8 phrases to remove from your work vocabulary

We all have certain fallback phrases that we pull out at work over and over – but some of them can be seriously annoying to coworkers and alarming to managers. Here are eight phrases that you might use at work without thinking much about them, but which are worth removing from your office vocabulary.

1. “Are you busy?” This one is likely to make your conscientious coworkers cringe. Few people want to announce “nope, just browsing some celebrity gossip.” And someone who is busy may still be available for an interruption, depending on the specifics of what you need. They might be perfectly willing to make time for something urgent or important but not want to be interrupted to discuss the upcoming employee potluck. Instead try, “Do you have a few minutes to talk to me about ___?”

2. “Can you please come by my office?” Similar to #1 above, this is frustrating because the person you direct it to has no idea what you want. Is it important enough to prioritize above other pressing priorities, or can they defer until later in the day if they’re busy? Do they need to bring something to take notes with? Are they going to be put on the spot about a project when they would prefer to have a chance to review their notes before meeting? If you’re the boss, should they be bracing for a serious conversation or is it no big deal? Spare people the speculation and explain what you’d like to talk about.

3. “I’ll try.” You might think this is a reasonable response to an assignment or request if you’re not positive you can do what’s being asked or meet a deadline, but it will leave your manager unsure of whether or not you’re actually committing to get it done. Of course, you don’t want to commit to something that you don’t believe you can really do, but in that case, explain what you’re thinking. Rather than leaving it at “I’ll try,” it’s better to say something like, “I think X might get in the way of that deadline, but if it starts looking like that will be the case, I’ll come back to you well in advance to figure out how to prioritize.”

4. “That’s so fattening!” Your coworkers really, really don’t want to hear you pass judgment on what they’re eating. You’re not the diet police, and you should avoid any temptation to comment on the calories in someone else’s meal, the number of snacks they’ve had that day, or the healthiness or unhealthiness of what they eat.

5. “It’s not my fault.” It’s not that you should take blame when you’re not at fault. But a more constructive formulation that doesn’t focus so heavily on who is or isn’t to blame will reflect better on you. For example: “I think what happened was X, and to avoid it, we’d need the marketing department to do Y earlier in the future. I’ll talk to Sarah about getting that on our client checklist.” However, on the the other end of the blame responsibility…

6. “Sorry.” There are indeed times when you should apologize at work, such as if you inadvertently offended someone or created additional work for a colleague. But some people tend to over-apologize, offering up regrets for everything from needing to ask a question to a project flaw that wasn’t anyone’s fault. Over-apologizing can make you seem weak and overly deferential, and you may inadvertently end up taking responsibility for things that weren’t actually your mistakes.

7. “I can’t really keep up with my email.” This is like announcing to your coworkers “you can’t count on me to read and retain even important messages you send to me.” It will raise doubts about your ability to keep on to of your workload and make you seem unreliable. If your manager hears you say it, she’s likely to wonder if you’re letting tasks slip through the cracks or not getting back to clients.

8. “Gentle reminder.” If you’ve ever prefaced a follow-up to a colleague with “just a gentle reminder,” there’s a good chance that it’s making your recipient grind her teeth. The phrase often comes across as, “I worry that you might be offended by a normal business communication, so I feel I like approach you delicately.” You don’t need to tiptoe around or patronize your coworkers; it’s okay to just be direct and say, “I want to remind you about this because of X.”

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.



{ 179 comments… read them below }

  1. A*

    Heads up, there’s a typo in the last section — ” ‘I worry that you might be offended by a normal business communication, so I feel I like approach you delicately.’ ”

    Thanks for all the useful information!

  2. i need a name*

    #4: I’d suggest not passing judgement on anything people eat, even if it’s “healthy”. Having an apple for a snack doesn’t automatically mean I’m on a diet. It just means I’m eating an apple.

    1. Ad Astra*

      I was going to say the same thing. Unless you know that you and a coworker have a mutual interest in fitness and healthy eating, it’s best to stick with “That looks delicious.” I feel super uncomfortable when people see me eating a salad and say “Look at you being good!” I don’t want your opinion on my diet, and I don’t want to feel responsible for making you feel good about your own diet.

      1. Wendy Darling*

        For a significant period the most stressful thing about my job was that I sat between someone with celiac disease who basically drooled with envy about anything I ate and a person who had voluntarily undertaken a mega-strict diet after a minor health scare and felt the need to explain why everything I ate would give me cancer (or praise me effusively if she approved of my food choice that day, which was almost worse).

        It was a daily battle not to leap to my feet and scream STOP TALKING ABOUT MY FOOD!

        I actually started sneaking around and eating elsewhere, and only snacking if they weren’t there. It was messed up. Some of it was my messed up, but seriously? Just let people eat.

        1. More Cake, Please*

          I confess to drooling over people’s delicious wheat products… but I try to keep my slobber contained ;)

          1. Carpe Librarium*

            Thanks to your username, I now have Eddie Izzard’s “Cake or Death?” piece running through my mind.
            Totally brightened my mood.

        2. Melissa*

          One of many reasons I sometimes eat at my cube… there are only so many days I can listen to the gluten free people razz the person who only ever eats Cup of Noodles.

      2. Charlotte Lucas*

        I agree! I’m a vegetarian, and while it’s nice that some people find it interesting, sometimes I just want to eat, not have an in-depth discussion about health and diet.

        Also, I don’t eat things like broccoli and tofu because I *have* to. I do it because I *want* to – I like the food I eat, otherwise I wouldn’t eat it!

        1. Adonday Veeah*

          As a newly minted vegan (for extremely personal reasons), I concur. And for the love of all that is holy, PLEASE stop asking me where I get my protein!

          1. Charlotte Lucas*

            Or iron!

            Trust me, I can make your eyes glaze over with discussions about protein and heme vs. non-heme iron.

            If I were that kind of person, I’d ask the questioner where they get their vitamin C, folic acid, and fiber.

        2. Beck*

          I know you just said you don’t want to talk about it…but do you have a recipe for your broccoli and tofu? This past weekend was the first time I ate tofu and actually enjoyed it, and it was in broccoli and tofu form. I’d love to recreate it!

