sure you’ll agree.” I think… “That all depends on what you’re going to say.”
“We’re thinking outside of the box.” I think… “What, I haven’t been?”
“Can I be honest with you?” I think… “Have you been lying to me up to this point?”

The thing is, words are powerful and are often left open to interpretation. Or, misinterpretation. You could unconsciously be creating an adversarial environment based on your choice of words and tonality. Resulting in your audience turning off after your first few words. It’s even more important to keep these things in mind as we communicate in today’s global environment with myriad cultural nuances and societal influences.

So, what’s the best way to avoid the potential for misunderstandings?

1. Read your emails. Then read them again. Spell check and grammar check aren’t enough.
2. Choose your written and spoken words carefully. They will always be open to interpretation.
3. Be sensitive to cultural nuances. Words you think are constructive could be destructive.
4. No matter what your native language, if you’re speaking to a diverse global audience, slow down the pace to ensure you’re being clearly understood.
5. Keep another language in mind when you present…body language.

We can all learn from our mistakes. I do it on a regular basis (make mistakes I mean). Do you have any favorite examples of blunders you’ve encountered that you’d like to share? Or, perhaps phrases that annoy you?

Photo credit: Getty Images

Bob Musial
Bob Musial is a business development coach, author of "Soft Skills. Hard Returns." and humorist who works with professionals to help improve their competency in getting, keeping and expanding business. He's easy to reach. Pretty easy to talk with too.


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