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Watch Your Language

No, I’m not talking about nasty words. We’re all pretty clear, I hope, that the workplace is no place for that kind of ugliness. A more subtle pitfall lies in the language we use with people with whom we have become comfortable – colleagues, partners, clients, referral sources. As we communicate more with people in these groups, we become less formal, which is often a good thing. It probably means we’re developing relationships and building trust.

That’s precisely where the danger lies. As we become more comfortable and less formal, we choose different words to express ourselves, and we probably choose them less carefully. Where you might have once ended a telephone conversation with, “It was great talking with you, Stacy”, you might now feel close enough to Stacy to say, “OK, kiddo. See ya later. Let’s talk again soon.” Or when greeting a partner in the hallway of your office, early on in your employment you might have said “Hi, Bob. How are you today?”. Then, as you become more comfortable in your firm, suddenly one day “Bob! ‘Tsup? Howzitgoin?” flies from your lips on seeing the same partner.

First, unless Stacy actually is your child, she may not enjoy being referred to as a kiddo. It may sound like a warm and fuzzy conversation ender to you, but Stacy may have received a very different message. Second, if Bob is over 45, he probably has no idea what you said to him, but he’s likely to feel discomfited by it and to remember you less than fondly.

Bottom line: choose your words carefully, even as you grow more comfortable with particular individuals. It’s really just a matter of exercising good manners. You don’t have to jump back to Victorian formality, but you do need to use words that convey warmth and authenticity without alienating people. You’ll want to think particularly carefully when you are dealing with someone whose gender or generation is different from yours. It helps enormously to think before you speak and always use words that convey respect and dignity for your listener.

© Melinda Guillemette 2009