      3. i need a name*

        Yes, exactly. I hate the “look at you being good!” comments. I eat veggies and fruit because I want to, not because I’m trying to be good….and also, because after a childhood where fresh produce was rare, I am taking ever opportunity to eat it because I can.

        Besides, I’m going to enjoy that piece of fruit just as much as I would a hamburger. It’s just that I was probably craving a piece of fruit at the moment, not a hamburger.

    2. Beezus*

      Or commenting on not eating at all. I choose to skip lunch some days. Yes, I know that’s not healthy, but it’s none of your business. I don’t mind if my boss approaches me to make sure my workload isn’t an issue, or checks if I need a break, but my actual eating habits aren’t anyone’s business.

      1. Noah*

        Yes! I have a coworker now who will always ask what I’m eating for lunch. If I respond that I’m skipping today he freaks out, like missing a single meal will kill me. Sometimes I’m not hungry. Sometimes I need to leave early. Sometimes I have work that must be completed. Sometimes I’m just lazy and didn’t bring anything and don’t feel like going to get anything.

    3. Allison*

      Yes, this. I don’t want people giving me garbage for eating too much, but I also hate comments like “is that all you’re having???”

      In general, just lay off people’s diet and exercise habits, unless you’re their doctor or personal trainer, or you’re close to them and think they could be seriously hurting themselves.

    4. Stephanie*

      Yeah…that’s also obnoxious. I try to bring my lunch most days and I walked in with like a gyro and fries one day. My coworker was like “Where’s your healthy food? That smells greasy.”

      1. Audiophile*

        Oh my god, that’s horrible.

        That’s as bad as someone saying “mmm, that looks good. I wish I could eat stuff like that. (insert mildly offensive dieting comment here)” So you’re saying I’m fat and I don’t care about my health, which is why I’m eating this delicious looking food, that you’re not.

        1. Mallory Janis Ian*

          Ha. One of the professors in my old department saw that I had a slice of cake on my desk. He started off with, “Madame Mallory, what is this on your desk?” Me: “It’s a piece of cake that Jane brought me.” Him: “It sure does look good.” Me: “It does; thanks” or some such noncommittal thing. Him: [long pause, staring at the cake] “I wonder what it tastes like . . . ?” And he stood there and waited for me to offer him a bite LOL.

      2. Cupcake*

        Sounds like a former CEO I worked with. He saw my friend eating a salad and actually said “good girl! That’s what you should be eating.” He then looked at our other friend at the lunch room table and tsk tsked her for eating pizza. He told her, “I could never eat that. I’m watching my waistline “.

        Who in the hell do you think you are, thinking it’s OK to make comments like this?! No matter what size anyone is this is never right.

    5. Kyrielle*

      Oh man yes. And please don’t say “good on you” when I’m eating a “healthy” meal. I have a fairly limited set of options right now and I may be gritting my teeth at having to eat this exact meal yet again, or loathing the limited spicing options I have, or….

      And seriously, do not call me to task for not eating things I can’t have as though I’m judging you. I’m not judging you. I’m just not willing to eat something that will leave me too ill to work for the rest of the day. And I may, in fact, be very envious, but I’d be trying to keep that to myself, because my dietary limitations aren’t your fault or your problem. I may get unfortunately honest if you hassle me about not taking some of the free food that you just took some of (and I wish I could). :P

      1. Allison*

        I hate it when fellow adults tell me I’m being “so good” or a “good girl” for eating a healthy meal. I’m not five, I don’t need applause for eating vegetables.

    6. Stranger than fiction*

      Omg yes. I don’t eat particularly healthy or unhealthy but I have one coworker who insists on examining my lunch every day “Oooh what do you have today?!” Makes me super uncomfortable I feel like a lab rat being studied.

      1. Charlotte Lucas*

        My cooking is a bit more adventurous than that of many people where I work, so I’ve occasionally gotten both positive and negative comments on the same meal.

        I eat it all the same. And then feel sad for the people who won’t try anything new and exotic, like hummus. (Really!)

        1. Ashley the Paralegal*

          I get this a lot too. They look at my food puzzled, ask me what it is and when I tell them, they turn up their nose and say something like, “oh, I don’t know about that”.

          Oh and hummus is amazing. More for us!

        2. AnotherTeacher*

          +1 to everyone

          Once of the things I like about the current makeup of my department is that we all eat healthy, varied diets. The only discussions about food are genuine compliments and questions or recipe sharing.

    7. Jennifer*

      No kidding. I despise diet talk.

      I also have a coworker who has started commenting whenever I take an Execdrin. Good lord, you know I get glare headaches from office light, why is this a shock to you? This does not need to be called out loudly, “AGAIN?”

    8. Ashley the Paralegal*

      Thank you! I get judgment ALL THE TIME for eating healthy meals from a few of the people in the building who don’t. If I can refrain from making comments about the 2 sleeves of pop tarts you are eating that morning, you can refrain from commenting on my oatmeal with nuts and seeds.

    1. Ad Astra*

      What’s a better way to follow up with someone when you need something from them and you’re concerned that your request is annoying?

      1. Kyrielle*

        It depends. You could just ask and wait to see if it’s annoying. Otherwise, I really like, “I know you’re really busy, but I need…because….” Or if you’re not sure what their workload is, “I hope this isn’t a bad time, but….”

        “I know you’re really busy” doesn’t suggest they’re going to be all unprofessional and consider you “a pest” just because you’re adding to their load, but it does acknowledge their current situation.

      2. hbc*

        Do you have a pattern to your followups? “This is your standard 24 hour notice that I need X document.”

        But really, if you have a reason to ask, then it doesn’t matter if it’s annoying them. Maybe give the reason you’re following up if you can see why someone would be annoyed. “I know you said you’d have it to me on Friday, just verifying if that’s still true given all the people who’ve been out sick.” Or “I know you’re good about meeting deadlines, but this is an unusually visible project, so I’m going to collecting updates every X days just to be sure.”

        If they’re not good about meeting deadlines or keeping you updated, they really have no right to be annoyed.

      3. Stephanie*

        I think “pest” is a bad way to phrase it, because you don’t want to imply that your request is inconsequential. I have to do a lot of operational audits at my job (in a factory-like setting) and sometimes the floor supervisors can get pretty swamped. I usually will preface my request like “Hi, I need to do the teapot line audit–should take no more than five minutes. Is this a good time or should I come back later?”

