In a world where more of us are speaking up, many are still not being heard. Why? Because words matter; and yet there’s a laundry list of words and phrases that are either negative, overused, and/or not used correctly. These self-limiting sayings not only affect how we show up in the world every day; they can also negatively impact how others perceive us. Have you ever made a promise or commitment to someone and then backed out? (C’mon, we all have at some point.) The thing is, the subconscious is super smart. When we (subconsciously) want to avoid responsibility, we tend to rely on weaker language, otherwise known as weasel words, which give us more wiggle room in life so that we don’t have to firmly commit – to others or ourselves, ever!
Here are four weasel words that you likely use many times a day without even realizing it:
This is a word that we learn at a very young age. Parents often use it to set boundaries with kids so that they understand the rules of the house. With that said, it can be destructive because it is associated with inability or lack of possibility. As soon as you think it or say it aloud, you put limitations on yourself and create patterns of helplessness. Rather than saying “I can’t” do something, consider that you either 1) don’t know how to, 2) may need some help, or 3) need the proper tools to succeed.
Many people often confuse “need” with “want”, but these two things are distinctly different. A need is something that you must have in order to survive; and a want is something that you desire to have but may or may not be able to obtain. The danger of misusing the word “need” is that you‘re telling your primitive brain that you need something you really desire in order to survive. This behavior pattern can make a person weaker, less creative, and less productive. Be mindful of what you truly need (e.g. food, water, shelter) and think of your wants as nice-to-haves that really don’t affect your ability to survive (and thrive).
Avoiding this word may be a hard habit to break because many of us were taught, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” In this context, trying means not giving up and putting your best foot forward. However, “trying” is sort of an in-between word; it has good intent but it’s still non-committal. So, if someone ask you for a favor or to show up for them somehow, and you say that you’ll try, you’re essentially saving face for the moment but still leaving room for you to break your promise later.
“Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda
What’s defined as “good” or “bad” really comes down to opinion, and between the two, the latter is inherently negative. The thing is, using this black and white label can limit your thinking and make it more difficult to see the bigger picture. Let’s take debt, for example. Many people associate a negative feeling with debt because if you have it then that means that you owe financial assets to someone else. But not all debt is bad. When it’s backed by appreciable assets — such as real estate — you are making a long-term investment will give you more return once you have paid off the mortgage on your home. Student debt is also considered reasonable and even positive because it’s something that you take on to further your professional career, which means you’ll get a return on your investment in the future. Rather than using “good” or “bad”, consider saying “This is more (or less) optimal than that.”
Note that judgment is binary, meaning that we tend to put things in terms of two options – either option A or option B, but not both (e.g. yes/no or good/bad). According to Mark B. Baer, a lawyer that specializes in eliciting empathy for more effective conflict resolution or management:
“When the brain reacts in a binary way, it leads to quick, irrational decisions and action; when a dialogue is engaged between the emotional and rational parts of the brain…. We can come to believe that reality is defined by two mutually exclusive categories….”
A true sign of personal growth is if you’re able to turn binary thinking into discernment – the ability to make decisions, using both the head and heart, and assessing values that are important to you. Discernment is considered to be a virtue; discerning individual are mindful and perhaps walk around with a little more wisdom than those that are quick to make decisions using binary, black and white thinking. Remember this the next time you’re engaged in deep conversation with a friend, family member or coworker. Some words are simply annoying, especially when they are overused or not used correctly. We’re talking about corporate jargon, buzzwords, and sophomoric language that probably affects how others perceive and respond to you:
- Synergy/synergistic environment – In marketing, the idea is that two individuals or companies are stronger together than they are individually. But today, the word “synergy” seems to have endless uses and meanings.)
- Paradigm shift – It’s meant to indicate a change in business practices, but it’s become very overused…so much so that it can come across as an attempt to cover up a mistake with fancy language.
- Low-hanging fruit – This refers to focusing on the easy route; doing the easiest thing. But easiest isn’t always best.
- Bandwidth – For the sake of your health and sanity, yes, be mindful of your workload (and other responsibilities in your life). But you’re not a robot, and you don’t use transmitting signals to receive and complete tasks that others want to give to you.
- Customer-centric – Honestly, if your business is anything-else-centric, just file for Chapter 11 right now.
- Viral/viral marketing – It’s not a social virus that spreads its tentacles in public domain, but it sounds like one. We get it, everyone wants the secret sauce to make their idea, content or business become seen by as many people as possible and as quickly as possible. The reality is that you can’t force people to understand and/or resonate with your message. Over the past couple of years there has been increased attention on the potential mental health dangers associated with hyper-focusing on social media, only showing a highlight real, and exhibiting compulsive behaviors that can affect your mood. Rather than focusing on “going viral”, consider how to strike a chord with others by being your authentic self.
- NextGen – Eek. Avoid words that could potentially draw attention to age. Also, “NextGen” of the moment will hardly be “NextGen” by the time it’s adopted or downloaded.
- Millennial (or other generational terms, like GenX or GenY) – Lumping people into a generation really isn’t helpful because individuals are unique, they come from different backgrounds, and they have different interests. Whether you’re having a casual conversation with friends or discussing your target market at work, be mindful of individuality.
- Organic growth – There are so many ways for businesses to grow in today’s economy (without mergers or acquisitions), and every business should be experiencing it anyway, so putting a label on it is unnecessary.
- Out of the box (At this point, it feels very in-the-box.)
- “Our signals were crossed.” (In truth there was a miscommunication that someone probably doesn’t want to own up to.)
Just for fun: Use this tool to generate and share custom-built meaningless business phrases using overused business buzzwords.
Remember, using tired and worn out expressions do not help one stand out from the crowd. And honestly, these cliché buzzwords and jargon sound like nails slowly scratching a chalkboard. Focus on using creative, original language – to improve how others perceive you, and to create real change you wish to see in the world.