Amidst the office jargon, there are phrases embedded that have hurtful and problematic origins. While language may not seem like a big deal on the surface, it’s what creates a common code of communication that shapes our workplace culture and so much more. It is up to us to be an accountable agent of our words and use language that builds people up.
Because these phrases are often used unknowingly, even with the best intentions, they are classified as “microaggressions” which are defined as: Every day, subtle, intentional—and oftentimes unintentional—interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups.
In the workplace, these “subtle acts of exclusion” come in many forms, says Tiffany Jana, founder and CEO of TMI Consulting and co-author of “Overcoming Bias: Building Authentic Relationships Across Differences.” They can include both backhanded compliments and stereotypical assumptions. Jessica DeCuir-Gunby, a professor of educational psychology at North Carolina State University, even declared microaggressions a “public health issue,” leading to “serious emotional, mental, and even physical harm.”
Here are 10 microaggressions to cut from your vocabulary today—and what to say instead. While by no means exhaustive, this list is a good place to start.
1. “That’s actually a good idea.”
Why it’s harmful: This backhanded compliment implies that you are surprised by the speaker’s positive contribution.
What to say instead: Omit the “actually.”
You respect what they have to say, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they had a good idea.
2. “I hear you, but…”
Why it’s harmful: Anything you say after “but” automatically negates this attempt at validation. I.e. “I hear you, but that’s not how it works,” makes it sound like the speakers’ feelings are not valid or priority.
What to say instead: “I hear you, and…”
This simple swap will ensure that whatever you say next does not dilute or contradict your acknowledgment of the speaker’s experience. I.e. “I hear you, and I see where you’re coming from. It’s a complicated issue, and we’ll do our best to figure it out.”
3. Master List (or “Master / Slave” in Tech)
Why it’s harmful: Master lists refer to the most “powerful” resource available. Tech engineers use the latter terminology to describe components of software and hardware in which one controls another. These words directly reference a painful history of racial and cultural oppression.
What to say instead: “Main List” or “Primary / Replica”
Use another term that refers to the important aspect of the component, whether that’s the originality of it (“primary”) or the extensive contents (“main”).
4. Blacklist / Whitelist
Why it’s harmful: A blacklist refers to a directory of elements that have been blocked, whereas a whitelist contains elements that are allowed. The word “black” here carries a negative connotation while “white” receives a positive one.
What to say instead: According to an article by CNN, Google’s Chromium, an open-sourced browser project, and Android’s open-source project have both encouraged developers to use “blocklist” and “allowlist” instead.
5. “Dear / Honey / Darling” Etc.
Why it’s harmful: Terms of endearment in the workplace come off as pat and condescending.
What to say instead: Words that build each other up.
Use empowering words rather than ones that assert your authority. Resist the urge to use anything other than pre-approved nicknames, regardless of status.
6. “Crack the Whip”
Why it’s harmful: This phrase carries painful connotations of racial subjugation and oppression.
What to say instead: “Double down”
Swap this for a phrase that emphasizes the intensity of the work, rather than the oppressive or authoritarian nature of the person in charge.
7. “Off the Reservation”
Why it’s harmful: This phrase originally referred to the forced relocation of Native Americans to Indian reservations in the United States.
What to say instead: “Gone rogue”
Use any neutral phrase that means “off the grid.”
8. “I’m so ADD today.”
Why it’s harmful: Casually referencing a non-neurotypical condition (OCD, Bipolar, etc.) is offensive when done by people who don’t experience it firsthand.
What to say instead: “I’m so scattered” etc.
Use a general word to describe how you’re feeling that doesn’t have an associated diagnosis.
9. “They’re crazy.”
Why it’s harmful: “Crazy” is a catchall word that stigmatizes mental illness and has historically been used to classify women in particular as irrational or erratic.
What to say instead: “I don’t understand why…”
Rather than writing off behavior that you don’t agree with or don’t understand, get curious about the person’s motivation. Isolate specific behaviors, i.e. “I don’t understand why they said this…” instead of making a judgment call about their character.
10. “Your name is so hard to pronounce.”
Why it’s harmful: When you mispronounce someone’s name or call out how difficult it is for you to learn, you are defining a “norm” based on what you are familiar with. Names carry cultural significance and learning them is a basic sign of respect for someone’s cultural identity.
What to say instead: Nothing—learn their name!
If you mispronounce or forget their name, simply say, “I’m sorry, would you mind saying it for me one more time?” Don’t ask if they go by any other names or nicknames. The name they have introduced themselves by is the one they want to be called.
If you get called out for using or saying any of the above phrases at work, rather than judging yourself, aim to do better next time. Try to shift your mindset to one of gratitude for the awareness you’ve gained. Because language evolves, we tend to forget where words originate. Or we simply don’t know, because they’ve become so deeply embedded in our day-to-day speech. Bringing awareness to your words is a small but impactful step in creating an inclusive space where everyone feels comfortable and empowered.