      4. PlainJane*

        Related question: what’s better phrasing for prickly co-workers who get annoyed when you remind them of something or take that reminder as an insinuation that you think they aren’t doing their jobs. I confess I’ve started plenty of reminder emails with some variant of, “I don’t mean to be a pest,” but that’s because I’ve had people react badly when reminded or asked more directly. It’s on them, sure (I promise I’m always polite in my requests), but I prefer to head off drama when I can.

        1. Dan*

          “Do you have any updates on …?”

          Frankly, expect some people to have issues with you “checking in” on them, no matter how you phrase it.

          1. Charlotte Lucas*

            For individuals like that, I like using “I don’t see that I received…” and then explaining what I need and when I need it by. Partly because sometimes Outlook does do strange things to emails (like randomly deciding that one of my coworkers is a spammer), but also because it means that you’re using an “I” statement, which makes the other person feel less like you’re criticizing them.

            Blast reminders are always very cut and dry, because that strikes me as the most professional and the most efficient. They’re easy to read, those who don’t need to do anything can delete them right away, and those that do have all the information right there.

      5. Rat Racer*

        Man, I really don’t know. I hate being on the receiving end of an “I hate to be a pest” email for the same reason that “gentle reminder” is grating. If I owe you something, you’re not being a pest, I’m the one who should be feeling apologetic, not you. For that reason, it feels like a false apology, and insincerity is annoying.

        At the same time, like everyone else, I really loathe being in the situation of having to nag people for delayed deliverables or unfulfilled commitments. If it’s a colleague, it’s easier to be casual and say “Hey – where’s the dang teapot already?” If it’s my boss, I will hem and haw and wring my hands before writing an apologetic “I know you are totally swamped, but…..” letter.

        1. Rat Racer*

          And what if one day I mis-type (like I almost did above) and write “I know you are a swamp but…”

    2. Beezus*

      I’m guilty of this one. I use it when I’m forced to be pedantic and annoying in an effort to reconcile something correctly. “Hi, Rick, I know you looked at this inventory number twice for me last week and confirmed it was correct, but I’m 50 units off and I went through your receiving reports with a fine toothed comb and found this 50 unit discrepancy. Can you have another look?” [attached ironclad documentation]

      Pedantic and annoying aren’t normal personality traits for me. I have to be that way occasionally to do my job, and this phrase is my way of signaling, “Hey, I know this isn’t normally how we interact, but this situation is outside the norm and we’re going to go back to normal once you’ve addressed it.”

  3. Meg Murry*

    Yes to “please come to my office”! Or even worse, my immediate boss will pair together “are you busy, can you come into my office for a minute?” I’ve learned to deal with the “are you busy part by saying “I’m working on XYZ right now, let me save it/get to a stopping point in the next 5 minutes”. But “step into my office” flips me out.

    And every time he says that, my heart starts beating 9,000 miles per hour. Even though what he has to say has never been stressful, and sometimes has been downright humorous. And he’s overall a great guy, so my panic levels are going down slightly – but if any of those times are ever for something negative, it will put me back into full panic alert mode with those words.

    If you have to say “step into my office/conference room” etc, and there is any way to give some context, please do so. “so we can talk about a new project” “so you can proofread this draft for me” “so we can do some math on my whiteboard” “so we can talk about a staff appreciation event” – this all would have been helpful feedback.

    1. Wendy Darling*

      “Do you have a minute to talk?” makes me go straight to “I AM ABOUT TO BE FIRED” for some reason.

      1. starsaphire*

        Yes! I give massive props to my last supervisor, who would immediately then say, “It’s nothing bad.” Bless him! I can totally bring a pad and pen and come meet with you *without* the heart palpitations! :)

      2. the gold digger*

        Because – that is how I was laid off!

        “May I speak to you for a minute in my office?”

        That was over ten years ago and it still sends me into total panic now when my boss asks me to come see him without giving a reason.

        1. De Minimis*

          Yeah, I was fired the same way, though this was a call from someone higher up [a partner in my firm] that I didn’t normally work with, so it was obvious what it was.

          I get to his office and the HR person is sitting there with him, it was like a mob movie where a guy walks into a room and wonders why there’s all this plastic sheeting on the floor….

          I still have great anxiety about it, years later.

        2. Dan*

          My layoff was a last minute meeting request for a “staffing meeting” first thing next morning. Hmmm…

          At my current job, a week into it, my immediate boss gives me the “can you come to my office for a moment…” I hadn’t had much work to do at that point, so when I walked in, I said, “Last time I got this kind of message, I got laid off.” He chuckles and says no, he’s got work for me.

      3. Bowserkitty*

        My old boss pulled this and “can you come to my office” all the time. Every single time I was convinced I was out of a job.

      1. Charlotte Lucas*

        I used to have a boss who would just leave “SEE ME” on a sticky note on your desk when you were away. Since she was a loon in other ways, you really never knew what you were walking into.

        1. Kelly L.*

          SEE ME goes right to those old childhood fears! My first-grade teacher always wrote See Me in red ink on your homework if you flunked.

        2. Dan*

          I had a boss who would say, “Hey, I couldn’t find you earlier.” Multiple times. I was like, why don’t you send me an email, leave me a VM, or a sticky that says you were looking for me? How am I supposed to know if you don’t leave any indication?

    2. Muriel Heslop*

      I am the same way! Tell me what it’s about! I immediately panic and wonder why I am being called in by the boss. This is magnified by the fact that I am usually being called, literally, into the principal’s office.

    3. MaryMary*

      When I was a project team lead, the tech team lead and I would scare the crap out of people when we showed up together to talk to them, without us havng to say a word. We’d get panicked/guilty looks: “What did I do?!?”

    4. Rit*

      Ugh ugh ugh. I can be the top performer on my team, recognized by leadership, recently promoted, whatever. A “come see me” IM from my boss always makes my heart skip a beat. There’s no real reason for it, either- I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid surprise layoffs and ambush write ups.

    5. Dan*

      You know… at my last job, I had two manager level bosses. One was my true org chart boss, who I only interacted with “officially” a couple of times a year. The other ran a bunch of projects I worked on or helped manage. A “come to my office” from the former was always an “oh shit” moment. From the later? “Can you stop by for a minute when you get a chance?” was never cause for alarm, because it was mostly project management stuff. When it was an “oh shit” moment, those were few and far between, so it didn’t matter. I’m actually glad the later would just send me “stop by” messages, because what it was, wasn’t that big of a deal.

