Dirty Words

Let’s talk about dirty words. No, not those dirty words. I mean the ones you should get out of your vocabulary immediately and, when you hear them in the workplace, you should get angry because something’s about to go wrong. Here’s a list from the top of my head:

– Should
– Ought to
– I think so
– He’s supposed to
– I told that guy
– Just (in almost any sentence)

If you’re like me, you’re already gnashing your teeth at the memory of discussions like these:

Me: Did that project get done?
You: It should be.
Translation: You don’t know.
English-to-Jamie translation: It isn’t done.

Me: Will I have that report tomorrow?
You: I told Jones to get it to me tonight so….
Translation: You have no idea.
E2J translation: I will not have the report tomorrow, but I will have a great excuse about the people under you not getting it done.

Me: Is all the audio-visual equipment ready for the meeting?
You: It ought to be.
Translation: You hope so.
E2J translation: You have no idea, and this might get embarrassing.

Me: Have you called for tech support on that?
You: We’ll just… (I stop listening at this point.)
Translation: You think it’s not as hard as it looks
E2J translation: It’s exactly as hard as it looks. You’ve likely over-simplified the problem into something you think can be done at your level. You’re about to do something that skirts the policies and might be unsafe or otherwise questionable.

Here’s the problem with yes or no questions, and please note that each dialogue started with a yes or no question, if the answer isn’t yes, no one wants to say no. I’ve been dealing with this for years and had a strong mentor who would lose his mind anytime I used one of those words. Because of him, and because of all the spectacular failures associated with me using those pretty words instead of no, I learned the hard way how dangerous our ambiguous language is.

It’s entirely too common for people to answer in something other than yes or no. To me, the only other answer should be “I don’t know,” but I have yet to figure out our reluctance to say it. Isn’t that really what could, should, ought to, and all the rest of those words and phrases mean?

When I hear someone tell me that something should be done or they told that guy to get it to them, what I hear is hope, but not the good hope, like there might be cake for lunch. I hear the hope that everyone else will do everything right the first time, that nothing will need to be rewritten, the day will be sunny and every single step along the way will be flawless, because that’s how the world should be. How often does that happen? How many times have we said something should be done, just to find out it wasn’t and then had to go into damage control mode?

Here’s what I want you to do: Listen to how people answer questions, and listen for those dirty words. I think you’ll be surprised at how often you hear them once you start listening. In the place of every version of the answer that is not yes and not no, translate it like this:

I don’t know, I haven’t verified, but I sincerely hope it’s magically being done, perhaps by elves, so no one yells at me.

At least this way you’ll smile when you hear our dirty words instead of throwing your stapler. I really don’t want to seem too aggressive about this, but once I learned how dangerous those words were to getting things done on time and looking competent, I made a serious effort to get them out of my vocabulary. You should too.

Unfortunately, it has been years and I still use those words on occasion. No one is perfect. When I do hear myself say them, I know I’ve missed something that I need to verify. Until then, I just have to tell my boss that I don’t know, but I’ll get the answer and be right back.

Every time you hear yourself say a dirty word, realize that you need to verify the things that will work you towards answering either yes or no. Your boss will appreciate it, trust me. In time, you’ll learn to get those dirty words out of your vocabulary. Hopefully it won’t just have you saying no or I don’t know every time, but that might happen until you get things right.

– You know when the meeting will be, and you know when the questions will be asked. Will you have the answer, or will you be hoping for elves?

– Have you heard those words and regretted them?

– Have you said them and regretted them?

Have a great week out there.

– JT

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.