These are new rules for what’s appropriate to say at work


There’s something about industry shorthand that might make someone listening in feel like they’re eavesdropping on a foreign language. We in media, for example, often toss around ideas for ledes, deks, and posters without a second thought. (IYKYK)

Some parlance is more pervasive and crosses over into corporate jargon. Think: a seat at the table, build the plane while it’s flying, and even game changer, are so ubiquitous as to sound inauthentic when used.

When it’s okay to swear

Certain words and phrases can get overused, too. Dropping an F-bomb has become, if not totally acceptable, certainly more accepted at work. But as Fast Company contributor Yonason Goldson noted: “Used discerningly, a well-directed expletive can communicate the depth of our passion of the intensity of our disdain with the force of a Louisville slugger. But the power of profanity withers when cursing becomes commonplace.” 

Fortunately, he offers a spate of alternatives that are more politically correct. Although he cautions that we need to ensure that we aren’t falling prey to binary thinking at the expense of nuance. He asks if it’s wrong to call out a blatant falsehood as a bald lie. “We ought to be both able and willing to discern the speaker or writer’s intended meaning rather than seek out the most damning interpretation of their words,” Goldson wrote.

When language becomes unintentionally offensive

Yet nuance becomes more problematic when common catchphrases tip over into exclusionary or racist and sexist language. For instance, most people don’t even think about using “you guys” as a gender-neutral catchall for a group. However, Amy Diehl, PhD, a gender equity researcher, discusses the origins of “guy” and how its distinctly male root isn’t quite that neutral. Speaking to psychologist Claire Mulligan-Foster revealed that the issue is that not everyone hears it that way. “Think about it like this: Would you greet a mixed-gender or all-male group with, ‘How are you gals?’ Probably not, unless you were trying to make a point.”

Beyond that, common use of phrases like “chop chop” and “no can do” have persisted for so long that we barely give them a second thought. The first was derived from the Cantonese word “kap” for making haste but came to signify a person of power urging someone at a lower level to hurry. The Oxford Dictionary says “no can do” also dates from the mid-19th to early-20th centuries, “an era when Western attitudes toward the Chinese were markedly racist.”

Accidental problematic phases

Fast forward to the last few years with the rise of several hashtaggy work trends like Great Resignation abound. Here, too, we’ve evidenced problematic language. The catchy viral phrase “lazygirljobs might have originated as a response to hustle culture and the lack of boundaries between work and life during the pandemic, but Brennan Nevada Johnson noted that as a Black female, she views this trope as illustrating white privilege.

Unfortunately for leaders, anthropologist Christina Elson wrote that ignoring cultural undercurrents won’t make them disappear. “It will create a vacuum that employees might fill with wrong assumptions and worse behavior. The opposite of a civil workplace.”

Raising awareness to combat unintentional bias

To combat this, awareness of where this creeps in can help. One place where seemingly innocuous words and phrases that reveal biases (and in some cases are downright harmful) are hiding in plain sight is in performance reviews. One word in particular, Textio cofounder Kieran Snyder observed, has widened the gender and racial gap when managers assess their reports. “When managers describe workers who are Black, women, and over 40 as ambitious, it generally isn’t a positive,” she wrote. “Research from Stanford affirms that the women who get promoted most rapidly are, in fact, more ambitious, but know how to downplay this characteristic with their managers and coworkers.”

That said, Snyder pushed the performance reviews through AI, and while the technology should have furnished non-biased reviews, it was in fact, worse than a human. So it may be best to stick to AI tools for improving non-problematic factors like making sure the key points of your emails stand out.