      Same is true with my current boss. We do enough technical work where a message from her falls into the “no big deal” category. But a message like that from her boss? Uh…

      1. Lillian McGee*

        Same. My boss is the ED and I have never been panicked by a vague summons. She usually just wants to check in on something or explain something she wants me to do. If someone on the board summoned me without explanation I would probably freak out…

    6. Jennifer*

      Guess what I had happen just this second. Unfortunately, about 80% of “come and see me” is “you’re in trouble again” stuff. Once in a great while I’ll hear “nothing bad!” but…So yeah, in fear all the time.

  4. BRR*

    #6 “Sorry.” I am working really hard on this. There’s a great article/cartoon I read about saying thank you instead of sorry (link to follow).

        1. Chinook*

          Absolutely – I is part of the citizenship exam. The judge will either bump into you or step on your foot. If you apologize (for being in the way) you are in.

  5. get some perspective*

    My boss asked me to go into a conference room on Friday because she wanted to talk to me about something confidentially and didn’t want anyone to overhear even the subject. That makes sense to me.

    I assumed it could be something serious/bad but knew she would tell me in within a minute or two, so I don’t think her telling me the subject before we stepped into the room would matter much. That’s work – we sometimes have unpleasant stuff to deal with.

    I’d say I hear that phrase used appropriately once a month on average, with about 1/3 of the time it being bad news, 1/3 good news, and 1/3 neutral with other reasons for discretion.

    If it’s easy stuff to share the topic upfront, then do so. But that’s not always wise.

  6. New Bee*

    Some of my colleagues do the “gentle reminder” right after sending something out with a deadline, which can be annoying. For example, I once received a form to fill out on Monday, deadline to finish it on Wednesday. Monday afternoon there was a “gentle reminder” plus a kudos/thanks to all the people who’d already completed it, which I found passive-aggressive. Either set a same-day deadline with rationale, or wait until it’s actually close to remind without all of the frills.

    1. Noah*

      That irritates me too. I was assigned to a department as a subject expert where the leads would do this. They would send out an email on Monday saying they needed everyone to complete a task by Friday. Then every day they would send out updates with who completed the task and reminding everyone else the deadline was Friday.

      Maybe this is a stupid view, but I’m an adult. If you tell me to do something by EOB on Friday I’ll get it done unless something crazy happens. I don’t need daily updates on who else has already done it and it is not going to inspire me to jump up and be the first to complete similar tasks in the future.

      1. Meg Murry*

        Exactly! If you want to send out a reminder on Thursday night for a task due on Friday, and/or on Friday morning for something due by Friday COB, that’s fine – but don’t send me daily reminders.

        And definitely don’t send out “It’s Tuesday and why hasn’t anyone replied to me yet?!?!” panicked emails! If you told me Friday, I put it on my calendar and I’ll do it Friday – but I’m probably not going to do it the day I get the email.

        The only thing I think is ok for lots of reminders is for things where the system might lock up, or it’s a super important deadline – ie, the deadline for submitting your Open Enrollment changes is by Friday at midnight, but the system often gets super slow on the deadline day so we encourage employees to submit their changes as soon as they have made a decision.

    2. edj3*

      Keep in mind that in some cultures, gentle reminder is appropriate. I have to use language like that with nearly half of my team because they aren’t in the US and that phrase is normal for them.

      1. Koko*

        I’m in the US and it’s pretty normal to me too! The whole “I think you might be offended by normal business communications” could really be said about any nicety/pleasantry. It’s not so much that you think someone would be offended so much as it’s just being polite, IMO. I’ve never interpreted someone’s politeness to mean they think I’m overly sensitive. In fact, if someone reads that into “gentle reminder” and gets offended by it – well, it lo0ks like they ARE offended by normal business communications.

  7. hbc*

    I’m good about not using “Please come to my office” or variations, both because it’s really rude not to give some idea of the topic and because of the association with firing. Mostly a good thing, but I realized when I had to fire someone that it made the “summons” that more ominous. I felt like the poor guy must have known on the whole long walk what I was going to say.

    Hopefully it won’t come up again, but anyone have solutions for this? I don’t want to catch the person as they’re walking by, because I need to be mentally prepped and no one wants anything that implies “Oh, hey, now that I see you, I might as well fire you.” I suppose it could be tied to a regular one-on-one, but the timing of those doesn’t always work out for letting someone leave with a minimum of embarrassment.

    So, any suggestions for wording “Come to my office” that isn’t obvious code for “dead man walking” or an outright lie?

    1. MaryMary*

      Maybe “do you have a minute?” or “stop by when you’re free.” Something that implies the meeting is not urgent and not formal.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Except then you risk the person not coming by when you’re free and it’s too important for that. I think in this case, it’s okay to be vague; yes, they may fear what’s coming, but that’s not the biggest factor in this particular context.

    2. some1*

      I can’t speak to there being any good way to phrase the request that an employee come to your office when you are going to fire them, but I do think it’s best to ask them to come when you are ready to do it & get it over already – don’t ask them first thing to stop by right before they leave so they are wondering all day.

    3. Meg Murry*

      I can’t think of a great way for a one-off firing, but if it’s a result of a PIP, it might be good to have a weekly or whatever is appropriate “go over PIP” meeting on your calendar. Then you can just fire the person at one of your other regularly scheduled meetings.

      But yes, when you are firing someone there pretty much isn’t a good way to do it – just less bad ways and totally terrible ways, but almost never “good”.

      1. De Minimis*

        I will say one thing I appreciated when it happened to me, they called me over there right before lunch, and it was way less embarrassing, because it looked like I left for lunch. I just never returned!

        1. Pennalynn Lott*

          I got laid off right after I’d just bought an $18 steak lunch from the cafeteria downstairs. I always ate at my desk, but they wouldn’t even give me 15 extra minutes to eat. Just enough time to pack my stuff and load it onto a cart. I still feel like they owe me that $18. :-)

    4. Cucumberzucchini*

      And this is why I use “Can you come see me” for every time I need to interact with my staff. 99.999999% of the time it’s to talk about a project but I don’t want to interrupt what their work flow OR to have some other mundane conversation and the rest of the time it’s for firing or feedback about something bad they’re doing.

      My current staff is great though and I let them know so regularly, so I don’t think they worry about me firing them so maybe I’m just being silly to continually use “come see me” so as not to make the one time I may actually have to use that phrasing for a firing too obvious.

    5. Koko*

      Is there any reason you can’t just walk to THEIR office, knock/stick your head in and say, “Do you have a minute to talk about Project X?” My bosses always just come to me instead of summoning me to them, so there’s no anticipation or wondering. We either launch right into the discussion, or I say, “If it’s alright I’ll just finish up what I’m working on and come to your office in 5 or 10 minutes.”

  8. Not a Real Giraffe*

    “Oh, hey, now that I see you, I might as well fire you.”

    HA! Literally spit out my coffee. Thanks for that.

  9. Rebecca*

    Another phrase/action that needs to go away: sending someone an email, then immediately walking into their office and stating “I just sent you an email, did you see it?” My manager does this. Drives me up a wall.

    1. Xarcady*

      I know people who do this, but I get, “I just sent you an email, how should I handle the problem?” Usually when I haven’t even received the email yet, let alone had time to open it and read it.

    2. Ad Astra*

      My new manager and my old manager both do this to me. The difference: My new manager usually comes by with additional information or context, like “Honestly, they should have given you more lead time on this. Can you get it done on time despite the short notice?” My old manager would just stop by to repeat himself, practically word for word.

    3. Schnapps*

      My response: “Not yet, I’m in the middle of [other task]. Is it related to that?”

      “No? Then I can look at it after I’m done unless it’s immediately urgent. I really need to wrap my brain around [other task].”

    4. Crazy Dog Lady*

      My old manager would do this and then scold me when I hadn’t yet read her email (half the time it hadn’t even arrived in my inbox). This approach drove me nuts (especially when I was concentrating hard on something) and it was not effective. One of the many, many times that I wish we didn’t have an open floor plan….

    5. Adonday Veeah*

      My boss does this to me — makes me crazy! And she’s missed my reply to her email, which I sent while she was walking down the hall to see if I got her email! So now I have to answer twice!

    6. Hlyssande*

      The only time I do that is when I have a question that requires things like screenshots to demonstrate/show what’s going on, but I always ask if they’re available before sitting down to talk about it.

  10. MaryMary*

    What do you think about “no problem” instead of “sure, I can do that” or “you’re welcome?” I use “no problem” a lot, but I’ve been trying to stop. I read that it makes people feel like their request is a problem. Thoughts?

      1. Myrin*

        Agreed. Also, you’ve just said it’s not a problem, so why would the other person feel like their request is a problem? They’ve literally just been assured of the opposite!

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I’ve heard this discussed in the context of the service industry — for example, that it’s less gracious/hospitable for waiters to say “no problem” instead of “you’re welcome” when a customer thanks them. “No problem” implies it could have been a problem, but it wasn’t. “You’re welcome” is more traditionally polite.

          1. De Minimis*

            I know several people who really hate hearing “no problem” from customer service people when thanking them.

            I try not to use it for that reason, I think there’s too big a chance that people might get the idea that they are imposing on me for asking me to perform things that are part of my job.

            1. I'm a Little Teapot*

              The sort of people who are offended by customer service people saying “no problem” are the sort of people who expect service workers to lick their boots and bow to their every whim and are fond of whining that the customer is always right.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Eh, maybe people who are outright offended by it. But I think a fair number of people just feel like it’s not super polished service, which they reasonably expect at upscale places.

                1. Charlotte Lucas*

                  I was taught that the appropriate response on both ends of a transaction (think at a cashier/checkout) is “Thank you” from both parties. The customer is thanking the employee for their service, and the cashier/clerk is thanking the customer for their business.

    1. I'm Not Phyllis*

      I try to say “you’re welcome” instead. I read somewhere that saying “no problem” devalues the person’s thanks? I don’t know if I agree with that but still.

    2. Sunflower*

      I’ve also found that people are offended by ‘no problem’ so I’ve been trying to use it less. I’m trying to use ‘Of course I can handle that’ or ‘sure’ but I don’t see what the BFD about ‘no problem’ is

    3. Noah*

      This one was beat out of me in flight attendant training early on. We were taught to say “my pleasure” like damn Chik-Fil-A employees. However, it doesn’t bother me at all if someone says “no problem” to me. I take it as a casual “you’re welcome”.

      1. Dan*

        I like Chik-Fil-A, but I hate that scripted “my pleasure”. I mean, I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s… scripted. We’re not robots, we’re humans.

          1. Meg Murry*

            Exactly. The first time I heard it, I thought “hmmmm” because I thought the employee was saying it on his/her own, not part of the script.

            Now that it’s become part of a script, I feel like it’s so phony as to be ridiculous. I’m not sure whether it is spreading to other service positions on purpose through training, or whether the employee that says “my pleasure” to me at the Panera drive thru is saying it from practice from when she used to work at Chik-fil-a, but it’s just so phony as to be annoying.

            I just started watching the new season of Downton Abbey, and it reminds me of when the servants are super polite to the family of the house and then snark about them behind their backs. Don’t scrape and grovel to me – just a plain “you’re welcome” is a fine response to my “thank you”

            1. Kelly L.*

              OMG, I hate scripts. I hate getting “be well” from the Walgreens people and anything else of that sort.

              I think it’s because I want some way to designate myself a Brownnose-Free Zone and have service workers know it’s safe to not suck up to me. I don’t want to be the kind of person who needs this kind of treatment.

    4. Mimmy*

      I’ve also heard that “no problem” could be interpreted as “it could’ve been a problem, but it isn’t this time”. I try to use “you’re welcome”.

    5. Meg Murry*

      I’ve been trying to stop myself from saying automatically saying “no problem” because:
      1) Sometimes is actually was a problem/PITA and I shouldn’t say “no probelm” to something that actually did cause me a fair amount of headache (kind of like saying “it was nothing” when no, actually, it really was something that took a lot of time) – and I shouldn’t downplay my own hard work.
      2) It just seems too casual, “you’re welcome” seems much more polite.
      3) I had a 3 but I lost it – I’ll come back when I remember :-)

      I think there are times when “no problem” is perfectly appropriate – for instance, “Thanks for picking up XYZ for me at the office supply store” “Oh, no problem, I have to go there anyway” (although you’re welcome certainly would be fine in that sentence too).

      But I’d rather hear “no problem” than “my pleasure” – something about that phrase grates on my nerves, especially coming from perky fast food employees. I know it is not “your pleasure” to hand me my food – it just seems so phony.

      1. Meg Murry*

        Ha! I think I posted this right before the next thread about “mommy brain” came up. I never did remember what my #3 was – but oh well. Not mommy brain, just my own flavor of my train of thought going too fast for me to remember all the details.

    6. Regina 2*

      “You’re welcome” just seems so formal to me. That’s why I started using “no problem.”

    7. Ad Astra*

      It’s better to respond with “you’re welcome” or “any time!” when someone thanks you — because you’re trying to show that you’re happy to do help. “No problem” is a response better suited for an unnecessary apology (“Sorry you had to wait two seconds for me to put my money back in my wallet after this transaction”) to show that you’re not bothered one bit. So when you respond to “thanks” with “no problem,” you’re sort of implying that the other person should have anticipated a problem.

      But, of course, people do know what you mean, so it’s not the world’s biggest deal.

      1. AnotherTeacher*

        That’s how I use “no problem” or “no worries.” Sometimes, too, the task could actually escalate to a problem, so either response (in my mind) lets the person know everything is resolved.

    8. CM*

      I used to say that a lot, but now I find myself more often saying, “Happy to do it,” or “Glad I could help.” I think it’s nicer.

    9. JessaB*

      Only if they come from a culture where the language is something like French or Spanish where the response is de rien or de nada, and they’re translating, in English as a native language NO.

  11. I'm Not Phyllis*

    I do the “gentle reminder” thing … I didn’t realize it would be annoying to people!

    1. ThatGirl*

      I’ve said it when reminding my team of some issues I see popping up — I am not a manager so I don’t want to come off as bossy.

      But I can see how it might come off as kind of condescending so I’ll have to reword them :P

  12. Clever Name*

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who dislikes “gentle reminders”. Usually the people who send them out are the ones who practically apologize for existing, so I feel bad for being annoyed, but the reality is that we are all here to get a job done, and if I’m going to have my feelings hurt at being reminded to essentially do my job, maybe I should be working a different job.

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          In my case, I’m getting them from people who come from the same culture I do, so I feel extremely safe calling PA.

    1. Jennifer*

      See, I do apologize for existing at work, and I am not actually sorry about my fifteen billion apologies every day. Why? Because the amount of hurt feelings and sensitive and crazy I deal with daily is huge, and if I’m not as submissive as possible, it gets worse.

  13. spattyspam*

    I had a truly horrible supervisor who found fault in every single thing you did. She cycled through employees regularly. Almost no one made it to the 1 year mark with her before either being on a performance plan or the employee getting the hell out of there. She did the “come to my office” thing without any preface about what it was about and you never knew if she was going to pile on more work or if you were about to get yelled at for something.

    I’ve been out of that role for 3 years, have a wonderful new boss who has only been positive and given me great reviews. And yet…. the moment my current supervisor says something like “come into my office” I go into a full on panic attack that I’m going to get fired in the next 2 minutes.

  14. BootsAndCats*

    My boss, and a few others in my department, often “You’re so much better at this than I am,” when asking me to do something. That one really grates on me…I guess they mean it as a compliment, but instead it comes across as “I’m perfectly capable of doing X, but I’m too lazy to do it, so I’m trying to flatter you into doing it for me.” If it was a really technical/skilled thing then maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, but they pretty much only use it for really simple things that I’ve trained them on a dozen times.

    1. Polka Dot Bird*

      Yep! It’s so annoying.

      YMMV but here is some advice I was give that I have found really helpful: if someone asks you to do something but it’s simple and they’re capable of doing it themselves, it’s okay to just say no, or to prompt them on how to do it themselves. Be very nice about it but also don’t do it, and you’ll train them out of it.

      This can even work on your boss, although I’d start with the others first until you’re comfortable. :)

  15. Mimmy*

    #5 – I’ve used that defense a few times – not in those words, but I might say something like, “I was just following Jane’s format” or “This is what Bob told me to do”. What could be better responses?

    #6 – I am pathologically guilty of over-apologizing. I like the cartoon BRR posted above – great ideas for rephrasing.

    #8 – I actually don’t mind “gentle” reminder, but I’m weird like that, lol. I myself have used a similar phrase: “friendly reminder”. Is that just as annoying?

    1. get some perspective*

      On #8, ask yourself why the reminder is “friendly” or “gentle”, or should be. It’s a reminder. Full stop. That’s enough.

    2. Charlotte Lucas*

      Personally, I’d just like a reminder. No need for frills – it’s using email as a memo, and you don’t need fluff in other memos. Also, it’s one of those things that I notice women are way more likely to do than men.

    3. Stephanie*

      Yeah, it’s sort of annoyingly passive aggressive, because it feels like the person’s trying to unnecessarily soften the blow. A friendly or gentle reminder is just a reminder to me.

      1. Charlotte Lucas*

        Isn’t the idea of giving a reminder friendly in and of itself?

        I’ve been tempted to give unfriendly reminders, but I don’t think I’d need to point out that they were not gentle.

    4. Victoria, Please*

      I usually go as follows, because usually I’m dealing with people who have had a month to do whatever:

      Just a reminder! — a week before
      Friendly but urgent — a couple days before
      Urgent — day before
      Frantic! Please help me! — day of

  16. LQ*

    I do #3 all the time!

    Usually in the context of can you make this technical thing happen and I don’t know off the top of my head if I can, or more often how I can or how long it will take. So I go with “I’ll try!” because I don’t want to promise it will happen because sometimes things are outside my control if Microsoft or whoever makes it impossible for me to do then it is a no, or not unless you want to put a ton of money into it. But I don’t want to say no, if I might be able to make it work.

    1. Lee Ann*

      “I’ll have to see if the software supports it first. If not, I’ll need to investigate alternatives.” I’ve said that more times than I can count :)

    2. Perse's Mom*

      I drop “I’ll try” pretty frequently, but as my workload grows, my patience thins and now I’m down to “no promises.” As in: “Depending on how quickly I can get X done, I may be able to get Y done yet tonight, but no promises.”

  17. Nobody*

    Even worse than “Are you busy?” — a lot of people where I work ask, “How busy are you?” I don’t even know how to answer that! At least when people ask, “Are you busy?” I can simply reply, “Yes,” and then they can move on to asking me to do whatever it is they need anyway. When they ask, “How busy are you?” I’m left trying to figure out how to describe my level of busyness. Just freaking tell me what you want and I’ll tell you if I have time to do it.

    To be honest, though, I don’t get why “gentle reminder” bugs people so much. I mean, it’s unnecessary to describe the reminder as “gentle,” but it seems to be reading a lot into it to consider that condescending. But I guess we all have our pet peeves.

    1. Windchime*

      I don’t see “gentle reminder” as being condescending; rather, as Alison says, it’s more like they think that they need to approach me tentatively because otherwise I might blow a gasket at getting a reminder.

      If I’m giving someone a reminder, I either send a note saying, “Hey, I just wanted to follow up on blah blah blah. Wondering if you have had a chance to take a look at the numbers I sent over.” No need to be gentle or tentative about it, just a simple reminder or follow-up will do.

      1. Nobody*

        Well, to me, “implying that they need to approach me tentatively because otherwise I might blow a gasket at getting a reminder” is condescending, but even if you consider that as something different than condescending, I still think you’re reading a lot into it. I mean, I don’t grit my teeth when my manager sends me an e-mail saying, “Please send me the TPS report,” because he’s insulting me by implying that I can’t handle taking an order from my boss. He doesn’t have to say “please,” but he does it to be polite, even though he is my boss and I have to follow his orders. I think the “gentle reminder” phrase is used in the same vein, for people who are trying to be polite and don’t want to come across as nagging or demanding. I don’t personally use the phrase because I find it a little stilted, but I’m not offended by it.

    2. Rat Racer*

      Well, I often start an IM by asking if someone is busy – by which I mean, “can I interrupt you for a second?” I have several colleagues who set their IM status permanently to “busy” – and while I understand that temptation, it means I can’t tell if they’re truly busy (like on a conference call) vs. fed up with people who IM for non-urgent reasons. As opposed to the very, very important reason that I am pinging…

  18. Regina 2*

    #3 — This site and previous mangers taught me to tell my managers when a new task would cause something else to be delayed and to speak in terms of prioritization. This just doesn’t work at my new job; my manager wants it all done, always, and will not listen to prioritization. So, I say “I’ll try” all the time. I hate it.

    #8 — I don’t have a problem with this, and it’s not just because I use it. The times it’s been used on me and when I’ve used it is when the recipient list has not gotten back to the sender after multiple reminders. It’s a nudge and call-out, but it’s effective. Not giving this one up. The key for me is to use it judiciously.

  19. Anonymous Educator*

    #1. Totally on board with ditching “Are you busy?” That is a big pet peeve on any job that I’ve had. It kind of doesn’t matter if I’m busy or not, does it? If there’s something I need to help you with, I’m going to help you with it. Just come in and tell me what you want. Right now, for example, I work in tech support (it’s general—so some tier 1 troubleshooting but also some sys admin-ing and various other tech-related stuff). If someone has a computer problem, she doesn’t need to ask if I’m busy—my job is actually to help her with her computer problem. Best thing is to just come in and say “Can you help me with my computer? My browser seems to be frozen” instead of “Are you busy?”

    #8. I actually don’t mind the “gentle reminder” email. Sometimes I need it. A co-worker recently sent me a “gentle reminder” email, and my immediate thought was “Reminder? Did I even get a first email about this?” Well, before saying anything back to her, I checked my inbox, and she’d sent two previous emails that I’d somehow (shamefully) overlooked. People are human, and sometimes it’s nice to give them the benefit of the doubt instead of saying “Reminding you about X because you don’t have your form in yet. Get it in!” I’d much rather get a “gentle reminder.”

    1. AnotherTeacher*

      I feel the same way about #8. It doesn’t bother me unless it’s an issue, deadline, task, etc. for which I do not at all need a reminder (e.g., to format documents a certain way when I always do so.)

  20. swimmyfish*

    That’s interesting – “Are you busy?” actually strikes me as a good question to ask. Particularly because I currently have a coworker who, whenever he needs anything, will just pop into my office and start talking, seemingly under the impression that it’s always a good time to interrupt me.

    I suppose the language could be a problem for others, but in my situation, any kind of acknowledgement at all that I’m being interrupted, even if I am just catching up on celebrity gossip, would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      In that case, though, I think “Are you busy?” is still an unhelpfully vague question to ask. Someone may not be in the middle of a super urgent-to-complete project, but she may still be in the middle of actual work and not have a lot of down time to chit chat. It’s still better to know what the person wants than to just hear that the person wants your time, because it allows you to prioritize (is her interruption higher priority than what you’re currently working on?).

      If the person genuinely wants to be considerate of your time (sounds as if your co-worker doesn’t), he should email you and say “Hey, whenever you have a moment, can you take a look at ____?” Then you can really properly assess the priority without interruption.

      1. Kelly L.*

        It’s kind of pointless to me, because I have one boss who always asks this, the answer is always yes, and he always needs me to do the thing anyway, so it’s just sort of a futile ritual. It doesn’t matter whether I say yes or no, he’s going to respond the same way either way.

        1. Anonymous Educator*

          Yes, there’s that problem, too.

          “Are you busy?”
          “Actually, yes.”
          “Well, I want you to do ______.”

  21. Anon for this*

    Along the lines of the “gentle reminder,” “food for thought” irritates me no end. In the contexts I’ve seen it, it always followed a suggestion and seemed to mean “I would like you to do this thing, but I don’t feel confident enough to outright ask you for it, but I have high status in the company so actually I expect you to jump on this.” Argh.

    1. Almond Milk Latte*

      I use Food for Thought for when I mean “I would like this thing to happen, but I don’t have enough status to make it so” – Kind of the opposite.

      1. Windchime*

        “Food for thought” makes me think the person is giving me something to think about. I don’t take action based on this; if they want action, they need to ask/tell me to do something, not just hint around with a “food for thought” comment.

        1. Anon for this*

          Windchime: Yes, this! And if you don’t have status to make something happen, you can present a suggestion and make your case for why it’s a good idea.

      2. Anon for this*

        Almond Milk Latte: To me that’s annoying too, but I’m not sure if it’s intrinsic to the phrase or if I’m just so irritated about how this one person uses it that any use of the phrase makes me cranky now.

        (The person who used to do it no longer works here, so maybe I’ll regain my tolerance for the phrase!)

          1. Anon for this*

            Charlotte: Maybe so! :-D And the crackers are the food for thought?? That gets a little tangled.

  22. Jennifer*

    “Are you busy?” reminds me of Love Actually. Of course we all know the correct answer is “Of course I’m not busy enough to not talk to YOU!”
    “Gentle reminder” makes me gag a bit, but some people really don’t react well to reminder/nag e-mails, so it’s probably necessary.
    My boss actually says she can’t keep up with hers because she gets a thousand a day and every time she is out sick or at a conference….I can’t say I blame her under the circumstances at all, really. If it’s important, your odds are better if you wait until her second day back (because guess what she’s doing on her first day back) and then physically tell her.

    As for sorry: I say it constantly and I’m not at all sorry that I say it a hundred times a day, and I’m not going to stop apologizing for everything. I am a peon, I am constantly getting complaints and corrections, and even if it’s technically “not my fault,” it ends up being my fault because it had something to do with my job and anything that is is my responsibility, which translates into fault. I especially need to show how submissive and obedient and apologetic I am to our clientele so they won’t report me up the chain when they didn’t get their way and then get me canned. I will apologize for existing, whatever you like as long as I don’t get another “come and see me in my office” for something.

  23. Omne*

    I’m not sure about the “please come to my office” one. I use a code for IM to my direct reports. Got a minute = nothing serious, let me know when you get time. Please come to my office = there’s a problem we need to discuss immediately and yes, you probably are in potential trouble. I started doing it so they wouldn’t panic every time I contacted them for something minor. Based on feedback they seem to prefer it.

    As an aside, I’m not sure if that tight feeling you get when your bosses name shows up in the caller ID or on IM ever really goes away…

  24. Grey*

    I’m not bothered by much, but a “thanks in advance” always irritates me. It’s the same as saying, “I won’t be thanking you after the job is done”. This is worse when the person is asking a favor beyond normal job duties.

    1. Kelly L.*

      And also assumes I’m going to do the thing just because they asked, even though sometimes for whatever reason I can’t do the thing.

  25. JDrives*

    My boss does #7 and it drives me up the wall. I’ve lost count of how many emails go unread, only to have her pop by with “Where’s XYZ?” “…In your inbox as of three days ago.” In reality when that happens, I cheerfully offer to resend so it’s at the top of her inbox. And whenever she says “I have too many emails, can we just talk about it?” I make sure to send her a quick email summarizing our conversation and decisions made, so when she inevitably forgets or has questions about what we talked about, I can politely refer her to the email.

  26. Mockingjay*

    #8: “Gentle Reminder” makes me eat raw staples.

    We get these from our Timesheet Police Officer. Timesheets are due at 0900 on Fridays. The reminder goes out at 0901, with the boss cc’ed. I’ve gotten reminders when I am clicking Send.

    A simple direct email to me only would be much more effective. “Mockingjay, your timesheet is 2 hours overdue. Please submit now.”

    1. NJ Anon*

      How often is it overdue or how often do you need to be reminded? I do payroll and if someone who is usually good with getting theirs in on time is late, I let it go. If its every. single. time. I cc the supervisor. I have better things to do then chase people around for time sheets.

    2. LQ*

      Are you sure these aren’t automated?

      Also if they get you to submit your time sheet they are effective, unless you get the email with the cc to your boss and decide not to do it, it is working. You might prefer it without a cc to your boss, but it is working the way it is.

    3. Vicki*

      I’ve used “Gentle reminder” when I have the responsibility for the final product but no authority to require people to send me their portion. For example, I’ve done technical writing support for engineering departments. I need information or review of drafts, but I have no authority to insist. The info is a week behind.

      “The phrase often comes across like you’re saying, “I worry that you might be offended by a normal business communication, so I feel I like approach you delicately.”” –
      That’s exactly what I’m saying when I’m sending a note to a manager or engineer who has shown, in the past, that s/he will indeed be offended and will complain loudly to my manager.

      Been there. Didn’t enjoy it.

  27. Soupspoon McGee*

    I worked with a woman who would step into my office and ask, “Is this a good time?” Regardless of my answer, she’d sit down and start talking. It (and she) was super annoying, especially when I was in the middle of something that required a lot of focus and told her so.

  28. Nina Renee*

    I’d like to add “What are you working on?” as a 1a. I cannot *stand* this question, especially coming from a coworker and not a manager. It just reeks of presumption and superiority, as if the person’s trying to convict you. I know I’m at work to work, but when I have some down time, I might check my personal email or a blog. Sue me. But just ask me if I have a minute if you need something.

  29. The Expendable Redshirt*

    Oh no! I did about three quarters of that list. I say “did” because I read Ask A Manager, and have vowed never use these sentences again.

  30. Nicole*

    #8 I’ve used “friendly reminder” when I’ve reminded someone twice already and this person happens to be the owner of the company so I don’t want to come across as too aggressive.

    As for in the past, the problem is that some people get so darn offended when you remind them of anything that it often feels necessary to add this extra language in there so they don’t take offense to you just, you know, doing your job. I wish we could all just be to the point and not suffer the consequences but in my experience it’s just not that simple.

  31. hayling*

    What’s funny is that the people who ask “are you busy” are SHOCKED when you say “yes!”

  32. EJ*

    My boss always starts out with the phrase “Can you please come by my office?” but usually follows up with some version of “Nothing bad, just need XYZ”. I love the follow up though, cos it can be a completely nerve-racking question!

  33. Vicki*

    “Are you busy?”

    This one happened at the hardware store the other day. We were in line at checkout and the woman at the register asked this of a co-worker who had walked into the customer service area to get something. I loved the expression on the co-worker’s face as different replies came and went. She settled on a calm “We all are… what do you need?”

Comments are closed.